Missing pilot has years of flying experience

Zaz Hollander
Photo courtesy Lois McClellan

Alan Foster, the pilot missing out of Yakutat for more than a week, is a seasoned commercial aviator and mechanic who has flown all over Alaska.

Foster's friends and family painted a vivid picture of the 47-year-old Anchorage man in interviews Monday as the search continued for the Piper PA-32 Cherokee that dropped off radar near the rugged terrain of the Malaspina Glacier last Monday.

Searchers on Friday picked up a tantalizing signal: a small, soundless electronic "ping" from the area of Mount Eberly, a 7,000-foot peak at the southern edge of the ice fields in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The signal popped up one more time -- and then didn't turn up again.

Despite a small armada of air support, the exact location of the signal proved elusive, according to Lt. Bernie Kale, a spokesman for the Alaska National Guard.

The search continued Monday. As of Sunday, the search had expanded to take in a broad expanse from Whittier to western Prince William Sound.

Six Civil Air Patrol planes flew out of Cordova, Kale said. An Alaska Air National Guard rescue C-130 scanned higher terrain. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter searched lower altitudes.

Monday afternoon, Foster's mother said the family was keeping their hopes up.

On Sunday, search coordinators told Lois McClellan a pilot had radioed her son as two flew past each other at Cape Yakataga, about midway between Yakutat and Cordova along the shore of Prince William Sound. The pilot, headed for Yakutat, told Foster the weather back toward Cordova was pretty bad, McClellan said.

"That's the last known place that anybody had seen him," she said. "He told the other pilot he was going to hug the beach. That's the last they heard of him."

She said Monday's search included areas of the Copper River where Foster has flown before to avoid weather.

Foster and a friend had just bought the PA-32 from a seller in Georgia, his mother said. He was flying the plane home.

Foster, who attended high school in Unalakleet, started flying at the age of 16 and obtained a commercial certification by 19, McClellan said. He studied aeronautical engineering at Stanford University on a four-year scholarship.

These days, Foster flies his twin-engine Beechcraft around the state, delivering freight to different villages.

Foster's friends and family -- his mother, two aunts, his brother and sister, his three children and their mother -- are monitoring search efforts from the McClellan home in Anchorage.

"I've had so many calls," McClellan said. "He's got friends from all over the state and all over the Lower 48."

Andre Camara met Foster, an avid Aces fan, in an adult hockey league.

Foster brought an infectious enthusiasm and sense of humor to the team, Camara said. He always wore a wig with long hair under his hockey helmet, Camara said. But he was resourceful too, and always ready to help out.

Camara, an energy manager for the Anchorage School District, said he's glad the search for his friend continues.

"It's the first thing I hope to see when I fire up my laptop to read the paper or catch up on the news," he said. "I'm hoping to hear something good. I wouldn't put it past him to be able to survive out there."

There is no plan to shift to a ground search at this point, Kale said. Search decisions will be made by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, in concert with the Coast Guard and Alaska State Troopers, he said.

As of Monday morning, searchers looking for Foster and the PA-32 had flown 46 missions and logged a total of more than 160 hours, Kale said. Normally aircraft searchers net results within a day or two. The mountainous terrain and periods of bad weather have complicated this search, he said. The plane also had no emergency beacon registered to it, though it's possible there was one on board.

Rescue coordinators keep in close contact with family members.

"We know how important this is," Kale said. "Every day that goes by, it's just that much more important for us to go out and look."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.