NTSB: Super Cub in fatal 2013 crash near Rohn may have been overloaded

Zaz Hollander
photo by Brooke HartmanScott and Ina Mueller pose in front of their Super Cub at Crystal Lake during the 2011 Iditarod. Scott Mueller was killed when the plane crashed Friday evening west of Rainy Pass and about 70 miles southeast of McGrath. Brooke Hartman

WASILLA -- A Super Cub that crashed and burned near Nikolai on a hunting trip last August may have been overloaded with meat and gear, according to a new National Transportation Safety Board report about the accident that killed a popular Big Lake pilot.

The factual report, released last week, does not pinpoint a cause for the crash that killed pilot Scott Mueller, 58, and injured his now 31-year-old nephew, passenger Traeger Anderson.

The report points to several factors that are part of the investigation.

The plane's estimated weight at the time of the crash was 2,392 pounds, or nearly 650 pounds over that Super Cub's approved maximum gross takeoff weight, the report said.

A rifle and a set of caribou antlers had been lashed to the right and left wing lift struts respectively.

"It has been reported that on some aircraft, antlers secured to the wing struts can cause a significant airflow disturbance to the tail surfaces," the report states, referencing a Federal Aviation Administration suggestion to pilots carrying so-called "external loads" on fixed-wing aircraft.

The FAA allows Alaska pilots to carry external loads on planes but only if they get additional airworthiness certificates for the aircraft, which couldn't be located for Mueller's, the report states. Investigators also couldn't find logbooks that generally show maintenance and inspection records.

Mueller took off from the Tatitna Airport gravel runway at 8:20 p.m. Aug. 30, headed from the airstrip near the Rohn Roadhouse for Big Lake after a successful caribou hunt, the report stated. He'd already made the trip several times that day, shuttling gear and the meat of two butchered caribou from a remote hunting location to the airport.

Each time, he took off to the east with a tailwind, a witness told investigators. He described the conditions as "a little windy."

But this time, something went wrong almost immediately after takeoff, Anderson told the NTSB.

Once the plane got above the trees, Mueller initiated a left turn.

Then he swore and said, "I should have taken off the other way," Anderson told investigators. Realizing the plane was about to crash, the younger man closed his eyes and put up his hands to protect his face.

Both men survived the initial crash, but the plane burst into flames. Mueller, pinned by the wreckage, couldn't escape. The fire kept Anderson away, a relative has said. He suffered third-degree burns on his hands.

The crash and Mueller's death shocked his family and members of the Big Lake flying community.

In an interview last year, his daughter called her father a "pseudo-retired" aircraft mechanic with a deep love of flying.

The board is expected to release additional analysis and a probable cause for the accident within four to six weeks, according to NTSB investigator Brice Banning.

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