LOST TRAIL PASS — Scott and Sadie Grasser will never forget the sound an airplane makes when it crashes.
“It’s a very distinct noise,” Scott Grasser said Wednesday. “When you hear an airplane crash, you know exactly what’s happened.”
The couple had just finished hosting a woody biomass workshop at the lodge at Lost Trail Ski Area late Tuesday afternoon when they heard the sound of airplane coming in way too close to their building.
“And then there was this big crash and vibration,” Grasser said.
The couple ran outside and met one of their longtime employees running the opposite direction.
Aaron Hoffman of Salmon, Idaho, was in his car and just getting ready to pull out of the parking lot when 50 feet away the antique Grumman G-21 Goose amphibious aircraft literally fell from the sky and burst into flames when it hit the ground.
“It fell out of the sky right next to his car,” Grasser said. “By the time we got outside, there was literally nothing we could do. It was a huge ball of flame.”
Another witness told Ravalli County Undersheriff Steve Holton the plane barely cleared the trees right behind the shop.
“When she first saw the plane, it was coming from the south,” Holton said. “It cleared the trees by just a few feet. She said it was spinning.”
As bad as the accident was, Grasser said it could have been much worse.
There were 60 people at the workshop through the Idaho governor’s Office of Energy and Sustainable Northwest.
Hoffman was the last to leave.
“I believe there were cars parked right in the spot where the plane crashed,” Grasser said. “People had only left 15 minutes to a half hour earlier. We were just very fortunate.”
“We believe that pilot did everything he could,” Grasser said. “I’m sure he knew he was in a horrible spot. He did what every honorable pilot would do and tried to save as many people as he could.”
“We are obviously very shook up over this,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the pilot’s family.”
Seattle tourists Rick McGee and Julie Gomez had just reached the intersection of Highways 43 and 93 at Lost Trail Pass when the plane crashed.
“It had started to snow very hard when we saw the rest area,” McGee said. “We pulled in at the rest area and the lady at the info center was coming out. We could hear the plane, and she was pointing and circling her arm — she said, ‘It’s spinning, it’s spinning!’”
McGee and Gomez didn’t see the plane fall, but they did see the fireball as it exploded on impact behind the information building. There were several smaller explosions and pops after the initial blast.
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“I’ve seen planes crash before, but I’ve never seen a plane go up so fast — so quick,” Gomez said. “It was continuous flames for four or five minutes.”
After learning that law enforcement and fire crews were on the way, McGee and Gomez resumed their road trip toward Missoula. They said the weather had been switching from rain to heavy snow to blue sky most of the day.
Searching for clues
The aircraft started its journey in Florida. Holton said the pilot took over in Minnesota and was shuttling it to Montana when the crash occurred.
Holton said the man’s wallet and identification were found in the burned wreckage.
The pilot’s name is being withheld pending confirmation of his identification and notification of the family.
The Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department was scheduled to arrive on scene Wednesday afternoon to gather the remains.
National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator Larry Lewis and Jeffrey Simmons, an investigator from the Federal Aviation Administration, were on site early Wednesday afternoon to begin determining the cause of the crash.
The burned-out structure was still emitting puffs of smoke as the men started to look over the scene.
Lewis said the airplane appeared to come straight down into the ground and there was no evidence that the pilot planned to land.
The landing gear was not deployed and the flaps were up.
“The aircraft wasn’t in landing configuration,” Lewis said.
Over the next few days, Lewis said, he will talk with witnesses of the crash, look at maintenance records and the pilot’s background, and interview people at airports the pilot used to search for clues on the probable cause of the accident.
Lewis expected it would take between six months and a year before the final accident report was complete.
Lewis said the aircraft was an antique.
“It’s old school,” he said. “It was probably built in the late 1930s or early 40s. There’s not a lot of them left.”
Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney contributed to this story.