Theron "Terry" Smith, a lifelong Alaska pilot, died in the Monday night plane crash that also claimed the life of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and three others.
Several sources close to the family confirmed Tuesday that Smith died piloting the DeHavilland DC-3 Otter that went down near Dillingham. Smith had a long career in Alaska aviation, including a post as Alaska Airline's chief pilot in the state.
"He was extremely revered," said Jim Bridwell, a colleague and close friend of Smith's. "He was well-liked; a pilot's pilot."
Bridwell said Smith's death is especially devastating because Smith's son-in-law, Aaron Malone, was killed less than two weeks ago in a C-17 crash at Elmendorf Air Force Base. According to his obituary, Malone met Melanie Smith, Terry Smith's daughter, while taking classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The July 28 crash killed three other airmen.
Pat Hahn, a building contractor in Nome, was friends with Smith starting in the late 1970s. He said that Smith grew up flying the Aleutian Chain in a Grumman Goose with his father, who flew a commercial route along the island chain.
"He was a good friend and an extraordinary man," said Alice Rogoff, a close friend of Smith's and the publisher of Alaska Dispatch. "He can never be replaced."
Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan sent the following statement on behalf of the company, which employed Smith for nearly three decades:
Terry Smith had many close friends and colleagues at Alaska Airlines who will miss him dearly, and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to Terry's family and loved ones. Captain Terry Smith retired from Alaska Airlines in 2007 after a 28-year career during which he served as chief pilot of our Anchorage base. Smith also flew as captain on two historic flights across the Bering Sea in the late 1980s that laid the groundwork for Alaska Airlines to offer the first U.S.-scheduled service to the Russian Far East in 1991. The Boeing 737-200 used on those flights bears Smith's name and is now on exhibit at the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage.
Rogoff described Smith as the "most skillful aviator imaginable."
"The fact there were four survivors is testament to his skills," she added. "He would have maneuvered that plane like no other mere pilot to save lives."
Rogoff said Smith was "totally cautious" when it came to flying in inclement weather.
"There was no weather he hadn't experienced, so (he) would not have been flummoxed by it," she said. Smith was flying the GCI plane this week "just as a friend," Rogoff said; Smith's wife, Terri, thought the trip would be a "healthy diversion" after the death of the Smiths' son-in-law.
At a press conference Tuesday, Maj. Gen Tom Katkus of the Alaska Air National Guard said the first word of the downed plane, which was owned by Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., came around 7 p.m. Monday. The wreck is located on the side of a mountain about 17 miles north of Dillingham. In addition to Smith and Stevens, the plane carried seven passengers, three more of whom are reported dead, although their identities have not yet been released.
"Weather prohibited any type of rescue effort into the evening," Katkus said. "The weather has been a factor in slowing this rescue."
GCI operates a lodge near Dillingham. In summer, GCI employees, clients and guests routinely fly to the lodge on GCI's plane. In a statement released shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, GCI president and CEO Ron Duncan said the company was not able to confirm specific information about the plane's passengers.
"We are aware of news reports stating that four of the nine individuals on board the aircraft have survived," Duncan's statement reads. "At this point, I cannot confirm or comment on these reports. We are waiting for authoritative information from the rescue units. All of our energies are focused on working with the rescue units and mobilizing to support the families and friends of the individuals on the aircraft."
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing