As Iron Dog snowmachine race leaders rest up in the old Alaska gold mining town of Nome, federal investigators are busy back down the Iditarod Trail working to determine the cause of a Sunday airplane crash that critically injured an Anchorage attorney and professional racer.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have moved the Cessna 170B that crashed into a lake near the Rainy Pass Lodge Sunday afternoon. The accident resulted in Alaska Air National Guard pararescuers transporting the critically injured pilot, Robert Stone, and passenger Jason Wichman from the lodge, a landmark on the Historic Iditarod Trail and official checkpoint for several winter sporting events along the trail.
A good weather window out at Rainy Pass gave NTSB officials an opportunity on Tuesday to transport the aircraft wreckage by helicopter to Wasilla where it will be analyzed in conjunction with the federal investigation into what caused the accident.
Photographs of the crash site were taken prior to removal of the aircraft, which had been supporting Iron Dog racers Aaron Bartel, 22 of Anchorage, and Brad George, 19 of Wasilla, the third-place team into the halfway stop of Nome.
Rainy Pass Lodge owner Steve Perrin said on Sunday that "the aircraft had taken off during windy conditions." Stone and Wichman, a former Iron Dog competitor, were medevacked from the lodge to Providence Alaska Medical Center, in Anchorage.
National Weather Service observations from nearby Puntilla Lake reported winds late Sunday afternoon from the northwest at 8-10 knots with gusts up to 18. The aircraft reportedly stalled and landed in a nose down position.
Support aircraft work directly for the teams and are not formally affiliated with the race. Some teams can have multiple aircraft and pilots working with them. The pilots primarily operate under general aviation rules and thus are granted more latitude in decision-making than their commercial counterparts.
In the past 20 years, there have been several accidents with Iditarod-affiliated aircraft, which fly supplies and support personnel into and out of checkpoints along the 1,000-mile sled dog race. Almost all of the accidents were due to pilot error. Errors include failure to compensate for adverse weather conditions, including winds, and poor landing site selection.
The NTSB will likely have a final report on the Rainy Pass accident within six months.
Colleen Mondor covers all-things aviation for Alaska Dispatch's Bush Pilot blog and is author of 'The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska'