WASILLA -- Mike Whedbee and Jason Scott flew off in search of the 9-foot grizzly that had left pizza-sized tracks in Whedbee's private airstrip on West Lake.
They never made it back.
The Zenith 701 experimental airplane Whedbee built with his wife, Grace, crashed in swampy tundra near Blanket Lake, about three miles north of Big Lake, Alaska State Troopers said.
Whedbee, 66, was killed. Scott remained hospitalized Tuesday at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. He went into surgery Monday night with serious injuries.
The crash is the latest in a series of fatal plane accidents involving Big Lake residents. Robert Lilly, 31, was killed with 27-year-old Jessi Nelsen when his Cessna 150L crashed during an aborted landing at Merrill Field on Aug. 24. Another local aviator, 59-year-old Scott Mueller, was killed when his Super Cub crashed at the Tatitna landing strip southeast of McGrath while ferrying hunting gear on Aug. 30.
All told, this has been the deadliest year for plane crashes in Alaska since 2003, though there have also been fewer total accidents than usual, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Whedbee's wife on Tuesday described her husband as recently and happily retired, a longtime pilot trying to beat colon cancer and making the most of this newfound time to putter around the couple's 20-acre spread on the lake and fly as much as possible. The couple has known Scott and his father for seven years. They help take care of the place and live on the property in an apartment in the airplane hangar.
Whedbee's cancer diagnosis came about a year and a half ago, his wife said. The cancer disappeared after a round of chemotherapy but then returned and spread into his lymph glands. That's when the couple turned to a naturopathic doctor who recommended cutting out sugar and simple carbohydrates. Whedbee continued chemo but embraced the new diet. Within days, Grace Whedbee said, her husband went from pain so severe he could barely rise to pain-free and unmedicated.
"He was winning," Grace Whedbee said. "He would have been cancer-free very soon and he knew that. He was so excited about life. He was so excited about being home."
The two spent the last 15 years as disaster recovery contractors with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, traveling to New Zealand after the April earthquake, to the East Coast last year in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, to the South after Katrina. They loved the experience of helping people, and the adventure. Whedbee, a pilot since 1964, learned to fly a glider on the Big Island of Hawaii during a job there.
The couple met at the old Anchorage Roller Rink at Arctic and Benson boulevards. They'd been married 42 years. The couple have two adult daughters and a number of grandchildren.
Building the Zenith 701 together was a labor of love.
Grace Whedbee said they chose that type of home-built airplane for its Alaskan attributes: an ability to take off and land in short distances and fly not too fast.
"This one, you could get it up to 100 (mph) if you wanted, it was comfortable at 85, but then we could bring it down to 35," she said. "We could land in 100 feet and take off in 100 feet."
Grace Whedbee talked about her husband and their life together for 10 or 15 minutes by phone Tuesday. Her voice cracked with emotion occasionally but she otherwise sounded composed and calm.
That's because, she said, she'd already made peace with her husband's death during his battle with cancer.
A family friend visiting last week asked Mike Whedbee how he felt when the cancer diagnosis came. As his wife remembers, Whedbee answered, "I know my Lord and savior. We have a relationship and I'm ready to go when he's ready to take me."
On Monday, Whedbee called her as he and Scott sat on the runway getting ready to take off and look for the big bear a friend had spotted on a moose carcass in the area.
He said he'd be back in an hour. He said he wouldn't be going far -- she could watch the flight if she wanted.
He thanked her for a great breakfast.
"This type of relationship is why I could handle it like I do," Grace Whedbee said. "I have no regrets and I know he didn't either."
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator left Wasilla in a helicopter Tuesday morning to examine the wreckage.
The men were flying in a Zenith 701 with a Rotax engine, said Clint Johnson, NTSB's Alaska Region chief.
The aircraft was "pretty well fragmented" as described to investigators, Johnson said. As part of his investigation, the NTSB's Bryce Banning hopes to talk with people thought to have witnessed the crash and also interview Scott, depending on his condition.
Banning's investigation will work to determine a cause of the crash, he said.
Scott reported the accident at about 1 p.m. Monday, troopers said.
At the same time, staffers at the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson heard reports of a signal coming off an emergency locator beacon in the area. They were getting ready to respond when they heard from Palmer police that Scott had called them using his cell phone, according to an account of the incident by Lt. Col. John Morse, the rescue center's deputy director.
Members of the 212th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard, along with soldiers from the 1-207th Aviation Regiment of the Alaska Army National Guard, responded to the crash, which the rescue center described as located three nautical miles north of Big Lake.
The HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter the 210th Rescue Squadron usually flies to rescues was down for maintenance, so the Army National Guard sent a UH-60 Black Hawk already preparing to go on a training mission, Morse said in a statement released by the Guard. The Army helicopter picked up four rescuers and their gear and arrived at the crash site at 2 p.m. Monday.
Given the swampy tundra near the crash, the Black Hawk dropped the team about a half mile from the actual site, the Guard said. A team from LifeMed Alaska had already arrived on scene and worked to treat Scott for his injuries.
The team from the 212th got to the site and started treating the "critically injured crash victims" and prepped the area for evacuation, the Guard said. A team member with a chain saw cleared a landing zone closer to the crash site for the Black Hawk.
The two crash victims were transported by the Black Hawk to Mat-Su Regional before 3 p.m. Medical staff pronounced Whedbee dead at the hospital.
Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or 257-4317.