Czech Billionaire Among 5 Killed in Helicopter Crash at Alaska Glacier

March 29, 2021 Updated: March 29, 2021

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—A contracted helicopter carrying guides and guests from a lodge on a heli-skiing trip in Alaska’s backcountry crashed, killing the pilot and four others, including the Czech Republic’s richest man.

The only other person onboard was in serious condition but stable Sunday at an Anchorage hospital, Alaska State Troopers said.

The five people killed in the Saturday accident were identified as Petr Kellner, 56, and Benjamin Larochaix, 50, both of the Czech Republic; Gregory Harms, 52, of Colorado; and two Alaska residents, Sean McMannany, 38, of Girdwood, and the pilot, Zachary Russel, 33, of Anchorage, troopers said Sunday.

The five passengers included three guests and two guides from the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, said company spokesperson Mary Ann Pruitt.

Kellner was a businessman with a net worth over $17 billion, according to the Forbes 2020 list of the world’s richest people.

Kellner owned a 98.93 percent stake in the PPF Group, an international investment company. The group operates in 25 countries in Europe, Asia and North America with assets of $52 billion (44 billion euros). PPF Group confirmed Kellner’s death.

Kellner and Larochaix “were loyal and frequent” guests at the lodge, Pruitt said in an email to The Associated Press.

Harms was a pioneering heli-ski guide in Alaska and worked for many years at the lodge, Pruitt said.

“Greg was one of the most experienced guides in the business,” she said. He also founded a heli-ski company that led trips across the world.

McMannany had been a guide for over 10 years, and had been with the lodge for the last five, she said. He was also an experienced mountain guide on Denali, North America’s tallest peak.

Russel was a pilot for Soloy Helicopters, a company based in the small city of Wasilla that is contracted by the lodge to provide transportation, Pruitt said.

“This news is devastating to our staff, the community in which we operate and the families of the deceased,” a statement from the lodge said.

The Eurocopter AS50 helicopter crashed under unknown circumstances about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Anchorage at 6:35 p.m. Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration said Sunday. Authorities said the crash site was near the Knik Glacier.

“It’s in an area of very steep terrain, snow-covered terrain, right around 5,000 to 6,000 feet … on the north side of Knik river,” Clint Johnson, chief of the Alaska office of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Anchorage Daily News.

He added: “The mode we’re in now is to recover the wreckage.” he said. Officials hope to do snow before a predicted snowstorm arrives.

The lodge is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, on Judd Lake.

The company website bills the business as the longest operating heli-skiing lodge in Alaska, promising deep powder, pristine runs on some of the best mountain terrain in the world.

“An unparalleled alpine adventure is only a helicopter ride away,” the website says. Packages start at $15,000 per person.

The statement from lodge said this was the first time in its 17 years in business “we’ve had to face an event of this measure.”

Soloy Helicopters has a fleet of 19 helicopters providing charter services primarily in Alaska.

Its website says it provides support to government and industry, specializing in work for seismic oil drilling exploration programs. Soloy Helicopters did not immediately respond to an email Sunday from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Alaska State Troopers said in a statement Sunday that they received a report of an overdue helicopter and the location of possible crash debris on Saturday night.

A rescue team from Alaska Rescue Coordination Center was dispatched to the crash site in the area of Knik Glacier just after 10 p.m., troopers wrote. The team found five people dead and a sole survivor.

The Alaska Army National Guard and volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group recovered the bodies from the crash site Sunday and turned them over to the state medical examiner.

A temporary flight restriction placed over the glacier has been lifted, troopers said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the case of the crash.

By Mark Thiessen