Permafrost expert and military pilot among 4 killed in helicopter crash on Alaska’s North Slope

This photo taken in 2015 north of Teshekpuk Lake on Alaska’s North Slope shows scientist Ronald Daanen researching permafrost. Daanen was among three state workers and the pilot who died when their helicopter crashed on Thursday on Alaska’s North Slope. (Benjamin Jones/AP)

A helicopter crash in Alaska took the lives of a permafrost expert from the Netherlands, a pilot who recently transitioned from the military to fly charter helicopters and two other scientists conducting field work in the North Slope, one of the remotest regions in the U.S.

Ronald Daanen, 51, and Justin Germann, 27, both from Fairbanks; Tori Moore, 26, of South Bend, Indiana; and pilot Bernard “Tony” Higdon, 48, of North Pole, Alaska, all perished last week when the 1996 Bell 206 helicopter they were in crashed into a lake while they were on a scientific mission.

The three passengers were employees of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, working in the Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys.

Alaska search and rescue divers recovered the bodies of a helicopter pilot and three scientists on Sunday from the sunken wreckage of the aircraft, which went down in a shallow lake about 80 kilometres south of Utqiagvik — the northernmost city in the U.S., formerly known as Barrow. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

This photo provided by North Slope Borough shows an aerial view of a shallow lake where a helicopter crashed on Alaska’s North Slope near Utqiagvik, Alaska, on Thursday. (North Slope Borough/The Associated Press)

Daanen, a native of the Netherlands, had an ever-present smile and was also known as MacGyver because he could instantly fix anything that went wrong, whether it was repairing a generator or fixing a broken tent pole, colleagues said.

“He’s such a good-natured guy, he’s kind, he’s caring, he’s good humored,” said Howie Epstein, a professor in environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. During summer field work, they studied permafrost and changes in Arctic tundra in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

When working on the North Slope, Daanen brought his homemade gin flavored with spruce tips, which Epstein said was “delicious.” On a tiny island in Siberia, Daanen walked in with a chunk of gouda cheese the size of a curling stone, which they ate from at every meal for a week.

Daanen and his wife, Ina Timling, also competed in the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks. They created elaborate ice sculptures that usually had a science theme, using it as an educational opportunity to teach people about permafrost and Arctic landscapes, said Anna Liljedahl, an associate scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center and an affiliate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We’ve lost an amazing friend and colleague,” she said of Daanen, who was a geologist for the state.

Permafrost, frozen ground and water were key components of his work, but she said he was a brilliant scientist who had wide and varied interests.

‘A young man who chased his dream’

Germann was a state hydrologist with degrees from the University of North Dakota. He paid his way through college by joining the North Dakota National Guard and had to have his parents sign off because he was just a few months shy of his 18th birthday when he joined.

“He’s determined, a young man who chased his dream and accomplished a lot in his life,” his mother Karla said.

This photo taken on Nov. 24, 2022, shows Justin Germann in Hatcher Pass, near Wasilla, Alaska. Germann was among those who died in last week’s helicopter crash. (Alyssa Marie Enriquez/AP)

He completed an internship in Alaska and immediately made plans to return.

“I don’t think he was ever coming back to southwest North Dakota. That was his dream to be there and kayak and just hike and ride a bike in the snow, which is beyond crazy to me,” she said with a chuckle.

The family had planned to visit Germann in Alaska in September but instead will travel this week to Fairbanks, where they are planning an informal memorial. His mother has been comforted by her son’s Alaska friends, who reached out to his family after his death.

“He had a lot of amazing friends up there, and we can’t wait to meet them,” she said.

This photo taken on May 16, 2021, near Custer, S.D., shows Brandon Orcutt, left, and Justin Germann. (Summer Orcutt/AP)

Moore was a 2019 graduate from Indiana with a degree in geological and earth sciences. She wrote on her LinkedIn page that she was “interested in biogeochemistry, planetary science, environmental science.”

Her family declined to comment on her death.

Higdon became a full-time pilot in November, going to work for Maritime Helicopters. He had over 2,000 hours combined while flying Bell 206, Bell 407 and Eurocopter EC145 helicopters.

In a statement, the company praised Higdon: “We all knew Tony as the consummate professional and a skilled pilot. He will be greatly missed.”

He previously worked in different capacities at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks after serving more than 13 years as a military police officer with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Higdon’s family were unsuccessful.

Related stories from around the North: 

Finland: Finland’s only aircraft manufacturer loses prototype in Lapland crash, Yle News

Canada: Canadian hunter survives 4 days on the land with no food, plenty of polar bears, CBC News

Norway: Polar bear kills Dutch citizen on Norway’s remote Svalbard Islands, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Scientists raise alarm about polar bears’ plastic consumption in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

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