Representative Gary Knopp of Kenai was reportedly killed in a plane crash outside of Soldotna this morning, along with six other people.
Knopp was reportedly flying his own plane, a Piper Aztec, outside of Soldotna when it collided with a de Havilland Beaver around 8:30 a.m. The collision reportedly happened above Mayoni Street between Soldotna and Sterling, about two miles northeast of the Soldotna airport.The Beaver was reportedly owned by High Adventure Air, and co-owner Greg Bell was also confirmed dead in the crash. Knopp flew alone, and the other four people killed were passengers in Bell’s plane. That included Kansas resident David Rogers, who troopers identified as a guide, and South Carolina residents Caleb Hulsey, Heather Hulsey, Makay Hulsey, and Kristen Wright.
Troopers say six people died at the scene and one was transported to Central Peninsula Hospital, where they later died. Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price called it an unfathomable tragedy for multiple families and offered condolences to everyone who lost a loved one.
Officials are continuing to investigate the crash and have not yet released details about what happened, how many people were aboard the two planes, or where the two planes originated. Traffic on the Sterling Highway was briefly shut down after the crash and reopened around 9:45 a.m., said Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Department manager Dan Nelson. He said there was significant traffic backed up due to the closure, but asked people to be cautious and aware of emergency responders in the area. Troopers say most of the wreckage was about 200 yards from the road. Alaska State Troopers were on-scene investigating on Friday, and the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the cause of the collision.
Knopp lived in Kenai for since 1979 and has represented District 30 since being first elected in 2016. He previously served two and a half terms representing Kenai on the borough assembly as well. He was running for reelection to the House this fall, including in the Republican primary coming up on August 18. He will still appear on the primary ballot.
In his time in the Legislature, Knopp proved a pivotal leader, particularly in House organization. In 2019, his move to form a bipartisan majority caucus upset the Republican majority, sparking ire from some Republicans in the district and an unsuccessful bid to recall him. Legislators, officials, and individuals expressed their grief and condolences Friday as the news emerged.
Mike Navarre, a former legislator and the former borough mayor, said he’s known Knopp since the 1980s, when Knopp was a mechanic working for his father. He said Knopp will be missed, both in the community and in public policy.
"Gary was constantly involved in public office," he said. "He always tried to do the right thing. He often remarked that when he first ran for assembly, he thought everything was black and white and he said when he got in there, he learned there’s a lot of different sides, a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different opinions, so he said, ‘It’s not so black and white anymore—there’s a lot of nuances to policy decisions that are made and how they affect people.’ So he grew in office and was always fair and always tried to do the right thing. He was a great guy and a good friend.”
Borough assembly president Kelly Cooper, who served with Knopp on the assembly just before Knopp was elected to the House, says Knopp will be missed for his honesty and leadership.
"He was a brave and courageous legislator who was always truthful, didn’t mince words, and did what was right for all Alaskans," she said. "And he wasn’t a party person, either. Even though he was a Republican, he responded to every person in Alaska, and served our peninsula very well."
City of Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said in a statement that the sudden loss of Knopp on Friday was a shock and that the city will be forever grateful to Knopp for his work both in the Legislature and on the assembly.
“His service was defined by always doing what he felt was in the best interest of our residents,” Gabriel said. “Our sympathies and prayers go out to his wife Helen and family as well as the other victims and their families of this terrible tragedy.”
Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) said in a statement that he heard the sounds of the crash Friday morning near his home and knew it would likely be people he knew. He said he knew both Knopp and Bell and that he and his family are heartbroken at the loss.
“I have known Gary Knopp and Greg Bell for most of my life,” he said. “Gary has served the Kenai Peninsula community for decades. I have flown with Greg and never felt to be in better, more safety-focused hands while in the air. We are reeling from the loss to our community.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has ordered the United States flag and Alaska state flag to be flown at half-staff in honor of Knopp for three days.
“The First Lady and I wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Representative 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.”
More information will be available as the troopers and NTSB investigate.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.