Alaska News

Missing pilot was delivering fuel to Hammond homestead on Lake Clark

David McRae was doing a routine fuel haul on Friday, flying his bush plane from Anchorage to deliver fuel to his aunt Bella Hammond's homestead on Lake Clark.

He was supposed to arrive in the early evening at the Port Alsworth lodge she and late former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond built and shared for decades. 

But McRae never made it.

"We think the weather probably caused some kind of problem and he detoured," Hammond said by phone Sunday evening. "But we don't know why and what exactly happened."

For the last two days, searchers have been fighting bad weather as they look for McRae and his airplane in rugged, mountainous terrain in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

McRae had taken off from Lake Hood in his Pilatus Porter turboprop late Friday afternoon, according to the Alaska Air National Guard. He was the only person aboard the plane, said Clint Johnson, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board's Alaska office.

The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center first received an emergency locator beacon distress signal from McRae around 6:30 p.m. Friday, but the coordinates didn't fully transmit, said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead of the Alaska Air National Guard. 

It wasn't until an hour later that rescuers were able to determine a 10- to 25-mile radius of the beacon and focus the search on an often-traveled but treacherous area near Lake Clark pass, about 90 miles west of Anchorage.

On Saturday and Sunday Alaska Air National Guard helicopter and HC-130 aircraft crews searched the area but were turned back by worsening weather, with low clouds, fog and temperatures just above freezing, according to Olmstead.

As of Sunday night, the search had narrowed to an area between Merrill Pass and Telaquana Lake, said John Quinley of the National Park Service.

The emergency transmitter beacon seems to be coming from an elevation of about 5,000 feet, said Clint Johnson of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hammond said her nephew often helped out at the homestead.

"He does a lot of work and helps me a lot here," she said.  "He's really proficient in so many ways. He's just a very capable person."

McRae grew up in Williams Lake, British Columbia. He spends time at Lake Clark, in addition to Anchorage and sometimes Seattle, Hammond said.

Karl Johnstone, a retired judge and former Alaska Board of Fisheries chairman, said McRae was flying a route he knew well.

Johnstone described McRae as a cautious pilot who had made the journey from Anchorage to the Lake Clark lodge countless times. 

"He knows the area about as well as anybody," Johnstone said.