Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Aircraft missing in Alaska Bush remain among state's unsolved mysteries

On Sept. 9, 2013, pilot Alan Foster disappeared while flying a Piper PA-32-260 from the Southeast Alaska community of Yakutat to Merrill Field in Anchorage.

It was the final leg on a cross-country journey that began with the acquisition of the plane, bearing the tail number N3705W, in Atlanta. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Foster, who was flying under a visual flight rules flight plan, fueled the aircraft in Yakutat and departed around 3:30 p.m. He contacted Juneau flight service soon after departure and asked for updated weather conditions, indicating he would stop at Cordova if necessary.

Eighteen minutes later, between the Gulf of Alaska and Malaspina Glacier, radar data showed a target near 1,100 feet with the aircraft’s general transponder code -- but Alan Foster and N3705W were never seen or heard from again.

In its investigation, the NTSB determined that Foster had more than 9,700 flight hours in a variety of aircraft. His family told the Anchorage Daily News that he had extensive experience flying in places across Alaska from Fairbanks to Nome to Bethel and Koyuk and flew for a variety of companies, including MarkAir, Era, FedEx, Greatland Air Cargo and more. Yakutat was familiar territory to him.

“He sounded happy and knew he would be coming home soon,” Foster’s daughter Nikita wrote later, in a college essay. “I could hear the excitement in his voice that he was finally going to fly back to see us. September 8th 2013 was the last day I spoke to my dad.”

A long history of missing aircraft

Aircraft have gone missing in Alaska from the earliest days of flight in the state. In the 1920s and ‘30s, it was not uncommon for weeks to go by with no word before pilots emerged on foot near remote mines or cabins seeking assistance. In 1943, the sole survivor from the missing B-24 dubbed the “Iceberg Inez” was located after an astounding 81 days hiking in the Charley River valley.

Over the years, wrecks large and small have accumulated across the state. Many remain in the same spots where they went down years or decades ago.

They are tracked in the Aircraft Crash Database, maintained by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center. The database is a modern version of the longstanding “pins in the map” system which had been used for decades. Although less graphic, the database provides investigators with a valuable tool to separate the known from the unknown; it is the repository of coordinates for where wreckage was found. In more poetic terms, it records the place where crash stories find their endings.

Prior to World War II there was no system or agency charged with storing records of missing aircraft, and the details of loosely organized volunteer search and rescue attempts reside primarily in old newspaper articles and family accounts.

For example, to learn of how Russ Merrill was lost in 1929, apparently in Cook Inlet, readers would have to look through news reports from that period or in the book “Flying Cold,” by his son, Russ Merrill McLean.

During the war, the U.S. military kept files on its aircraft lost in the territory, many of which were involved in the Lend-Lease program. The Civil Aeronautics Board was active in this period as well, but civilian records -- especially of the single-pilot aircraft so common in the Bush -- are hard to come by.

After the war, search and rescue operations in Alaska were conducted by several different squadrons and air wings over the years, under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force’s Alaskan Air Command. 

Since 1994, the RCC has been the primary respondent for overdue aircraft in the state. It maintains open files on aircraft that have gone missing in the years since. For aircraft lost prior to 1994, the files were misplaced or lost entirely in the many transfers and reassignments that occurred in the previous decades.

So for cases like a Cessna 170 that went missing between Anchorage and Northway in 1968 or a Beech Bonanza last heard to be in the vicinity of Gulkana in 1992, there is only one place where a record still resides: the NTSB regional office in Anchorage.

Current missing files

The NTSB is congressionally mandated to investigate every aircraft accident in the U.S. and it is the NTSB which formally assigns probable cause to each case. For the missing, such as Alan Foster, it typically reads “Undetermined because the pilot and airplane were not found.”

A search of NTSB databases back to 1962 reveals more than 40 open cases for missing aircraft. These include examples where some slight debris might have been located -- generally near water -- but the aircraft itself is still lost.

The agency requires a "preponderance of evidence" in order to reclassify a missing aircraft as a known accident. That could include specific information such as an assigned transponder code and subsequent radar track, wreckage with serial numbers or other unique characteristics or the identified remains of the pilot or a passenger. Years might go by before enough evidence is discovered to provide elusive answers about what happened.

When a hiker or beachcomber discovers an aircraft part, they usually contact the nearest Alaska State Trooper office. Troopers in turn contact the NTSB, which takes the lead in the investigation and checks with the Rescue Coordination Center to see if there is a nearby confirmed crash site in the database that matches the discovery and might be a likely source for the part. If this is not the case, investigators go back to the files and cross-reference the part with any still-missing aircraft from the general area.

“If the files provide us with leads to an accident that fits with the discovery,” explains Clint Johnson, NTSB Alaska regional director, “then we will launch an accident investigation as we would for any current crash.”

In Johnson’s career this has happened several times, most recently in the 2013 discovery of landing gear that was traced to the disappearance of Brendan Mattingley, who departed Soldotna in 2012 in his Piper Super Cub.

Conversely, the 1972 disappearance of the Cessna 310 carrying Russell Brown, Congressmen Nick Begich and Hale Boggs and pilot Don Jonz while en route to Juneau is the subject of several hopeful phone calls every year. So far none have yielded any confirmed signs of the wreckage.

“A missing file is never inactive," Johnson said. “An official end to the search for answers does not occur until we find out what happened.”

Still missing

Although the facts about a flight’s ending may come years or even decades later, any information is welcome to those who have been left behind.

On Aug. 20, 1958, Clarence Rhode -- then the Alaska regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- along with his 22-year-old son Jack and fellow Fish and Wildlife agent Stanley Fredericksen took off from Fairbanks in a Grumman Goose with the tail number N270. They carried with them 200 gallons of fuel to cache for future patrols in the Brooks Range.

The trio visited Porcupine Lake, where they radioed the office in Fairbanks and then flew on to visit a hunting guide at Schrader Lake and scientists camped at Peters Lake. They told the scientists they planned a return to Porcupine Lake before heading back to Fairbanks, but after taking off and heading west, they were never heard from again.

At least 25 aircraft and 260 people covered an area of approximately 300,000 square miles in the search for the missing aircraft, according to the description of Wien Air pilot James Anderson, who operated the Bettles roadhouse where the search for the Rhode party was organized. Searchers believed, due to their survival gear and experience, that the trio could last for months in the Bush.

Speculation, Anderson wrote in his book “Arctic Bush Pilot," was rampant.

“Did the load of gasoline explode in flight? Had Rhode landed the amphibian in a lake with wheels down wrecking and sinking the plane? Had he somehow flown over the nearby Arctic Ocean, crashing there, never to be found? Had the plane plunged into a dense spruce forest where it couldn’t be seen from the air?”

For 21 years, the mystery of N720 remained a significant part of Alaska’s aviation lore.

Then, in August 1979, two hikers crossing a pass at the head of the Ivishak River in what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stumbled upon the crash site. In the subsequent investigation, it was determined that at the 5,700-foot level and only 25 miles from Porcupine Lake, the aircraft apparently hit a mountainside while under power and making a left turn; it was torn apart.

Anderson was retired and living in Pennsylvania when the wreckage was found, but its discovery gave him a long-sought peace of mind. “When there is no ending to a tragedy,” he wrote, “thoughts about it linger.”

Discoveries like N720 have been repeated more recently, such as when a Super Cub that had gone missing 13 years earlier was found near Port Alsworth in 1999. Such a find gives hope to those still waiting, to family and friends who have only vague areas on the map to point to.

There are many aircraft still waiting to be found in Alaska, many stories still searching for their endings.

A GoFundMe page has been created for the children of Alan Foster to provide financial assistance for his two daughters who will be attending college this fall. There is also a Facebook page with details of the search for N3705W.


