The Alaska State Troopers helicopter flight that ended in the death of three people near Talkeetna was supposed to be little more than a five-minute trip.
Troopers officials on Monday identified the pilot as longtime trooper rescue pilot Mel Nading, 55, of Anchorage. Nading had flown countless missions since becoming the agency's primary helicopter pilot in 2000, troopers said. He was attempting to deliver an injured snowmachiner to nearby medics when the aircraft crashed Saturday night in the lakeside trees.
Also killed in the crash were Talkeetna-based trooper Tage Toll, a former Kansas state highway patrolman, and snowmachiner Carl Ober, 56, of Talkeetna.
The remains of the three men were flown to Palmer on Sunday night, where an ever-expanding procession of police cars escorted them to the state medical examiner's office in Anchorage, trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said.
Coming less than two weeks after a state-trained village public safety officer was shot to death in the Bristol Bay region, the crash underscores another risk Alaska law enforcement faces: routinely flying missions in all conditions across the state.
"Every day our people are put in harm's way and face it head-on without a second thought that today they may not come home," said Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters. "They are brave and service-minded individuals and Alaska is much safer because of them."
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and has assigned a meteorologist to review weather conditions in the area, said regional chief Clint Johnson.
Masters said troopers would not speculate about the cause of the accident. Troopers said no power lines were in the area of the wreckage.
The trouble began at about 7:35 p.m., when troopers learned snowmachiner Ober had crashed near Larson Lake, 7 miles east of Talkeetna. (Masters said he believes Ober reported the crash and asked for help on his cellphone.)
Ober appeared to have broken ribs. He couldn't make it home and didn't have the right clothing to spend the night in the woods, Masters said.
Nading flew from Anchorage to Talkeetna, where he picked up Toll, 40, and began a search. With Toll acting as a spotter, the pair found the snowmachiner and landed at about 10 p.m.
Ober was hurt but able to walk, troopers said.
The pilot or Toll asked for medics to meet them at the Sunshine Tesoro, where Nading would drop off the injured snowmachiner. That was the last anyone heard from the helicopter, troopers said.
The flight was en route to the gas station at 11:17 p.m., according to troopers. It never arrived.
It was unclear Monday how far the helicopter traveled before crashing.
Troopers described the area around the lake as fairly flat, wooded with birch trees.
Searchers found the wreckage at the south end of Larson Lake at 9:33 a.m. the next day, Easter Sunday, according to troopers. The aircraft was on a hill, said Johnson, the NTSB investigator.
Two para-rescue jumpers were lowered to the wreckage, and wildlife troopers arrived by snowmachine shortly after, troopers said.
The helicopter had burned. Heat and flames delayed the recovery of the bodies, Peters said.
"We believe that the remains of all three have been recovered, but the state medical examiner will have to confirm that," she said.
Nading was hired to work for the Alaska State Troopers in December 2000, primarily to pilot the Eurocopter AS350 B3 Astar known as "Helo-1."
"In the time with us he's flown over 3,000 hours in Helo-1, saved hundreds of lives," said Trooper Col. Keith Mallard.
Nading was generally the helicopter's only pilot.
The pilot's family members declined to be interviewed Monday.
Toll joined the troopers 10 years ago, Mallard said. "He'd worked both in the Alaska Wildlife Trooper ranks as well as the Alaska State Trooper ranks."
An investigator from Chicago arrived in Anchorage Monday to lead the probe into the crash. NTSB investigators do not work on investigations that involve pilots whom they know personally, Johnson said, and Nading routinely flew all four Alaska-based investigators to crash sites.
"We all know him pretty closely," Johnson said.
Two structural engineers for the NTSB will aid in the investigation, he said, as well as a representative from Eurocopter and from the company that manufactured the helicopter's engine.
By KYLE HOPKINS