Glider Deaths Rattle and Mystify

By on June 13, 2018

Pilot was seasoned, skilled and ‘knew how to negotiate all the updrafts and thermals in the canyon’

Kristine Ciesinski died while piloting a glider in Grand Teton. The pilot and opera singer is seen here posing with her former voice student Samuel Chiba. (courtesy photo)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A glider crash in Grand Teton National Park on June 9 resulted in two fatalities. Kristine Ciesinski, 65, of Victor, Idaho, and David Ross, 65, of Salt Lake City, died  when the scenic glider Ciesinski was piloting crashed into the mountains of the national park.

Ciesinski was an experienced pilot flying for Teton Aviation in Driggs, Idaho, and Ross was her passenger. Teton Interagency Dispatch received a call after the two departed Driggs on Saturday morning and had not returned by noon.

Teton County Search and Rescue and national park officials initiated a search south of the park, where they believed the glider crashed. Their course changed when the search party was “able to ping the cellphones of the two passengers in the glider,” said Billy Kirk, public information specialist for Teton County. The ping revealed the cellphones to be inside the national park. “The location was very accurate,” Kirk said.

Teton Aviation flew Search and Rescue officials in a helicopter to confirm the location of the wreckage, at which point the rescue operation was handed off to national park rangers.

Park rangers then flew to the site and confirmed the wreckage and the two deceased individuals. The glider crashed just above Icefloe Lake, between the Middle and South Tetons at about 10,800 feet. Denise Germann, spokesperson for Grand Teton National Park, said Icefloe Lake is “one of the highest elevation lakes in the area,” and described the surrounding terrain as steep and rocky. It is on the west side of the mountains in Wyoming and faces Idaho, where the glider departed from.

Park rangers recovered the bodies in a long-line aerial operation, and next-of-kin notification ensued. Germann was unable to comment on potential causes of the accident, as it is still under investigation.

Gliders are a special class of aircraft that do not use an engine, and are instead towed by a tow plane and released into air currents. Their especially long wings catch the wind and allow them to glide for long distances. Teton Aviation’s glider tours last about an hour, with the first 30 minutes behind a tow plane, and another 30 to 40 minutes gliding back to the airport in Driggs.

The Opera Singing Pilot

Ciesinski was a seasoned pilot with more than 30 years of experience flying gliders. She also had experience flying commercial single-engine planes, search and rescue missions, towed gliders and was a Civil Air Patrol captain for Teton Valley.

Before she became a pilot, Ciesinski cultivated a career as a world-renowned soprano opera singer and a member of the voice faculty at Florida State University and BYU Idaho. She  sang all over the world in Paris, Munich, Tokyo and Mexico City and was known for portraying many of the great operatic heroines, as well as lesser known 20th century masterpieces. Originally from Newark, Delaware, Ciesinski lived and performed in the UK for more than a decade before settling in Victor. Her operatic career spanned more than 40 years.

People in Jackson and Teton Valley were shaken by news of  the well-loved community member’s death.

Jackson resident Mark Hassler enjoyed a scenic glide with Ciesinski as a birthday gift from his wife in 2011. He described her as a skillful, intuitive pilot. “She made me feel comfortable. She knew how to negotiate all the updrafts and thermals in the canyon,” he said. During their flight, Ciesinski navigated close to the mountains, performed an acrobatic trick with the glider, and even sang to Hassler, something she was known to do for passengers.

“It’s just a loss,” Hassler said. “As skilled a pilot as she is, that something like this would happen, something catastrophic took place. I hope they find out what it is. I’m just saddened.”

Samuel Chiba took voice lessons from Ciesinski and recalled her vibrant personality and skills as his voice coach. “My voice lessons weren’t strictly about music or singing technique,” Chiba said. “We talked about life and some of her other hobbies and got to know each other. She would tell me… about how she loved flying glider planes.” Chiba said they “talked about everything” and described her as a “mentor and a friend.”

One of the last times Chiba saw Ciesinski was when she took him on a glider tour in July 2016. He noted her ability to masterfully maneuver the glider. “It was amazing to see this other side of her that she was so passionate about,” he said. “And when we were up in the air, it made sense why she loved it so much. She knew how to ride the air currents that made the plane soar higher without the aid of a motor. Like she actually knew how to fly. Not many people know how to ride air currents like she did.”

Other former students, Gina Sidlow and Kyle Jensen, spoke of Ciesinski’s tenacity and kindness. There was “no one on this earth like her,” Sidlow said. “She was a force, a powerhouse of encouragement and motivation. She believed in me and my abilities, even on the days when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Ciesinski was equally passionate about singing and flying. She made that evident on her personal website and Facebook page. “I aspire to be that inner being of strength and character,” she wrote, “uplifting and partnering with those in my life (singing students, friends, family,those I fly with) as we all dive in and swim to a safer, more beautiful shore together.”

Ciesinski is survived by her sister, Katherine Ciesinski—also an opera singer—and her husband of more than 30 years, Norman Bailey, a world-renowned operatic bass-baritone, as well as their two dogs, Rocky and Chi-Chi.

Answers Hinge on Investigation

Glider accidents are uncommon in the area, but there has been one other glider accident in the national park, Germann said, which resulted in one fatality. The crash happened on July 1, 2002 and the pilot, David Rhyti, 47, of Mounds View, Minnesota, died when his glider struck 150 feet from the summit of the Grand Teton. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash and determined the cause to be “the pilot’s failure to maintain adequate clearance from the mountain summit.”

Peter Kline, general manager of Teton Aviation, said the NTSB “is conducting an investigation, and we are directly cooperating with them to aid their efforts.” When NTSB investigates an incident, it dispatches anywhere from three to more than a dozen officers to the scene of the accident. They gather data on the aircraft, pilot and any crew members, as well as weather conditions, human performance, and survival factors. It typically takes 12 to 18 months for NTSB officials to issue a report on their findings.

Teton Aviation has a clean track record when it comes to aircraft safety. This is the company’s first accident since opening in the 1990s.

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