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Pilot in fatal plane crash not certified, investigator says

Lisa Demer

A man flying a Piper Super Cub that crashed Friday evening south of the Western Alaska village of Red Devil killing himself and a passenger wasn't a certified pilot and went out in his father's plane without his permission, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said Sunday.

Still, Richard I. Wilmarth, 42, had been flying the Super Cub since he was a teenager and was a capable pilot, his father, Richard C. Wilmarth, said Sunday from Palmer.

The younger Wilmarth struggled with drug abuse and has been in and out of trouble much of his adult life, so never got his pilot's license, his father said. He said he forbid his son from flying the plane this winter because he didn't want him using all the aviation fuel.

On Friday, the younger Wilmarth ferried fuel, food and camping gear to a remote recreational cabin on a little horseshoe lake near the Holitna River where some friends were planning to spend the weekend snowmachining.

Two of the friends were on the ground when the plane crashed. They told transportation investigator Clint Johnson what they saw.

Wilmarth had already dropped off the supplies when he took off with passenger, Kenneth Mellick, 45, to check out snow and ice conditions for snowmachining. They were heading back, maybe 25 minutes later, sometime after 5 p.m. Friday, Johnson said. Both the men on the ground saw the plane coming in.

"When they first saw it, it was low, very slow," Johnson said. They heard the engine rev up.

"They noticed the airplane was nose down, spinning, and got about two spins in before it hit the ground," Johnson said. It slammed into the ground nose first, he said.

Johnson, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector and two state troopers flew out to the crash site over the weekend. He inspected the wreckage. He said he found nothing wrong mechanically with the Super Cub.

The witness descriptions indicate the plane went into "an aerodynamic stall" and that Wilmarth lost control, Johnson said. But the investigation is still in early stages, he said.

Mellick lived in Sleetmute, where he was the village's tribal administrator and an Alaska Power Association board member.

Wilmarth lived in Red Devil in the family home where he spent much of his youth, his father said. The crash happened about 40 miles south of Red Devil. The family settled there so the older Wilmarth could work as a miner. He mined in the area for decades and continued to fly his wide-body Super Cub to support mining operations, he said.

(The senior Wilmarth didn't mention it, but he has a remarkable place in Alaska history. He won the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in 1973.)

"I had told him not to use the airplane, although he was a very capable pilot, who was flying that same airplane when he was 13, 14 years old," the father said.

Aviation fuel is about $9 a gallon in that area and last year his son used up his stored fuel, which he was counting on for the spring when he needed to fly the ski plane to open up various mining camps. So he didn't want him flying it anymore. He never wanted him hauling other people, since he wasn't licensed, he said.

"I told him I didn't want him flying and he promised me he wouldn't," the father said.

As to the plane, he had spent tens of thousands of dollars rebuilding it a few years ago, so it was like new, the father said.

He didn't question his son's flying ability. But on Friday, the younger Wilmarth evidently didn't use proper landing procedure, his father said, relying on what others had told him. "He was too low and slow and he made this hard turn, they said."

His son was a good man despite his troubles, he said. He went to high school in Aniak and won a national competition in small engine repair. He worked most recently as a carpenter.

"The guy is extremely capable. There's not a lazy bone in his body," the father said.

Online court records show that the younger Wilmarth's problems with the law stretch back to the 1990s. He's been convicted of thefts, burglary, driving while intoxicated, and other charges, the records show. Much of it relates to his long battle with drugs, his father said.

His father said he had been doing well the last few years. When he last got out of prison, he asked to come home to Red Devil. His father told him he could live in the family home as long as he didn't drink or get into trouble. He was still on probation and his father said he thought his son was abiding by the rules.

An autopsy being conducted in Anchorage will look for alcohol or other substances that could affect flying ability, Johnson said. That's standard in a fatal crash.

People have long flown planes in Bush Alaska without proper training or certification, though the problem is not as widespread as it used to be, Johnson said.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on