NTSB Identification: ANC13FAMS2

14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Monday, September 09, 2013 in Yakutat, AK
Probable Cause Approval Date: 03/17/2015
Aircraft: PIPER PA-32-260, registration: N3705W
Injuries: 1 Fatal.

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 pilot obtained a weather briefing and departed on a day visual flight rules (VFR) cross-country flight. Although visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the departure airport, the current and forecast conditions were marginal VFR and instrument flight rules along the flight route. Flight service issued an alert notice when the airplane was overdue for arrival, and an extensive search was conducted. Radar coverage was limited; however, several radar targets were consistent with the accident airplane’s route. The first and last targets were recorded about 13 and 18 minutes, respectively, after departure and indicated that the airplane was at an altitude of 1,100 ft mean sea level and located in an area between coastline and mountainous terrain. However, the airplane and pilot were not found. The airplane was not equipped with, nor was it required to be equipped with, a digital 406-MHz emergency locator transmitter; such a transmitter may have aided search and rescue efforts.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
Undetermined because the pilot and airplane were not found.


On September 9, 2013, at an undetermined time, a Piper PA-32-260 airplane, N3705W, operated by a private individual, went missing and was presumed to have crashed at a location between Yakutat, Alaska and Anchorage, Alaska. The airline transport pilot was presumed to have received fatal injuries and the airplane was presumed to have been destroyed. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the departure airport, Yakutat Airport (YAK), Yakutat, Alaska. A visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was filed for the planned flight to Merrill Field (MRI), Anchorage, Alaska. The personal flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The flight departed YAK about 1530 Alaska daylight time.

The pilot had recently purchased the airplane and was ferrying it from Georgia to Alaska. The airplane landed uneventfully in YAK and the pilot purchased fuel, before departing on the accident flight. Review of radar data revealed targets with a corresponding transponder code of 1200, extending northwest, between the coast of the Gulf of Alaska and the Malaspina Glacier. The first target was recorded at 1543:29, indicating an altitude of 1,100 feet mean sea level (msl). The last target was recorded at 1548:13, indicating an altitude of 1,100 feet msl.


The pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate, with ratings for airplane multiengine land. He also held a commercial pilot certificate, with a rating for airplane single-engine land. In addition, he was a certificated flight engineer and mechanic. The pilot's most recent Federal Aviation Administration third-class medical certificate was issued on July 25, 2013. At that time, he reported a total flight experience of 9,747 hours.

The previous owner of the accident airplane described the pilot as very experienced. He further stated that the pilot had accrued about 25 hours in the airplane before departing to Alaska and flew it "well."

The pilot's logbook was not recovered.


The previous owner of the airplane provided copies of logbook entries for the most recent annual inspection. He also provided an equipment list and noted that the airplane was instrument flight rules (IFR) equipped with a GPS moving map, and the GPS was slaved to a VOR needle.

Review of logbook copies revealed that the airplane's most recent annual inspection was completed on September 13, 2012. At that time, the airplane had accrued 4,520.7 total hours of operation. The engine had accrued 1,394.73 hours since major overhaul.

The airplane logbooks were not recovered.


The pilot obtained an in-person weather briefing at the Juneau Flight Service Station (FSS) prior to departing to YAK. After landing uneventfully and refueling at YAK, the pilot radioed the Juneau FSS at 1529 to update his VFR flight plan. He reported that his destination was MRI and he had just departed YAK. The briefer acknowledged the update and advised the pilot that there was an advisory for IFR conditions west of the Kenai Peninsula with mountain obscuration. The pilot then asked for the latest conditions at: Merke K Smith Airport (CDV), Cordova, Alaska; Valdez Pioneer Field (VDZ), Valdez, Alaska; and MRI.

