The most storied rescue pilot in Alaska history died Saturday on what was supposed to have been a quick helicopter hop from the George Parks Highway to Larson Lake to pick up a possibly injured snowmachine rider, Alaska State Troopers revealed Monday.
Other pilots might have been involved in more dramatic rescues than 55-year-old Mel Nading from Anchorage, but none have been in involved in so many. He and "Helo-1" rescued more than 70 people last year alone.
Troopers, mountain rescue personnel and others said it was a tragedy Nading's life came to an end in the fiery helicopter crash that killed him, along with 40-year-old trooper Tage Toll and 56-year-old Carl Ober -- the man Nading and Toll had been trying to rescue.
At a press conference Monday, Alaska trooper director Col. Keith Mallard noted Nading saved "hundreds of lives" in the 49th state. Nading received so many commendations for his efforts to help others that Mallard admitted he'd lost count.
Just last September, Susitna Valley resident Jim Stocker was singing Nading's praise after the helicopter pilot pulled Stocker, his wife and a friend off a Talkeetna River gravel bar as flood waters raged.
Troopers, Stocker told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, sent Nading up to check on the weather, but "I guess he just decided, forget about checking on the weather I’ll just shoot on in there.” “They saved us, man, that helicopter pilot."
The state is full of people with stories like those of Stocker. Nading plucked victims of a floatplane crash off an iceberg on the Kenai Peninsula, helped haul a snowmachine rider out of a crevasse in the Chugach Mountains, rescued many an injured mountain climber, retrieved even more lost hikers, and helped hunt for legions of missing snowmobilers.
Ironically, one such hunt is scheduled to air on the television show "Alaska State Troopers" on the National Geographic Channel Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Anchorage.
"In the Talkeetna Mountains, pilot Mel Nading and veteran search and rescue expert Scott Horoseck (sic) scour terrain in a rescue chopper searching for lost snowmobilers," a promo for the show says. A team leader for the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Horacek flew dozens of missions as Nading's spotter.
That was the role Toll, a 10-year trooper who moved north after working for the Kansas Highway Patrolman, was fulfilling on Saturday. Nading had picked up the Talkeetna trooper on the way to help look for Ober, a Talkeetna resident.
"There's always a spotter on board," Mallard said.
Nading and Toll were going to pick up Ober on what should have been among the easier rescues in Nading's career. Ober had called 911 on his cell phone to report he'd crashed his snowmachine near Larson Lake and thought he'd injured himself. Mallard said it was only about a five-minute flight to the lake from a place called "Sunshine," a wide spot along the heavily traveled Parks highway near Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is the internationally recognized jumping-off point for Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. It is surrounded by low, rolling hills in a broad valley between the Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains.
After Ober made his 911 call, a Talkeetna trooper first tried to organize a ground rescue. There are several well-traveled snowmachine trails running to the lake from off the road system near Talkeetna, but the communitiy lacks the organized, local snowmachine rescue group common in many rural Alaska villages.
Troopers made a call to try to find a Talkeetna volunteer to go get Ober, but when that failed, "Helo-1 was approved to perform a search and rescue mission," Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Masters said at the Monday press conference.
Ober was a known commodity to troopers. He had a documented legal history of bad driving, and in 2010 was convicted of a felony charge of driving under the influence stemming from multiple priors for the same offense.
Mallard said it was unknown whether Ober had been drinking Saturday. The extent of his injuries was also unclear.
"The information we were given was a snowmachiner, traveling by himself, had crashed and reportedly suffered broken ribs," Masters said. "He also indicated that he could not get out on his own and had inadequate gear to spend the night in the wilderness."
Troopers had requested an ambulance to the Sunshine Tesoro to meet the the flight coming back from the rescue, but Mallard said there were no indications Ober had suffered major injuries.
"He was ambulatory," Mallard said. "He walked himself onboard" the helicopter.
Larson Lake is a wild area surrounded with rolling hills of birch and spruce about 10 miles east of Talkeetna, but there are remote cabins sprinkled throughout the country. Ober had reportedly been returning to Talkeetna from one of them when he crashed his snowmachine.
Exactly where and how that happened is unclear because troopers are still looking for Ober's sled. The helicopter apparently traveled some distance from the scene of the snowmachine crash before it crashed in the forest at the south end of the lake.
"We're still trying to identify where that snowmachine is," Mallard said.
Troopers said they have confirmed that Nading and Toll were in the wreckage of the $3.2 million aircraft, but have yet to confirm the third body is Ober, though they believe it to be.
"At this point, we will not speculate as to why Helo-1 crashed," Masters added.
A resident who lives on a ridge about five miles west of Larson Lake said it was 34 degrees and raining at his home Saturday night. The weather to the east looked impassable, he said, and the rain later turned to wet, heavy snow that made it hard to see.
"My understanding is visibility was poor," Mallard said.
The helicopter is believed to have gone down shortly after 11 p.m. It was about that time Nading radioed that he had found Ober and was headed for Sunshine. He was not heard from again.
When he did not show up as expected, two Alaska Wildlife Troopers went out on snowmachines to look for the helicopter and the 210th, 211th and 212th rescue squadrons of the Alaska Air National Guard were notified.
The "special forces" of U.S. search and rescue, the men of the ANG finally found the helicopter about 9:30 Easter morning. Two pararescuemen were lowered to the scene and confirmed there were no survivors.
The National Transportation Safety Board is set to begin an investigation. Troopers said the case has been turned over to an investigator from Outside because the NTSB staff in Alaska were personal friends of Nading, a long-time air safety advocate.
One of the first things he did after the troopers hired him back in 2000 was to begin lobbying for a Eurocopter AS350 to replace the Bell Ranger the troopers were then using, said Joel Hard, a former trooper now the assistant regional director for the National Park Service in Alaska.
The reason? Bell Rangers were prone to icing, a potentially deadly threat in the kind of conditions in which Nading was flying Saturday.
Helo-1 has for years been the troopers' only heavy-lift helicopter, but they had finally received funding to purchase another this year. It is due to arrive in June. Until then, troopers said they will make do with fixed-wing aircraft and several smaller Robinson R44 helicopters.
But equipment concerns seemed about the farthest thing from anyone's mind Monday.
"It's a loss to everybody know knew Mel," Mallard said. "It's like losing a family member."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com