A team of investigators on Tuesday reached the charred, upside-down wreckage of an Alaska State Troopers helicopter that crashed late Saturday after rescuing a stranded and injured snowmachiner, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Because the NTSB inquiry is just getting started, it remains unclear how a variety of factors -- including the hilly, tree-covered terrain and precipitation in the form of rain or snow -- might have contributed in bringing down Helo 1, investigator Clint Johnson said. The investigators noted damaged spruce trees near the destroyed Eurocopter AS350 B3, but it is too early to draw conclusions as to what caused the crash, Johnson said. The team includes representatives from the helicopter's manufacturers, and the investigators plan to examine the chopper's engine, its maintenance records and its operational history, among many other things, Johnson said.
The crash killed longtime troopers pilot Mel Nading, 55, Talkeetna-based veteran trooper Tage Toll, 40, and injured snowmachiner Carl Ober, 56, troopers said.
Ober had called for help about 7:35 p.m. Saturday after getting hurt while riding his snowmachine, and when Nading and Toll found him near Larson Lake about 10 p.m. and loaded the injured man in the helicopter, they expected about a five-minute flight to medics at the intersection of the Parks Highway and Talkeetna Spur Road, troopers said. Nading said by radio at 11:17 p.m. that the helicopter was flying back, but it never arrived. Searchers with the Alaska Air National Guard found the wreckage the next morning.
Johnson said early, unconfirmed reports indicated the helicopter picked up Ober just north of the lake, making the flight to the rendezvous point about 15 miles. The helicopter crashed within a mile of the south end of the lake after a short flight, Johnson said.
"It was very short. It's within probably two or three miles," he said.
On Tuesday, the seven-member accident investigation team flew in a chartered, ski-equipped DHC-3 Otter airplane that delivered them to Larson Lake, Johnson said. Troopers on snowmachines then ferried the team to the crash site, where they took pictures and documented what they saw, he said.
"There was a post-crash fire, so the majority of the wreckage was incinerated," Johnson said. "It came to rest inverted."
Debris from the helicopter was "pretty localized," meaning it was not scattered over a large distance, Johnson said. There was damage to spruce trees surrounding the burnt helicopter, Johnson said. Powerlines on a hill near the crash site looked untouched, he said.
The investigators planned to ask residents in the area about weather Saturday night to get a better understanding of the local conditions, Johnson said. A meteorologist in Washington D.C. was also poring over data, Johnson said. Weather reports for the general vicinity mentioned light rain turning to snow by nighttime, with 10 miles visibility.
"Right now, it's a little early to draw conclusions," Johnson said.
All four NTSB investigators based in Alaska were familiar with Nading, the helicopter's pilot, because Nading often flew them to aircraft crashes, Johnson said. An investigator from Chicago is leading the agency's probe on the crashed troopers helicopter to maintain the investigation's objectivity, Johnson said.
"In the 16 years I've been in this job, working in this office, we've only done that one other time," Johnson said.
The fatal crash left troopers and other employees in the Department of Public Safety deeply saddened, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. A public memorial was being planned, she said.
"It's a hard blow. It's not uncommon to see people shedding tears," Peters said.
Nading flew on hundreds of rescue missions, many of them in worse conditions and with seemingly more-difficult variables than the flight Saturday, said Peters, who had flown with the experienced pilot in the past. Nading was always cautious about weather and would put a mission on hold if he felt conditions were too dangerous to fly, Peters said.
"The only thing different about this that I can see is Mel didn't come home. Helo 1 didn't come back," she said. "There's nothing about this pick-up that I can see that could explain what happened. I guess this is one of those things where there's not going to be an easy answer."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE