Saline pilot at rest 'forever' on Alaska mountain

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Two miles high, a crumpled plane hangs, like a swatted mosquito, on the side of a snow-covered mountain in Alaska.

Two miles high, Craig Layson's crumpled plane hangs on Thunder Mountain in Alaska. Four passengers from Poland were onboard for a sightseeing trip in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Inside the wreckage are five bodies. They are likely to remain there forever.

The bush plane, flown by a Michigan man, crashed during a sightseeing flight last month.

Stuck on the steep slope of 11,000-foot Thunder Mountain, the plane is too precarious to retrieve, said the National Park Service.

And so the icy Alpine ridge will be the final resting place of Saline resident Craig Layson and four Polish tourists.

They’re not the only ones. Several other crashes have occurred in Alaska over the years where authorities haven’t been able to reclaim the bodies, said the park service.

Layson may be far from home, but his family has come to terms with a grave that is both public and private in a land both beautiful and haunting.

In fact, they welcome it. They said Layson is exactly where he should be: in a plane he loved in mountains he adored.

“It was so beautiful. It took his breath away every time he went up,” said his mother, Kathleen Layson.

Layson was happiest among the clouds, and that’s where he’ll always be, other family members said. He is on top of the world.

“He’s forever in a beautiful place,” said his sister, Kim Vulpe. “It’s the way he wanted to be.”

A sense of adventure

Layson, 58, an auto shop owner with three grown children, had a big personality, friends said. He was candid, gregarious, funny with a dab of goofy, they said.

Like his sister and twin brothers, he inherited his father’s sense of adventure, loving to travel and ride his motorcycle. They also inherited their dad’s passion for flying.

Layson, 58, was an auto shop owner with three grown children. He was gregarious and funny, with a big personality, friends said.

The late Stan Layson had an airstrip behind his home in South Lyon. That’s where Craig learned to fly, flying solo at 16 and receiving his pilot’s license two years later.

During the eight years Tami Liford worked for Craig at Stony Creek Collision, she said he was frequently out of the office taking flying lessons of one sort of another. And, when he was in the office, he was invariably talking about planes.

If she ever wanted to distract him, she would mention flying and Layson would be off on a 90-minute spiel on the subject, Liford joked.

“There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t talk about planes,” she said.

On his birthday in 2015, Layson told friends there was still a lot he wanted to do in life. One of the things was fly in the bush.

He got the chance last year after spying an ad looking for sightseeing pilots in Talkeetna, Alaska. He was going to do it for one summer but enjoyed it so much he returned this year.

He sent friends breathtaking photos of the snow-streaked summits of the Alaska Range.

“This is my new desk,” he wrote them.

Layson being Layson, it didn’t take long for his coworkers at K2 Aviation to warm up to him.

On Fridays, he made biscuits and gravy for the pilots and staff, they said.

On Mondays, he gathered his tip money, drove 90 minutes to buy groceries and held a barbecue for the interns. Afterward, workers went to a local bar to sing karaoke.

Layson loved to sing, though there are differing accounts about his ability to do so.

“Oh man, I miss Craig! And Craig’s cooking. And Craig’s jokes,” former K2 Aviation worker Sierra Self wrote on Facebook in July.

“Craig!! Best biscuits and gravy in Alaska,” added Jacbo Sam.

Alaska's deadly grandeur

Alaska can kill you a hundred ways, locals say. You could get eaten by a grizzly bear, slip off a glacier, freeze to death overnight, get lost in the vast wilderness.

For pilots, the threat comes from above. The mountains make their own weather, and it’s volatile, fliers said.

One minute the sky is clear and, the next, pilots are dodging clouds rolling down the ridges, low and thick. The clouds pack gusts up to 80 miles per hour and foot-long snowfalls in August.

Throw in a winterscape where it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between white clouds and white mountains, and flying in Alaska is much different from flying in the lower 48 states, pilots said.

“We deal with things you don’t see anywhere else,” said Mark Davenport, an Anchorage pilot who has been flying in Alaska for 10 years. “The weather is unpredictable. It will turn on you.”

Layson had been flying 42 years, but this was just his second summer in Alaska.

On Aug. 4, he and four tourists took off from Talkeetna Airport at 5:05 p.m., according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The names of the tourists weren’t released in response to a request by the Polish government.

