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Preliminary Report Reveals Cause of Deadliest Heli-Skiing Crash in North America

The aviation accident in Alaska in March took the lives of pioneering heli guide Greg Harms and four others

The National Transportation Safety Board released their preliminary report this week on the helicopter crash that killed five in Alaska’s Chugach Mountain Range range on March 27. The pilot and four passengers were fatally injured, and one passenger was seriously injured.

The helicopter was operated as an on-demand charter flight, transporting two guides, Greg Harms, 52, and Sean McManamy, 38, and their three clients from a private residence on Wasilla Lake to the Chugach range for a day of heli-skiing near Palmer, Alaska.

Based on the preliminary findings of the investigation, mechanical failure was not the cause. According to the GPS data in the report, the group made several successful drops before the helicopter hovered over a ridgeline at an elevation of 6,266 feet before the data track ended at 6:36 p.m.

greg harms heli flight report
According to the NTSB preliminary report, this was the general flight pattern of the aircraft before the crash.

An aerial assessment of the accident site by an NTSB investigator the day after the accident revealed that the helicopter impacted terrain about 15 to 20 feet below the top of a ridgeline, causing the crash and for the aircraft to roll downhill. The total debris field extended about 900 feet downslope from the top of the ridgeline.

The preliminary report does not include an explanation of why or how the helicopter made contact with the mountainside, but it does rule out fire or explosion. The weather near the crash site was reported as clear at the time of the incident, with 10 miles of visibility and low winds, according to the report. The wreckage has been recovered for further examination off-site as the NTSB and the FAA continue to investigate the cause.

The crash marks the deadliest heli-skiing aviation accident in North American history, according to the Federal Aviation Association. Helicopters are inherently risky, but fatal crashes are extremely rare due to rigorous safety precautions that dictate how and when they fly.

The last crash in the United States that resulted in multiple fatalities (4) occurred in 1994 in Nevada and was deemed the result of a mechanical failure. In 1993, three people were killed in an accident outside Aspen, Colorado, killed three. It was also found to be the result of a mechanical failure.

Investigators have been able to speak to the sole survivor of the crash, 48-year-old David Horvath Czech Republic, who is still recovering from his injuries. The NTSB says his statements will be included in the final report.

Horvath, a guest on the outing, was joined by 56-year-old Petr Kellner and 50-year-old Benjamin Larochaix both from the Czech Republic; both died in the crash. The 33-year-old pilot, Zachary Russell from Anchorage, was also killed alongside guides McManamy and Harms.

Greg Harms
Greg Harms, 52, was one of five people killed in a heli-skiing crash in Alaska. He was considered one of the most experiences guide in the business. Photo: Matt Power

Harms, a resident of Aspen, Colorado, was a pioneering ski guide who started his career as a ski instructor on Aspen Mountain before guiding in Alaska during the establishment of the regions first commercial heli-ski operations in the early ‘90s and is widely considered one of the most experienced guides in the industry.

In 1997, Harms survived a fatal heli-ski crash in Chile that killed photographer Thomas Robert “T.R.” Youngstrom and the pilot Jaime Pinto. Since 2006, worked as a guide for the Tordillo Mountain Lodge near Palmer, Alaska. Harms also founded his own company, Third Edge Heli, which specializes in custom, private heli-ski trips around the world, including Alaska, Antarctica, British Columbia, and Chile, according to their website.

“His passing will leave a big void in the heli-ski industry. Harms was a pied piper; people followed him around the world to ski,” says friend and fellow big-mountain guide, Chris Davenport. “If you were on the Greg Harms program, there was a certain degree of adventure and it was more hardcore than some normal commercial operations. He’d find the best conditions, the best snow, the best runs. Still, he was the consummate professional, so focused on the safety of his guides and clients. That’s why he had so much repeat business—clients that truly became friends.”

Harms is survived by his partner Chantel Ramsey and their three-month-old daughter Freja. A GoFundMe account has been set up by Mark Molthan on behalf of the family which includes nearly 300 comments from donors sharing memories of their time with Harms.

“He’s just got one of those personalities that make him, in many ways, a larger-than-life character,” says Davenport. “I bet when they went down, he was thinking he was going to come out of it because that’s just who he was. Mostly, I’m glad he got to meet his daughter, that he held her and had that experience.”

A second GoFundMe has also been organized in support of Caitlin Hague, wife of guide McManamy who was also killed in the accident. The two were married in November 2018. McManamy was an employee of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, where he worked as a guide for the past five years and was also a guide for Harms company, Third Edge Heli.

SKI will continue to report on this incident as the investigation is ongoing. Our thoughts are with those grieving lives lost.