The briefer provided the current conditions at CDV, which included visibility 5 miles in light rain and mist, scattered clouds at 3,300 feet, a broken ceiling at 4,200 feet, and an overcast ceiling at 5,000 feet. The forecast for CDV included visibility 4 miles in moderate rain and mist, and an overcast ceiling at 2,500 feet. The current conditions at VDZ included visibility 1 mile, scattered clouds at 100 feet, a broken ceiling at 500 feet, and an overcast ceiling at 2,000 feet. The forecast for VDZ included visibility 5 miles in light rain and mist, and an overcast ceiling at 2,500 feet. The current conditions at MRI included unrestricted visibility, scattered clouds at 7,000 feet, and broken ceiling at 10,000 feet.

The briefer also included the current conditions in Whittier, Alaska, which included visibility 5 miles in rain, and overcast ceiling at 2,000 feet. The pilot then asked for the current conditions at Portage Pass and the briefer provided the conditions, which included visibility 1.75 miles in heavy rain, few clouds at 2,100 feet, a broken ceiling at 2,400 feet, and an overcast ceiling at 5,500 feet. The briefer added that he could barely see the mountain on the weather camera, portage pass was definitely closed, and VFR flight was not recommended. The pilot acknowledged the information, thanked the briefer, and indicated that he would stop at CDV if he had to.

The recorded weather at YAK, at 1553, was: wind 100 degrees at 4 knots; visibility 10 miles; few clouds at 1,700 feet; broken ceiling at 5,000 feet; overcast ceiling at 6,000 feet; temperature 13 degrees C; dew point 10 degrees C; altimeter 30.10 inches Hg.


The presumed crash site is near the Malaspina Glacier, with mountainous terrain to the east and the Gulf of Alaska to the west.


The sole occupant has not been recovered and no medical or pathological information is available.


An alert notice was issued by flight service at 2107 for the overdue airplane and an approximate 1-week search was initiated in an area centered 40 miles northwest of YAK, based on limited radar data. The search was conducted by personnel from the Civil Air Patrol, Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Air National Guard, and the U.S. Coast Guard, along with several volunteers. At the beginning of the search and throughout the week, efforts were hampered by poor weather conditions in the area and no emergency locator transmitter (ELT) signal was received in the area.

The missing airplane was not equipped with, nor required to be equipped with, a digital, 406 MHz ELT that instantly transmits a distress signal to search and rescue satellites, thereby alerting rescue personnel within minutes of the location of the crash. As of February 1, 2009, analog, 121.5 MHz ELT's stopped being monitored by search and rescue satellites, and the installation of 406 MHz ELTs has been voluntary. The missing airplane had an older generation 121.5 MHz ELT installed. Both types of ELT's can be turned on manually, or automatically, by impact forces.

Residents Near Reagan Washington National Airport (KDCA) Bring Noise Complaints To Federal Aviation Administration

All the major players involved with Reagan Washington National Airport sat down today with D.C. residents who say airplane noise is becoming intolerable in their neighborhoods.

There were no breakthroughs, just a promise by all sides to keep working on an agreement to reduce noise in neighborhoods along the Potomac. But there is still no consensus that the noise actually is worse than it used to be.

"That’s the big question right now. And we are looking at a lot of the data right now to see what is affecting some of the neighborhood perceptions in both Arlington and D.C.," says Laura Brown with the FAA which gave a presentation during a meeting with officials at the airports authority, the airlines, and homeowners.

Robert vom Eigen of the Citizens Association of Georgetown was at the meeting. He says the noise problem is not just a perception.

"In the last couple of months, I’ve noticed for the first time in 30 years living in west Georgetown that all of a sudden planes are flying over 35th Street," Eigen says. "They were located further west before. Now they are flying right over our neighborhoods."

American Airlines vice president Michael Minerva says the airlines are taking those complaints seriously to try to reach a compromise.

"They are expressing legitimate concerns about aircraft noise. We are a member of this community. Several of us live here and so it is important to us to try to address these concerns as best we can," Minerva says.

As WAMU has reported, residents near the airport say there are two main problems: more flights late at night and early in the morning, and modified flight paths are concentrating planes over certain neighborhoods.


 A jet flies over Gravelly Point in Arlington before landing at Reagan National.