ANCHORAGE — Alaska state Rep. Gary Knopp was killed in a mid-air collision of two planes near Soldotna on Friday, the Alaska House Majority said in a statement.
Alaska State Troopers would not confirm Knopp’s death beyond saying the mid-air collision near the airport in Soldotna was a fatal crash.
The two planes collided near the Soldotna Airport Friday morning, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. Wreckage came down near Sterling Highway, briefly closing the thoroughfare.
Officials have not released how many people were on board the two planes or the extent of injuries.
Rita Geller, who works at a golf course near the airport, said she started running when she heard the planes hit, and watched one fall to the ground,
“I ran to more of a clearing and basically saw it explode,” she told the Anchorage Daily News. “The engine, things were flying off of it. I didn’t see the second plane, but I saw a lot of debris flying around. It was horrific. It was just like 9/11.”
Tributes began pouring for Knopp soon after the news broke. Gov. Mike Dunleavy immediately ordered U.S. and state flags to be lowered to half staff and to remain in that position of honor until sunset Monday.
“The first lady and I wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Rep. Knopp’s family as they mourn his untimely passing,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “Throughout his 42 years on the Kenai Peninsula, Gary became well known as an avid outdoorsman, a skilled pilot, and a dedicated public servant. His presence will no doubt be missed by those he faithfully served.”
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham said he was shocked and devastated upon hearing of Knopp’s death. “Gary was a one-of-a-kind leader and a true Alaskan who worked tirelessly for his district in the Legislature. He will be missed by many.”
Senate President Cathy Giessel, a Republican from Anchorage, called it “a heart-breaking tragedy. More than a legislator, Gary Knopp was a husband, father, son, brother, grandfather,and friend. He will be tremendously missed.”
Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak said Knopp was not only a colleague, but a close friend. “I’m heartbroken and devastated, and thoughts are with Gary’s wife, Helen, and his entire family.”
The FAA initially said the two planes involved were a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver and a twin-engine Piper Aztec, However, the FAA later said it did not believe the second plane was a Piper Aztec, but it had not yet confirmed the make and model of the airplane involved.
The two planes collided in mid-air approximately 2 miles northeast of Soldotna Airport, the FAA statement said after the 8:30 a.m. crash.
Alaska State Troopers on scene were feeding information back to a National Transportation Safety Board investigator in Anchorage immediately after the crash, said Clint Johnson, head of the NTSB’s Alaska division.
The FAA sent two investigators to the crash site, which is about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage on Kenai Peninsula.
The NTSB will investigate the accident and determine a probable cause.
Knopp, a Republican, left the House GOP caucus and served in a coalition of Democrats, independents and GOP lawmakers that made up the House Majority. That left the remaining House Republicans in the minority.
Knopp faced two Republican challengers in the Aug. 18 primary. A message sent to the state Division of Elections to see if Knopp’s name would remain on the ballot was not immediately returned.
Knopp was first elected to the state House in 2016, and served for years before that on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
He was born in Whitefish, Montana, in either 1956 or 1957, various media outlets report. He moved to Alaska in 1979, where he eventually settled in Kenai. He worked as a general contractor.
His hobbies included flying , diving, hunting, golfing “and enjoying life in general at home on the Peninsula,” according to his legislative biography.