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Proven killer of Alaska State Troopers: Aircraft

Craig Medred
Pilot Mel Nading died in an Alaska State Troopers helicopter crash near Talkeetna in 2013. Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers

The most dangerous thing an Alaska State Trooper can do on the job is climb into an aircraft.

Since statehood in 1959, more than half of the troopers who have died on duty have fallen victim to aircraft accidents, and that tally does not included storied helicopter pilot Mel Nading, a civilian employee of the Division of Public Safety, who died last March, or Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Claude Swackhammer, who died in the crash of a trooper-owned airplane in 1994.

Their deaths would be bring the total number of fatalities for Alaska Public Safety Employees to 10 -- more than double the number of troopers killed by gunfire.

All told, 14 troopers have died in the line of duty: eight in aircraft-related accidents, four from shootings, one from a heart attack while hiking to a possible crime scene, and one from choking or heart failure in a struggle with an armed robber and car thief.

"Alaska State Troopers," the reality show, might make it sound like there is a gunman lurking behind every bush in Alaska waiting to shoot a trooper at any time. The real danger, though, is not in the bushes but in the sky.

Two of the trooper deaths since statehood involved officers on a commercial aircraft on a regularly scheduled flight. Twenty-five-year-old Frank Rodman and 23-year-old trooper Larry Carr were passengers aboard a twin-engine Kodiak Airways flight that disappeared on a 50-mile trip from Old Harbor to the city of Kodiak. The troopers were reportedly returning to Kodiak after investigating the drowning deaths of two hunters. The plane was never found.

The other eight troopers who died -- plus civilians Nading and Swackhammer -- were on state aircraft or involved in search and rescue missions initiated by the state. In most of these deaths, Department of Public Safety employees were at the controls of the aircraft, and crash investigators blamed pilot error in whole or in part for the fatalities. But National Transportation Safety Board investigators did not always stop there with their assessments of what went wrong.

Prior to the deaths of Nading and trooper Tage Tool in the March crash of Helo 1, the state's only turbine helicopter, trooper James Moen died in a crash that left NTSB officials questioning the training given trooper pilots. That crash occurred on June 25, 2001.

Crash near Lake Iliamna

Moen was a 49-year-old Alaska Wildlife Trooper alone at the controls of a Super Cub when it slammed into the ground near Lake Iliamna. The aircraft had been newly fitted with "Cub Crafters" twin fuel tanks.

"A review of the State of Alaska, Department of Public Safety's aircraft manual, which outlines general operating policies and standards, disclosed that there were no provisions for differences training for the Cub Crafters fuel system," the NTSB's final report on the accident said.

The plane was outfitted as required with a Federal Aviation Administration placard above the main fuel valve saying "TAKE OFF AND LANDING ON BOTH ONLY," but Moen either didn't see it or didn't heed it.

After the crash, the NTSB reported, "the fuel selector valve was found selected to the LEFT fuel tank setting, and the left fuel tank was empty." Another pilot who'd been with Moen at Iliamna told NTSB investigators that Moen hadn't flown the aircraft in question and "was unsure if the accident airplane's fuel selector valve should be operated in the BOTH position or the LEFT or RIGHT positions."

Questions about trooper pilot training have also arisen in the wake of the crash of Helo 1, which killed Nading, 55, and 40-year-old Toll, who was flying as a spotter in the helicopter on the way to pick up a snowmobiler who had crashed his machine near Talkeetna. The snowmobiler was found safe, only to die in the helicopter crash.

The flight took place at night in rain and snow. The helicopter was not certified for instrument flying. Nading was operating under visual flight rules while wearing night vision goggles on what is commonly called an NVG flight. Nading had six years earlier crashed a trooper helicopter while taking off in swirling snow while flying NVG.

No one was injured in that crash, but the state helicopter was badly damaged. Troopers management officially blamed Nading for the accident, but he returned to work shortly thereafter.

"On May 2, 2006," says the preliminary NTSB report on the crash in which Nading died, "the pilot successfully completed a DPS post-accident evaluation check flight in a Robinson R-44 ... On the form used to document the check flight, the flight time was listed as 0.3 hours, and the remarks section of the form stated, 'although no blowing snow conditions were present, techniques used for blowing snow operations were discussed and evaluated.'"

The Robinson R-44 -- a single-engine, four-seat aircraft -- was not the helicopter normally flown by Nading. His regular aircraft was a far more powerful, turbine-powered, five-seat Eurocopter A-Star -- the prime search and rescue helicopter used by troopers.

