- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - The body of a missing Yute Air pilot was found inside the upside-down wreckage of a small plane that had just been equipped with a new engine, Alaska State Troopers said Tuesday.

Responders tentatively identified the body found in the Cessna 207 on Monday as 47-year-old Blaze Highlander of Olympia, Washington. The aircraft was found in the Kwethluk River about 40 miles southeast of Bethel, but challenging conditions are slowing efforts to recover the submerged body and wreckage.

Highlander, who survived an earlier Yute Air plane crash, was last seen leaving Bethel Saturday morning. Troopers said he was breaking in a new engine for the plane. He was the only person on board.

The wreckage was spotted by another Yute Air pilot Sunday evening, but recovery efforts have been stymied by adverse weather and river conditions. Responders on the scene found the plane in pieces and submerged in up to 8 feet of water, according to Clint Johnson, head of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska office.

“This is a very fast-moving river,” Johnson said. “And when there’s a fair amount of rain upstream, there’s pretty much a wall of water.”

Johnson said it’s unclear if the plane broke apart because of the impact or the river conditions, Johnson said.

Yute Air’s Bethel station manager Andrew Flagg referred questions to company operations manager Dan Knesek, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

In December 2011, Highlander survived a plane crash near Kwigillingok, escaping with only minor injuries. Highlander was the only person on board the Yute Air-owned Cessna 207 when the crash occurred about 80 miles southwest of Bethel.

The cause of that crash was determined by the NTSB to be the pilot’s decision to continue flying in bad weather that iced up the wings.

It’s too early to say what caused the weekend crash, which occurred when the weather was clear and calm, at least in Bethel, according to Johnson. He said weather is not a top priority in the investigation at this point. NTSB investigations also look at pilot error and mechanical problems as possible causes.

Yute Air serves more than 22 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of southwest Alaska, providing scheduled air service and charters.

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Follow Rachel D’Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro

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