Residents of Big Lake and Palmer are mourning after two plane crashes late last week killed three local men -- just days after another Big Lake man, Robert Lilly, was killed in an accident at Merrill Field in Anchorage.
Lilly, 31, was close friends with the family of Scott Mueller, 58. Mueller, of Big Lake, was killed in Friday's small plane crash at the Tatitna landing strip southeast of McGrath, according to Mueller's daughter Brooke Hartman.
Lilly "grew up with my brothers," Hartman said. "It's just an absolute horrible emotional roller-coaster ride for my whole family."
The two other men killed last week were brothers-in-law, said Joe Daugherty, a close friend of Adam Norton, 30, whose small plane crashed into the tundra 10 miles north of Sutton.
Derrick Swanson, 31, was also killed in that crash. He was married to Norton's sister, and the two families lived in adjacent duplexes in Palmer, Daugherty said. Both men, said Daugherty, have young sons.
"They were best buddies," Daugherty said, adding that the accident was "more than a guy can fathom."
The crash that killed Swanson and Norton occurred while the two men were out spotting game, said Clint Johnson, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
At the crash site, Norton's plane, an American Champion Citabria, was found nose-down, with the majority of its engine "buried in the tundra," Johnson said.
Daugherty and Johnson said evidence pointed toward what is known as a "moose-turn stall," which happens when pilots see an animal and try to turn tightly around it, which can cause a plane to stall, Johnson said.
But both men said that was just a theory. The NTSB will not complete an investigation for several months.
"The only person who really knows for sure is the pilot," Daugherty said. "And that's why we may never know."
Norton, Daugherty said, owned a construction company, and had built several log homes.
Swanson was an ironworker, said Paul Carr, the business manager of Ironworkers Local 751.
"He loved Alaska, and he loved the outdoors, and hunting and fishing, and working," Carr said.
Mueller, the victim of the crash southeast of McGrath, was a pilot and "pseudo-retired" aircraft mechanic, said Hartman, his daughter.
"He's had his pilot license since his teenage years," Hartman said. "He's just got an absolute, integral love of flying."
Mueller was ferrying gear in his Super Cub for a son and nephew, who had been hunting near the upper Post River, Hartman said. He was taking off with the nephew, Traeger Anderson, 30, from an airstrip near the Rohn Roadhouse, a checkpoint in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Immediately after takeoff, it was clear that the plane was in trouble, Hartman said, based on what Anderson told her afterward.
"(Mueller) knew right away that he was in trouble, having a hard time ascending, and fought it all the way down until the worst happened," Hartman said.
Both men survived the impact, but Mueller had been pinned by the force of the crash, and before he could be pulled out by Anderson, the plane burst into flames, Hartman said, burning Anderson and forcing him away.
"He wasn't able to do anything for my father after that," she said.
Anderson was rescued and admitted to a hospital with third-degree burns on one of his hands but was released later that night, Hartman said.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at email@example.com or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