All 4 Passengers, Pilot Killed in Grand Canyon Tour Plane Crash
Four French citizens and their Las Vegas pilot returning in bad weather from a Grand Canyon tour were killed when their light plane slammed into an Arizona mountain, the National Park Service said Wednesday.
It was the fourth time in the last five years that a Grand Canyon tour plane has crashed. There were no survivors in any of the crashes.
The latest crash occurred Tuesday afternoon in rain and poor visibility near Mt. Wilson, a 5,445-foot peak just outside the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 40 miles east of Las Vegas. The wreckage and bodies were found Wednesday morning, about 100 feet below a ridge line.
The pilot was identified by operators of Las Vegas Airlines as Perry Smallwood, 44, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot. The French tourists remained unidentified pending notification of next of kin.
Elly Brekke, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles, said the 10-seat Piper Navaho Chieftain was “flying under visual flight rules, not under FAA control.” An investigation will be conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Don Donohue Sr., co-owner of the four-plane airline, said Smallwood had taken the party to the airport at the south rim of the Grand Canyon early in the day on a charter and was on the return flight when the plane crashed.
Donohue expressed concern that the flight would be confused with past accidents involving sightseeing below the rim of the Grand Canyon. He sought to draw a distinction, noting that this crash had taken place well outside the park boundaries.
“I’m trying to protect the industry,” Donohue said. “Every time there is one of these crashes, we hear from the Sierra Club trying to close down sightseeing flights.”
Since 1986, 47 people have been killed in flights carrying Grand Canyon tourists, either over the canyon or proceeding to or from it.
The worst occurred June 18, 1986, when 25 people were killed when a twin-engine plane operated by Grand Canyon Airlines collided with a helicopter. Crashes in 1989 and last May killed 10 and seven people, respectively.
In 1987, after an NTSB investigation into the midair collision that attributed some of blame to poor flight regulation by the National Park Service, the FAA prohibited tour flights in the inner gorge of the canyon and below the canyon rim except in an emergency.
In 1988, the FAA imposed even tighter restrictions on sightseeing flights over the canyon, prohibiting tours in some areas and ordering planes to fly at higher altitudes.
Air Force crews in helicopters were dispatched from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to assist in removing the bodies and assessing the wreckage of the latest crash.