On March 27, 2021, an Astar helicopter (Eurocopter AS350, now Airbus Helicopters) Crashed near Knik Glacier at 6:35 pm, approximately 50 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska. Five persons on board died, and one survived with serious injuries. The helicopter, operated by Soloy Helicopters of Wasilla, Alaska, had been hired by Tordrillo Mountain Lodge for a heli-skiing trip and was carrying two ski guides, three guests, and a pilot.

The scene of the helicopter crash in the Chugach Mountains, near the Knik Glacier, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Alaska Mountain Rescue Group photo via Alaska State Troopers)

The crash location is reported on steep snow-covered terrain at approximately 5000 feet and above the Knik River’s north side. The NTSB is investigating the accident.

The deceased were identified as Gregory Harms of Aspen, Colorado, Petr Kellner and Benjamin Larochaix of the Czech Republic, Sean McManamy of Girdwood, Alaska, and pilot Zachary Russell of Anchorage.

Tordrillo Mountain Lodge regularly charters helicopters from Soloy Helicopters. The lodge advertises as a luxury multi-sport resort, which offers guided heli-skiing packages during the winter. Tordrillo’s website states that it uses the AS 350-B3 because it is “known for its power, speed, and agility,” and Tordrillo “partners with Soloy.”

Contrary to popular belief, heli-skiing is not new and has been around for at least 60 years. Hans Gmoser, an Austrian immigrant, pioneered the commercialization of heli-skiing in 1965 in the Bugaboo Mountains in British Columbia, where he began taking skiers by helicopters to remote regions for untracked powder snow. It was an instant success.

While the thrill of flying up through mountains and landing on top to take ski runs is exhilarating, the sport comes with significant aviation risks.

Below are a few examples of heli-skiing accidents.

TRK Helicopters Ltd. C-FBLW crashed on March 16, 2016 near Smithers, British Columbia.

All seven occupants survived.

The flight path of C-FBLW as contained in the TSB report.

On February 11, 2005 a Bell 212 C-GEEC crashed during heli-skiing operations near Whistler, BC. The image is reflect the flight path of the helicopter, as contained in the TSB report.

On February 24, 2020 a Bell 407 “roll over accident” occurred in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, British Columbia during heli-skiing operations.  No serious injuries were reported.

The causes of heli-ski accidents are numerous, and many, if not most, are preventable.

Robert Hedrick, JD, LLM

Mountainous terrain can be most inhospitable for helicopter operations, especially landing and taking off in tight areas involving trees and/or sloping terrain. Helicopter performance criteria are reduced by the higher mountain altitude where the air is thinner and the heavy load of skiers and their ski gear. Of course, landing and taking off on fresh snow can be challenging in and of itself, especially where conditions vary by the hour.

Unpredictable and fast-changing mountain weather is another common factor contributing to heli-ski accidents. Pilot error is often a factor, especially in circumstances of greatly reduced visibility, where judgment may be compromised. Of course, other factors such as engine failure or other mechanical failure may occur. Still, those situations are aggravated during heli-ski operations because emergency landing options may be limited and dangerous. Of course, remote rescue in cold weather will challenge survival.

Aviation Law Group attorneys have extensive experience in representing persons injured and killed in helicopter accidents, including those involving recreational activity. We were recently involved in representing the family of a man who died in a recreational heli-fishing accident in British Columbia, where the high-speed, low altitude flight down a remote river ended up causing the main rotor blade to strike the ground, and the helicopter crashed into the Homathko River. Similar to heli-skiing, the helicopter was challenged by remote mountainous conditions and pilot decision-making.

ALG attorneys also have a lot of mountain flying experience and are recreational and competitive skiers and snowboarders.