May 1 Plane Crash near Chignik Lake: A Tribute to our Bush Pilots

A nine-seater from Grant Aviation cuts through the mountains just after leaving Chignik Lake this past March.

They’ve been called Alaska’s cowboys, and life without them would range from difficult to impossible for those of us in the remote parts of Alaska that make up most of the state. They’re our bush pilots – the men and women who navigate the trackless wilderness between population hubs and the isolated communities we and thousands of other Alaskans call home. They bring us everything from mail to grocery staples to visitors (when we’re lucky enough to have them). With skill and confidence, these men and women navigate through weather that can change in a blink (it alternately was sunny, rained, snowed, hailed and rained again as I wrote this morning) and through winds most of us wouldn’t even want to take a walk in. We complain a little among ourselves when the planes don’t fly (earlier this year we went for over a week with no mail as our Brussels sprouts and other groceries languished in King Salmon) and we grumble when grounded flights mean truncated vacation time or a delay in friends reaching us. But we understand – safety first. And we know that if it’s possible to fly, the pilots serving Southwest Alaska – our pilots – will be in the air.

Yesterday we lost one.

By mid-afternoon word had swept through the village that a Grant Aviation plane – a Cessna Grand Caravan, the nine-seaters that are fairly standard in the bush – had gone missing. It was en route from Port Heiden to Perryville (see map at end of article), scheduled to arrive at 2:15 PM. At 2:00, just 15 minutes out of Perryville, the plane’s Emergency Locator sounded. The pilot, making a cargo and mail run, was the vessel’s only passenger.

This photo was taken near Perryville, a coastal community about 28 miles southwest of Chignik Lake. The Aleutian Mountain Range sprawls across the Alaska Peninsula. It’s breathtakingly rugged country where high winds can spring up out of nowhere. The name Chignik means “Big Winds.”

Soon afterwards, a Coast Guard C-130 and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter began combing the mountainsides, tundra and lakes around Chignik Lake. In fact, the chopper landed here to take aboard volunteers to serve as additional pairs of eyes out the helicopter’s windows. At 5:49 PM, 3,000 feet up on a steep mountainside at a place known as Windy Pass, the wreckage was spotted. A rescue swimmer was subsequently lowered to the crash site where he confirmed that the pilot had died. Given the difficult terrain and cloud cover, recovery of the pilot’s body and the cargo he was carrying will be challenging.

Gabriele Cianetti, 54, the pilot of the downed Cessna 208B, touched many lives, including ours. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends as well as to his extended family at Grant Aviation. Additionally, our deep appreciation is extended to the men and women of the United States Coast Guard: Semper Paratus – Always Ready.

The Chignik Lake airstrip at dawn. The pilots who serve our community and Alaska’s other bush communities are true heroes in a land where air travel is not a luxury, but a necessity.

The above map includes Port Heiden, where the plane departed from and Perryville, where the plane was heading. Chignik Lake is marked in red.

Additional details for this article were pulled from KTVA news and Alaska Dispatch News.