Community remembers Soldotna pilot lost in Kodiak crash
A Soldotna man who died in a plane crash Sunday was a dad, business owner and sport fisherman.
Derek Leichliter died while preparing for a hunting trip on Kodiak Island. He was 39.
At the time of the crash, Leichliter was flying gear out to the remote Saltery Cove ahead of a five-day hunting trip. His plane crashed a few hundred yards from the Kodiak Airport runway around 2 p.m. Sunday.
Ben Mohr, of Soldotna, was set to join him on the trip. He said Leichliter, who is survived by his two kids, was one of the most friendly and outgoing people he’d ever met. Anywhere he went, he made new friends.
“Just on this trip to Kodiak, he showed up a day before me, and before you knew it had become good friends with a handful of pilots," he said. "He had a car on loan from somebody and had made a dozen friends in less than 12 hours of being there."
Leichliter owned Legacy Electric, an electrical contracting company in Soldotna. He held a seat on the Kenai Airport Commission and built hangars for the Kenai Municipal Airport.
Last year, his name was one of three submitted to the governor by the Alaska Republican Party to fill Rep. Gary Knopp’s seat in Juneau. Knopp himself died in a plane crash over Soldotna last July.
Leichliter was also a board member for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the organization Mohr directs.
“I think if anybody had anything negative to say about him it is that he had a hard time saying no to folks," Mohr said. "He was always happy to pitch in, always happy to agree to help. And that’s part of what he brought to our organization, was just that energy and that willingness and desire to do good things and to help out wherever he could.”
That was Deborah Page’s experience, too. She’s director-coordinator of Alaska Men’s Run, a group that raises money for organizations fighting prostate and testicular cancer.
Page met Leichliter on a flight from Seattle to Anchorage several years ago. She said she’s not usually one to spend an entire flight talking to her neighbor. But she said Leichliter was outgoing and kind.
“His positivity and his smile," she said. "And you could just hear it in his voice, too.”
Page recruited him for the Alaska Men’s Run board. She said he was always looking for a way to help.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she’s known Leichliter for several years. She said he was generous and helpful.
“I don’t know that I ever saw the man without a smile," she said.
Her husband, Verne, met him on the Kenai River. He also became friends with her sons.
"He was a man who lived his life with enthusiasm and a fullness and you don’t ever forget that," Murkowski said. "So the legacy of Derek Leichliter is going to be part of our family’s memories going forward. We’ll miss him.”
Mohr said Leichliter was out on the Kenai River before work every day, all summer long. He recently started spending more time on the Kvichak River, in Bristol Bay.
He’d fly his Wag-Aero 2+2 to Igiugig, two to three times a week. Mohr said he had just retrofitted the plane six months ago with a new engine and wings. He said he had not flown his plane to Kodiak before.
Leichliter was also an avid hunter and trapper. He was on a bear hunt last weekend while Mohr was hunting for deer. Both men were set to fly back Thursday.
"Derek was in every other way, on top of the world," Mohr said. "Happy, doing what he loved, his business was going well. Everything seemed to be going well for him. And this was going to be a trip we were looking forward to. It’s just really unfortunate that he was taken away right as everything was going so well.”
After dropping off the gear in Saltery Cove, Leichliter had planned to fly back to Kodiak to pick Mohr up. The two were to head back to Saltery Cove together.
Federal investigators said they do not know why Leichliter crashed, and Clint Johnson from the National Transportation Safety Board said his team will be combing through the wreckage for clues. They plan on reassembling the plane in a hangar in Kodiak.
KMXT’s Dylan Simard contributed reporting from Kodiak.
Derek Leichliter's family is holding a service in his memory at 4 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 15, at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna.