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Rainy Pass among Alaska's deadliest places for pilots

Aaron Burmeister mushing up Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jessie Royer mushes up Rainy Pass March 4, 2013.
Loren Holmes photo
Lance Mackey mushing up Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Lance Mackey nearing the top of Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Paul Gebhardt mushing over Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle going over the top of Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
DeeDee Jonrowe going over Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff King going over the top of Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Karin Hendrickson topping Rainy Pass March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
In this timelapse, a musher's headlamp lights the trail over Rainy Pass under an aurora display March 4, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

Rainy Pass was the original "aviation highway" to the Kuskokwim Delta for Anchorage pilots. Prior to Russ Merrill's 1927 mapping of Merrill Pass, the route to Bethel was northwest through Rainy Pass, then on to McGrath and southwest to the Y-K Delta. At this time there were no maps detailing elevations for the entire 10,000-square mile area of the Alaska Range.

The Rainy Pass area has a long history of aviation accidents. Two other mountain passes, Lake Clark and Merrill Pass (considered the state's most dangerous) -- There is a long history of accidents in the Rainy Pass area; with Merrill Pass (considered the most dangerous pass in Alaska), and Lake Clark Pass, this is a region best flown only by the most cautious and careful pilots. Weather reporting is only available from Farewell on the west side and Puntilla Lake on the east and conditions can change dramatically in a short period of time.

Dozens of crashes in the Rainy Pass region date back over the past five decades and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) database records multiple instances of weather-related accidents in the area of Puntilla Lake, Farewell, Tatitna and Skwentna, all of which are used by investigators as landmarks. The most common factors are gusting winds and low cloud cover, the conditions for a multiple fatality accident in Mystic Pass in 2007 when two aircraft entered the pass that then quickly closed in around them. The second aircraft was able to turn around and get out; the first could only go forward, impacting a mountainside at 3,100 feet.

The surviving pilot told investigators that as he flew "...the cloud level began to come down the faces of the mountains."

Mystic Pass is approximately 20 miles northeast of Simpson Pass, the site of a tragic crash that killed a retired Anchorage police officer and his mother-daughter passengers. Their bodies were recovered Tuesday; the NTSB has launched an investigation into the accident. Brice Banning, an NTSB investigator, said Cessna Aircraft Co. representatives expect to accompany Banning to the crash site, examine the plane and then transport what's left of the fixed-wing, 1958 Cessna-182 from there to Anchorage.

Other notable Rainy Pass tragedies:

  • In 1979 a pilot became lost and flew into a blind canyon near Rainy Pass and was killed.
  • In 1983 a multiple fatality accident occurred east of the intended destination at Farewell after the pilot reported the conditions in Ptarmigan Pass to be at an approximate 3,000 ceiling with poor visibility, he impacted a ridge line at an altitude that placed him well in the clouds.
  • In 1993 a pilot flying for the Iditarod Air Force departed Rohn and crashed at the 3,700 foot level of a box canyon 3.5 miles west of Rainy Pass. Whiteout conditions existed in the passes at the time and the aircraft impacted the canyon at the 3,700 foot level; the top of the canyon reached 5,000 feet. The cause of this fatality accident was the pilot's continued flight into instrument meteorological conditions.
  • In 1995 a pilot was returning to Anchorage from Farewell when he impacted high terrain south of the airport and did not survive. Farewell weather was reporting ceilings partially obscured and the cause of the accident again was the pilot's continued flight into instrument meteorological conditions.

Contact Colleen Mondor at bushpilot(at)alaskadispatch.com