Along with raising questions about the post-accident assessment of Nading's proficiency in NVG flight, the documents in the NTSB's preliminary investigation also raise questions about Nading's original and recurrent training.

The NTSB is still months away completing a final report concluding what caused the March crash. But troopers have said they are taking the issues of NVG flight and pilot training seriously. They are no longer flying NVG missions, and they are examining the need for regular pilot training.

"We have discontinued all NVG operations until further notice," the agency told Alaska Dispatch in a written response to more than 20 questions. "We are reevaluating the NVG program and intend on revisiting these types of operations after we fully examine and update our current program ... The DPS Aircraft Section is currently examining re-currency training standards. If standards are determined to not be sufficient, DPS will implement new standards that will apply to all DPS pilots."

Alaska is a notoriously difficult state in which to fly safely. The north is known for its bad weather and limited weather stations. Some planes crash, or simply disappear, after pilots fly into bad weather of which they are unaware.

The state has the nation's highest accident aviation rate. So many planes go down in the 49th state that after the high-profile death of former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others in a 2010 crash, Slate -- a well-known, national online magazine -- was moved to ask simply "Why so do many planes crash in Alaska?"

The story below that headline noted the weather, the lack of weather stations and airports, and a "cavalier attitude among pilots in Alaska." The NTSB, in a 1995 report on "Aviation Safety in Alaska," observed "two accident types of major consequence: (1) accidents during take-off and landing, and (2) accidents related into VFR (visual flight rules) flight into IMC (instrument meteorlogical conditions)," or bad weather, to the layman.

The report emphasized that "VFR flight into IMC is the leading problem in Alaska's fatal accidents."

The report was issued less than a year after trooper Sgt. Lee Bittick, 55, and Swackhammer, 51, died when their twin-engine Grumman Goose slammed into the side of a mountain in Canada just north of the Alaska Panhandle community of Haines.

Bittick was at the controls of the plane at the time. The 1999 book "Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Alaska, 1850-1997" described the accident this way: "Because of the poor weather, the men were flying to Anchorage from Juneau on alternative route known as the 'backdoor route,' which followed the Alaska Highway ... An investigation later determined that the cause of the crash was bad weather (visibility) that led to the plane crashing into a 'nole' as it tried to follow the road through a mountain pass."

Bittick and Swackhammer, both family men, were wanting to get home to Anchorage when their trooper plane crashed, and they died. Trooper Sgt. Dave Stimson, 41 and the father of one, was hoping to save a fellow Alaskan when he died in January 1983. He was the spotter in a helicopter that crashed after troopers hurried to initiate a rescue to pick up downed pilot Gayle Ranney near Cordova.

Ranney had crash landed her single-engine airplane about 15 miles from the Cordova airport in bad weather. She was not injured but radioed that she was down and in need of help. Troopers, who hold the search and rescue authority in Alaska, scrambled to launch a rescue before night closed in and the weather worsened.

Experts in search and rescue -- SAR, as it is commonly called -- say safety in such operations is defined in large parts by how decisions are made to launch -- or not launch -- safety missions.

In the Cordova case, troopers solicited the help of local helicopter pilot Gary Wiltrout. Stimson elected to accompany him for the mission as the spotter.

Wiltrout was flying a Bell 206B, a turbine-powered helicopter similar to the A-Star that crashed in March. Wiltrout, like Nading, flew into bad weather to try to rescue someone stranded in the wilderness. In this case, however, the helicopter crashed before reaching the scene.

Stimson survived the crash but suffered serious injuries. He died from the result of those injuries and hypothermia before more help arrived the next day. Ranney survived, as did Wiltrout.

As in so many other cases in Alaska, the NTSB investigation later faulted pilot error in the crash.

"The helicopter was on a rescue/recovery flight for the Alaska State Troopers with the pilot and a state trooper on board," the NTSB report said. The weather was horrific, and "according to the pilot, the engine flamed out during a turn at approximately 1,000 feet."

Wiltrout was, however, able to begin an auto-rotation, and the helicopter descended safely for about 900 feet, the report says, but Wiltrout "encountered a total whiteout condition in fog and blowing snow at approximately 75 to 100 feet above ground level. He guessed at the altitude to apply collective pitch to stop the descent, and said that he experienced vertigo during the last part of the descent."

Instead of the helicopter landing on its skids, the report continued, it hit the ground "in a left, nose-down attitude and rolled over." The damage to the helicopter and the position of the wreckage made it impossible for either Wiltrout or Stimson to reach the craft's survival gear, which contributed to Stimson's hypothermia.

