In a seemingly romantic plan, two pilots—boyfriend and girlfriend—rendez-vousing in mid-air in their planes over the Alaskan tundra and flying to their destination together.
But a playful and unexplained maneuver by one of the pilots clipped a wing, sending both planes to the ground, killing one of the pilots.
Kristen Sprague, 26, and Scott Veal, 24, took off from different locations in Western Alaska and headed for Bethel. They planned to rendez-vous in the sky and travel together. Sprague was flying a small Cessna 207 for Alaskan freight airline Ryan Air and Veal was flying a slightly larger Cessna 208 for Grant Aviation. Both were alone in their planes.
"These two pilots ended up meeting on a discrete frequency and were talking on the way back," said Clint Johnson, the senior air safety investigator on this case for the National Transportation Safety Board. "They met up and flew in close proximity to each other."
Johnson said this it is not recommended for airplanes to be so close to each other.
"Visibility was not a factor. Weather was not a factor. They saw each other," Johnson said. "The fact of the matter is they were both willing participants in this maneuver that, unfortunately, had disastrous results."
As Sprague was flying, Veal pulled up on the left side of her plane, at which point the two were "neck in neck, going the same speed," Johnson said. Then, Veal went up and over Sprague's plane to her right.
In speaking with Sprague extensively over the weekend before she returned home to Idaho, Johnson said that she recalls saying, "Scott, I can't see you" and Veal saying to her, "Whatever you do, don't pull up."
"The next thing she knew, his airplane struck her right wing," Johnson said. "After the collision, his airplane passed underneath her from the right to the left and basically nose-dived into the tundra."
Veal was killed when the plane burst into flames and the aircraft was almost entirely destroyed upon impact in the tundra.
When Johnson asked Sprague what she thought Veal may have been trying to accomplish in the maneuver, she said she did not know. "Unfortunately, we will never know what he was doing."
With minimal control over her damaged plane, Sprague was able to safely land in an isolated area of tundra. It took four hours for rescue helicopters to be able to pick her up. Johnson said that Sprague was "very upset," but did not suffer any physical injuries.
Veal's family and friends are reeling from the loss of a man they say had always dreamed of being a pilot.
Noelle Mayes and her husband Rex own the Williams Soaring Center, a flight school in Williams, Calif., where Veal was a member. The Mayes family is close friends of the Veal family and would only say that Veal was a "good pilot, great guy."
Veal's father sent a message to the Mayes to let them know about Scott's death and receiving the "toughest call" about his son's death.
"Scott loved to fly and he has been living his and my dream of flying in the Alaska bush the last few years," his father wrote. "I had talked with him just yesterday about what he wanted to fly next."
Flying was a passion that ran in the Veal family. Both Veal's father and grandfather worked as flight instructors.
Veal's father also wrote: "He was a tough nut to raise sometimes, but he was my flying buddy and I will miss not getting to fly summers in Alaska together like we had planned."
Ryan Air and Grant Aviation did not respond to requests for comment.