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Alaska Passenger Small Plane Suicide Attempt Sounded Worse Than It Was

The media loves a scary story, and all the better when it’s about aviation. In this case, the facts don’t bear out such an interpretation.

Alaska Passenger Small Plane Suicide Attempt Sounded Worse Than It Was
Photo courtesy of Ryan Air Alaska’s website

Last week an 18-year-old man was arrested after allegedly trying to crash the Cessna Caravan he was a passenger aboard. Local authorities took him into custody after the plane was landed safely at its destination, the airport in the small Alaska town of Aniak. No one was injured and there was no damage to the single-engine turboprop-powered plane.

The most common take on the story veered toward the sensationalistic. The idea was the usual trope, that the passenger was crazed and hellbent on crashing the plane and would have had he not been wrestled away from the controls by the pilot and passengers.

But it didn’t really happen like that, at least not according to what the passengers, pilot and investigating officer said.

The plane, operated by Ryan Air, Alaska, was carrying five passengers plus the pilot, who was identified as Joshua Kersch. There was only one pilot because the Caravan, like just about every single engine plane, can be legally operated with a single pilot and, in fact, almost always is. Sometimes, a passenger will ride in the right forward seat, which is often referred to as “the co-pilot’s seat,” though unless the company requires it, there’s no need for a co-pilot on charter flights like this on small planes like the Caravan.

The passenger who was arrested was seated behind that empty right front seat. According to reports in local media, authorities said that he had asked the pilot at one point if he could sit in that front seat, to which the pilot said no, and another time if he could try flying the plane, to which the pilot, again, said no.

So as the plane was coming in to land at Aniak, the young man leaned over the empty co-pilot’s seat and briefly manipulated the controls, pushing the nose forward, though we don’t known how dramatically, in a seeming attempt to crash the plane. That is a terrible thing to do, no doubt, but what happened next puts the story in a different light, one that authorities will hopefully look at as the investigation moves forward.

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After the man put his hand on the controls, the pilot, alarmed, pushed him back away from them and resumed flying the plane. The other passengers reportedly restrained the apparently suicidal passenger while the pilot landed the plane.

So, there was by these accounts no passenger frantically fighting to crash the plane and desperate passengers battling with him for control. It apparently wasn’t like that, at least not according to a great story in, of all places, the San Diego, California, NBC affiliate’s web site. Writers Becky Bohrer and Mark Thiessen reported on the story like this:

Lee Ryan, president of Ryan Air, the company that operated the flight, said the passenger ‘was in the second row of seats and kind of just reached over the copilot seat and briefly grabbed control of the aircraft.’

The pilot moved the passenger back and retook control of the airplane, Ryan said.

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‘Other passengers I’d say restrained the unruly passenger. But he wasn’t necessarily trying to do anything at that point,’ Ryan said.”

It’s less dramatic of a story because, it seems, it was less dramatic an encounter than many outlets described it as being. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right.

This is not to say that the incident wasn’t alarming. It was. But the facts paint a very different picture of what transpired and point to a young man, who told police, by the way, that he was trying to commit suicide, crying out for help in a remarkably selfish and stupid way but who wasn’t really, thank goodness, committed to making it happen.

So when people talk about making changes to small-plane charter ops to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, we’d caution that what actually happened wasn’t as bad as it’s being made out to be. Small charter companies like this in Alaska and other remote areas around the world are in the business of saving lives every day in a dozen different ways, including flying desperately ill people from isolated areas to medical facilities where they can be helped. Making it more expensive and difficult for flights like this to happen by insisting on procedures or equipment that might have saved lives had this episode been the life-and-death struggle that it wasn’t would be solving an imaginary problem. And with mandates and restrictions, such as requiring secure partitions between the flight deck and the cabin, fewer operators will fly fewer planes to fewer destinations, so the effect of such mandates will be to make many more people far less safe by making life-saving transportation more expensive and harder to find. 

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