LOST TRAIL PASS — Ravalli County Undersheriff Steve Holton announced on Wednesday morning that investigators have tentatively identified the aircraft and the pilot who perished in the airplane crash at Lost Trail Ski Area on Tuesday evening.
The pilot is believed to have been the only occupant of the twin-engine aircraft.
Holton, who is also the county’s chief deputy coroner, did not identify the aircraft and said that the pilot’s name is being withheld pending notification of the family.
Holton said that the aircraft burned very badly after it crashed just north of the ski lodge at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and that the only things recognizable were the wing tips.
Holton said that two people witnessed the crash, and that nobody left after it hit the ground. One witness told authorities the airplane appeared to be spinning in the air before it came down flat in the parking lot.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash. Investigators arrived at the scene at noon Wednesday.
Seattle tourists Rick McGee and Julie Gomez had just reached the intersection of Highways 43 and 93 at Lost Trail Pass when the plane crashed.
“It had started to snow very hard when we saw the rest area,” McGee said. “We pulled in at the rest area and the lady at the info center was coming out. We could hear the plane, and she was pointing and circling her arm — she said, ‘It’s spinning, it’s spinning!’ ”
McGee and Gomez didn’t see the plane fall, but they did see the fireball as it exploded on impact behind the information building. There were several smaller explosions and pops after the initial blast.
“I’ve seen planes crash before, but I’ve never seen a plane go up so fast — so quick,” Gomez said. “It was continuous flames for four or five minutes.”
After learning that law enforcement and fire crews were on the way, McGee and Gomez resumed their road trip toward Missoula. They said the weather had been switching from rain to heavy snow to blue sky most of the day.
“I hope it was just a pilot inside,” McGee said. “With a twin-engine plane like that, there could have been four or six people. Nobody could have survived that crash.”