The plane that crashed this month in Southwest Alaska, killing Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., was loaded down with moose meat and antlers, according to the first report on the crash released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Peltola, the husband of Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, was flying a second and final load of meat out of a remote camp when the crash occurred, investigators say in a five-page preliminary report issued Thursday. A hunter told investigators that the load was 50 to 70 pounds heavier than the first.
The 57-year-old was the pilot and only person aboard the Piper Super Cub that went down about 64 miles northeast of the village of St. Mary’s in mountainous terrain the evening of Sept. 12. Peltola initially survived the crash but died within two hours, before rescuers could arrive, authorities say. Two hunters pulled him from the plane and provided medical care.
Peltola’s first flight out that day was uneventful, according to the new report.
Before he took off again, the second load of meat was “strapped into the rear passenger seat area with both the seatbelt and rope,” lead investigator Eliott Simpson wrote. Meat was also loaded into the plane’s belly pod that had no gear, such as tie-downs, to secure it. Peltola tied moose antlers to the right wing strut.
The hunters watched as Peltola got into the plane and took off; one recorded a video, the report states. They noticed his ground roll took longer the second time, it said, “and that the airplane appeared to be more ‘labored’ than during the previous flight.”
As the Super Cub reached the end of the airstrip, it pitched up and turned sharply to the right but flew out of view behind a ridge instead of climbing, Simpson wrote. “The group initially thought that the pickup had been successful, but the airplane did not reappear from behind the ridge. The group ran to the top of the ridgeline, looked down, and saw that the airplane had crashed.”
The plane’s cargo at the crash site weighed about 520 pounds, mostly moose meat and antlers, according to the report. About 150 pounds of meat was found in the forward section of the belly pod, with the rest “firmly secured” in the rear cabin seating area.
The plane’s emergency locator transmitter activated during the accident, sending an alert to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center just after 8:45 p.m., the report states. The hunters said an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter arrived by 2 a.m.
A federal team of investigators including the NTSB got to the crash scene a few days later. Any official findings on the probable cause of the crash won’t be released until next year at the soonest.
Two days before the crash, Eugene Peltola ferried the group of five hunters, a guide, and their equipment from the operator’s base in Holy Cross, the report states. The group set up camp next to a landing strip in hilly terrain about 80 miles northwest of the community.
On Sept. 11, the group got a moose and coordinated with Peltola to ferry it out the next day, according to the report, which lists the operator as Neitz Aviation Inc. It wasn’t immediately clear in what capacity Peltola was serving as pilot for the air service. The registered owner of the plane has not responded to requests for comment.
The plane was operating as an on-demand charter flight under federal regulations, the report said.
The day of the crash, Peltola got to the camp around 3:40 p.m. and then loaded the plane with meat, the report states. He came back at about 7:40 p.m. for the last load.
“The pilot told a hunter that he had performed fuel calculations and would be at reserve fuel levels on arrival at Holy Cross,” Simpson wrote. Members of the group also told him that the “wind was gusting much stronger at the departure end of the airstrip.”
The crash occurred in an area of grassy tundra, the report states. Nothing indicated a catastrophic engine failure, it said, and there was oil in the engine and some fuel in both tanks.
The plane’s right wingtip — the side on which the antlers were strapped — struck the ground first, followed by the wing’s landing assembly and other parts of that side of the plane, according to an analysis of the crash site contained in the report.
Gene Peltola Jr., who was Yup’ik and Tlingit, spent more than 30 years working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before becoming regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Alaska. Among other roles, he served as vice mayor and council member for the city of Bethel between 2010 and 2012 and sat on various Alaska Native village corporation boards. After retiring last year, Peltola co-founded Alaska Carbon Solutions, a consulting firm focused on carbon sequestration.
Rep. Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik, last year became the first Alaska Native member of Congress and the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat.
A spokesman said Thursday that Rep. Peltola’s office would not be providing any comments on the investigation.