The NTSB faulted Wiltrout for an inadequate preflight exam of the helicopter, which should have noted the helicopter's "snow deflectors" had been removed to improve fuel economy and for flying into IMC.

SAR authorities question whether the mission should have been launched. Ranney was in a difficult situation, but as her survival later demonstrated, it was not a deadly situation.

March mission to help snowmobiler

Similar questions have been raised about the March mission to save snowmobiler Carl Ober, 56, who had crashed only about 5 miles east of the community of Talkeetna.

"The snowmobiler told the dispatcher that he had bruised his ribs, but he did not seem concerned about this injury, rather he expressed concern that he would develop hypothermia if he was not rescued soon," reads the preliminary report of the group chairman of the NTSB investigation.

The temperature in the area at the time was hovering around 32 degrees, dangerous but not deadly for someone dressed to be out snowmobiling.

NTSB records reflect troopers spent an hour and 14 minutes trying to recruit volunteers in Talkeetna to go retrieve Ober. A call was then placed to trooper Lt. Steve Adams, the state SAR coordinator at the time.

Ten minutes after that call, Adams called Nading at home in Anchorage to ask the pilot if he could undertake the mission. NTSB records indicate that two minutes after talking to Adams, having checked weather reports on a computer, Nading called back to say that he could. Within an hour, Helo 1 was in the air and headed north for Talkeetna.

Experts on SAR -- all of whom asked to remain anonymous for this story for fear of harming working relationships with troopers -- say one of the key components of safety revolves around how decisions on whether to go or not are made on SAR flights. Troopers say they are now working on a "risk assessment matrix" to help their pilots, and trooper spotters determine whether it is safe to undertake such a mission.

Nading and Toll died on a SAR mission only about three months after troopers published an eulogy of Stimson in the "Trooper Times."

"Three decades have passed following the fateful day when a helicopter carrying pilot Gary Wiltrout and Trooper John David Stimson fell from the snowy skies near Cordova, Alaska. Stimson and Wiltrout, who had never met before boarding the helicopter, were on a rescue mission to pick up a pilot forced down earlier in the day by the blizzard that was flinging them into peril," the troopers' Megan Peters wrote.

The story failed to mention that the subject of the rescue mission survived, while a trooper died and a volunteer rescue pilot suffered serious injuries. It did note, however, that "Stimson’s death was a tragedy that would strike any law enforcement agency hard. He served the Department of Public Safety as a Fish and Wildlife Protection Officer, which would be the equivalent of an Alaska Wildlife Trooper today, for more than 11 years.

"The Troopers had only lost five others at the time of Stimson’s death. In all, DPS has suffered 13 line of duty deaths. Six of those deaths were due to aircraft crashes."

Wiltrout was located in Victoria, Australia, where he was flying firefighting missions.

"The firefighting has been a big part of my life and I like to hope that I am ‘paying it forward’ for John in my efforts to save lives, homes and people’s property," he told Peters.

Setting up a system that protects rescuers from these sorts of good intentions when undertaking SAR missions is a difficult thing to do, say authorities on search and rescue. The desire to rescue others can become so powerful that it has been labeled the "duty to die syndrome" in the firefighting business.

"The syndrome is a firefighter's behavior that reflects a sense of obligation and duty to unnecessarily risk personal and others' safety above what is appropriate or required according to standards," fire chief Brian Crawford wrote in the May 2007 issue of "Fire Chief." "The firefighter does this to fulfill an intrinsic, environmental or cultural notion that this risk is expected and acceptable, even to the point of death. This can be a partial or full condition, with the range often depending on the level of the institutionalization of risky behavior by the culture of the department, groups or organizations of which the firefighter is a member."

About 100 firefighters die every year in the U.S. Crawford argued a significant number of those deaths can be linked to what a firefighter does to "fulfill an intrinsic, environmental or cultural notion that this risk is expected and acceptable, even to the point of death."

Nading, according to the NTSB report, shared those feelings.

A co-worker asked Nading "about the risks involved in some of the SAR missions the pilot conducted including flying in bad weather and at night," the report said, "and he said that the pilot told him, 'I told them when I took this job that I would do this, and that's what I am going to do.'"

The issue troopers now face -- and might well have faced for some time -- is whether other agency pilots think this, and whether they are willing to take the flight risks that go along with such safety.

The agency says it is trying to build a "safety culture." That is not as easy as it sounds.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.