Friday, January 03, 2014

Out of Sara Gagnon’s experience of surviving a small-plane crash that killed the pilot, Harbinger Winery was born

By Andy Perdue 

Special to The Seattle Times

SARA GAGNON knew she was in trouble when the plane’s windshield hit her in the face.

It was August 2004, just before wine-grape harvest was to begin, and Gagnon was flying in a Cessna 182 from her hometown of Port Angeles to Boeing Field on a cloudy, rainy night. In the plane was co-worker Tammi Hinkle, and in the pilot seat was friend Barry Koehler.

They barely made it 10 miles out of town when they came through a cloud bank and everything went wrong.

“We clipped the top of a ridge and went down into the trees at about 150 miles an hour,” Gagnon remembers. “It was full speed. The plane disintegrated around us, and I was pretty sure that was it. I was unlucky enough to not lose consciousness, so I get to remember.”

Koehler died in the crash, and Gagnon and Hinkle, both badly injured, were left stuck all night in a remote area of Olympic National Park, wondering if they would be found, because Koehler hadn’t filed a flight plan.

“It was a pretty wild night. I was afraid to fall asleep because I didn't want to wake up dead.”

They were found the next morning and hiked out of the forest.

Gagnon, who had returned to Port Angeles from Seattle four years earlier to follow her passion for winemaking, was the head winemaker at Olympic Cellars in nearby Sequim. She was having a blast in the job and also had discovered a love for kayaking that moved her to become a professional guide.

As she recovered from a fractured sternum, cracked pelvis, broken nose and concussion, Gagnon came to a hard-earned conclusion: Life is too short to not follow your dreams.

“That really shifted my perspective and made me realize that I wanted to go do my own thing. So I finished up harvest at Olympic Cellars and moved on.”

Out of her near death was born Harbinger Winery.

In the decade since, Gagnon has built Harbinger into a 3,000-case winery. West of Port Angeles on Highway 101, it is the northwestern-most winery in the continental United States. She shares the winery building with Hinkle, with whom she co-owns Adventures Through Kayaking, putting both her passions under one roof.

As a result of the harrowing plane crash, Gagnon is stronger mentally and physically. Whether she’s in the cellar making wine or working the tasting room, she takes on life in a gentle, Zen-like manner, living for the moment rather than for the paycheck.

Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at



Harbinger 2009 Sangiovese, Rattlesnake Hills, $30: A big, rich red wine to pair with lasagna or grilled meats.

Harbinger 2009 El Jefe, Rattlesnake Hills, $27: This red blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache is smooth, complex and elegant.

Harbinger NV Dynamo White, Washington, $15: This inexpensive and easy-drinking blend of chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling will go perfectly with a bowl of steamed mussels.

Learn more about the winery and its products at; 360-452-4262.

 A terrible plane crash gave Sara Gagnon new perspective on what was important to her.
Credit/Courtesy:   Andy Perdue

NTSB Identification: SEA04FA154.
The docket is stored in the Docket Management System (DMS). Please contact Records Management Division
Accident occurred Tuesday, August 03, 2004 in Port Angeles, WA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 01/24/2005
Aircraft: Cessna 182P, registration: N79404
Injuries: 1 Fatal,2 Minor.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The passengers reported that shortly after takeoff in dark night conditions, the pilot made a turn toward rising terrain. During the climb, the aircraft entered clouds. The passenger could see terrain on both sides of the aircraft and questioned the pilot as to what mountain she was seeing. The pilot responded, "just a minute." The aircraft then suddenly broke out of the cloud and the passenger could see trees in front of the airplane. The pilot pulled up, but the aircraft collided with the tree tops and tumbled through the trees for several hundred feet before coming to rest. The passengers reported no engine or aircraft malfunction or physiological problems with the pilot at the time. Rain, clouds and fog were reported in the area at the time.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot's VFR flight into IMC and his failure to maintain clearance from trees. Trees, mountainous terrain, dark night conditions, clouds and VFR flight into IMC were factors.