They were taking K2 Aviation’s most popular flight, the Denali Flyer, a 75-minute jaunt that views several glaciers including Kahiltna, which is used as a base camp by people climbing Denali, the highest mountain in North America.

At 5:53 p.m., the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver began to return to Talkeetna 50 miles away when it slammed into the mountainside, according to the preliminary report.

The impact ripped open the fuselage behind the wing and tore off the right wing, which dropped several hundred feet.

The weather conditions weren’t described in the report, which doesn’t give a reason for the crash. The NTSB will release a more extensive report in 12 to 18 months.

But the weather at the airport was 72 degrees with visibility of 10 miles and wind blowing at a little over 6 miles per hour.

Seven minutes after the crash, Layson used a satellite phone to call K2 Aviation, according to the preliminary report. He said the single-engine plane had struck a mountain and needed to be rescued. The connection was lost after several minutes.

In a second call an hour later, Layson said he was trapped in the wreckage. That call also dropped out.

Weather frustrates rescuers

The weather was so turbulent rescuers couldn’t land at the crash site for 38 hours. Even then they could stay just five minutes.

A mountain ranger suspended from a helicopter by a taut, 200-foot rope stood on the broken nose of the Beaver, the National Park Service said.

The ranger leaned into the fuselage and, brushing away snow that had blown through the ripped opening, confirmed the deaths of Layson and three passengers. He couldn’t see the fourth passenger.

Four days later, another ranger reached the site and confirmed the death of the last passenger, the park service said.

Trying to remove the bodies was too dangerous, said Katherine Belcher, a park service spokeswoman. The plane hangs from a nearly vertical wall of snow and ice, she said.

“Lots of ice, lots of snow, lots of rock,” Belcher said.

In one of the other crashes where authorities weren’t able to reclaim the bodies,  an Army C-47 crashed into a mountain 16 miles east of Denali National Park in 1944, killing the pilot and 18 servicemen on board.

A rescue party determined the conditions were too treacherous to retrieve the plane and bodies, according to the park service.

For the NTSB, having access to the K2 Aviation plane is critical because it would allow investigators to rule out possible causes of the crash.

Still, the agency has plenty of other evidence to examine, said Shaun Williams, the NTSB investigator in charge of the case.

It will examine GPS tracking information from the plane, interview pilots who flew in the area that day, scan hundreds of photos the park service took of the crash site and study meteorological reports to pinpoint the weather at the time.

“It’s better to have it (the plane), but we can still do quite a bit,” Williams said.

Family bids farewell

Layson’s family has already said their goodbyes.

On Aug. 11, the day after the park service announced the plane couldn’t be retrieved, the skies suddenly cleared. Several of his children, siblings and siblings’ kids, who had gathered in Alaska after the accident, took advantage of the rare good weather to fly closer to Layson.

They landed on the Kahiltna Glacier, 3,000 feet below the crash site.

In the sublime silence of the majestic mountains, they bid an emotional farewell to their father, brother, uncle. And they came to peace with the decision to let him be.

“He was so filled with life,” said Vulpe, who was on the glacier. “He flew since he was a kid. It was his passion. It was his love.”

A more joyous occasion awaits in Michigan. The family is thinking about holding a memorial at Layson’s hangar at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti.

The tribute will be modeled after the blowouts he held at Willow Run during the annual Thunder Over Michigan air show.

He would buy tickets for everybody and forbid them from bringing food. He loved cooking, making whatever people wanted for breakfast and, in the afternoon, throwing a mountain of ribs and chicken on the grill.

“If there was a circle of people gathered somewhere, Craig could be found at the center of it,” said his brother, Kris. “His was a life fulfilled. We should all be as lucky.”

During the memorial, the family will use the wood-burning grill on wheels Craig made from scratch.

They will ogle the three antique planes Craig painstakingly restored.

They will tell stories and jokes, lots and lots of jokes, from the cornpone to the risqué.

It will be a festive adieu because the man they will be celebrating was nothing if not joyous.

“All he did was tell jokes and laugh and had everyone else laughing,” Liford said.

As she described how jovial the sendoff should be, her eyes betrayed her.

“It’s sad I’m crying,” Liford said. “He was all about being happy.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell