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River-skimming stunt draws attention to unlicensed pilot

An ill-fated aerial water-skiing performance on the Knik River drainage last weekend ended abruptly when the aircraft smacked face down in the mud, damaging the plane and placing the unlicensed pilot under the scrutiny of federal aviation officials.

The Piper PA-18-135, piloted by Edwin A. Stoltenberg, 26, was seen repeatedly swooping down to the water and skimming the surface with the aircraft's wheels, trying to "water ski" across it, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released Thursday.

The aircraft's tundra tires grazed the water smoothly for several hundred feet on each of five or six touch-and-goes, but caught on a sandbar during the final run, tripping the aircraft and sending it nose down into shallow water at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the report says.

The airplane, owned by Stoltenberg's father, sustained damage to its left wing lift strut, fuselage and rudder, the report says.

"There was obviously no injuries or anything, so it was a pretty minor accident," NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said. "But once we got into it, it was just like, 'Holy smokes!' "

The practice is called water-skiing, and it is not encouraged, said Howard Martin, regional counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration. It was developed for landing in tight quarters, like sand bars where space is short, he said, but doing it wrong can be disastrous.

"This isn't a real normal procedure for landing," Martin said. "There's a few people that's developed this, and he may have well been trying to show the skill off to people out there when it happened."

After Stoltenberg's plane went down, a witness came over to see if he was OK. In response, Stoltenberg said, "Don't call the cops," according to the report. A group of Stoltenberg's friends soon showed up and turned the aircraft right-side-up with an all-terrain vehicle, then towed it to trees and brush to try hiding it, the report says.

They and Stoltenberg, who has neither a pilot's license nor a required medical certificate, disappeared by the time Alaska State Troopers arrived. He later returned to fly his father's battered plane home from the crash site about six miles south of Palmer, the report says.

"That's another interesting little twist," Johnson said. "He basically flew a bent airplane home."

Stoltenberg told the NTSB that the accident took place after he had successfully landed on the mudflats. He said he was a student pilot with a required medical certificate, and that as he was turning the aircraft to taxi, a gust of wind lifted its tail and caused it to nose over, according to the report.

But Stoltenberg had neither a current medical certificate nor a student pilot's certificate, the report said. The FAA administratively denied Stoltenberg's third-class medical certificate on Aug. 1, 2008, because of three driving under the influence convictions he had racked up inside 10 years, the report says. On Aug. 30 that year, he was charged with a fourth, felony DUI.

There was, however, no indication that alcohol was a factor in the plane episode, officials said.

"DUI laws do apply to airplanes," troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. "In this situation, the pilot was not on scene, there was nothing at the scene to show that the guy was DUI. There might be some suspicion based on some other stuff, but we've deferred the incident to the NTSB, which has powers broader than ours in this kind of situation."

Although there was no indication of criminal activity, the FAA is investigating a number of regulatory violations, including the lack of a pilot's certificate, Martin said.

"Normally we would either revoke or suspend that," he said. "But when someone doesn't have certificates, we've got a couple options. One is we do a fine action against him."

Officials could also get an injunction to keep Stoltenberg from flying, he said.

A message left at a Mat-Su listing for Stoltenberg's father was not returned Thursday.

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.