WASILLA — Reports of gas theft from small airplanes in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough mark another turn in an ongoing battle with property crimes.
Reports of gas stolen from cars and trucks are increasingly common.
But the aviation-related crime comes with the possibility, though slim, of fatal consequences: Pilots risk engine failure if they don't follow preflight protocols to check fuel levels and flush the tank to get rid of contaminants like water, dirt or snow.
"There's a lot more at stake," said Kevin Ferris, who owns Tailwind Aviation near Wasilla. "If you mess something up, the airplane could quit."
Thieves hit Ferris' fuel tanks at June Lake Airpark last spring — they broke the head off the tank — and got water in his plane's fuel system that took a while to flush.
"If I hadn't been so careful and cautious, if I'd just hopped in it and gone for a long flight, I would have had engine failure," he said. "It had a lot of water in it."
Somebody returned in late September. This time, they dragged a 55-gallon drum on a hand truck up to the fence and siphoned gas from a customer's plane with 100 feet of hose strung through the fence. They also unloaded eight duffel bags and backpacks from the plane.
But the thieves apparently got spooked by an early morning visitor. They dropped the bags and left the barrel and hose behind.
"I'm putting in an eight-camera system," Ferris said this week. "I do still have that 55-gallon drum and the hand truck they left."
It's hard to tell how often people are stealing gas from planes and if the consequences are ever dire.
But pilots at more out-of-the-way private airparks or airports in less populated parts of Mat-Su say it seems there's been a spike from Wasilla to Willow. They say reports of gas theft, as well as plane break-ins and vehicle thefts, have come in from Wolf, Anderson and Kalmbach lakes as well as Willow Airport.
Alaska State Troopers get a "handful of cases" a month involving aviation gas theft in the Wasilla, Big Lake and Willow areas, according to spokeswoman Megan Peters. She said the problem of gas theft from planes is an ongoing and consistent one.
That may be true but this year is definitely worse, said Dick Gunlogson, a retired master guide who has lived in Willow for 40 years.
The Valley is already contending with a rise in property crime that authorities link to drug addiction. Troopers, like other state agencies, are at reduced numbers due to budget cuts.
Gunlogson, along with several other people interviewed for this story, blamed at least in part criminal justice reforms that reduced sentences for some theft convictions, leading to less enforcement and prosecution.
"I can think of one or two incidents over 30 years until the last couple, three years," Gunlogson said. "Everybody says it's the drugs … the fact these people can do these things with no serious detrimental consequences."
Peters called many of the aviation gas thefts "crimes of opportunity" at facilities without adequate security or cameras and involving planes without locking gas caps.
Generally, rather than criminal justice reform, the biggest factor in the lack of prosecution on these cases is there's not enough evidence or information about a suspect with which troopers can follow up and make an arrest, she said.
There was one case this summer in which a gas thief was caught — but only after he stole the tires off a plane, Peters said.
That was on a lake near Wasilla, said Kirsten Stanley, co-owner of Denali Flying Service in Willow. The thief, someone she knows, got caught when he listed the stolen tires on Craigslist, Stanley said.
"I know why he did it," she said. "He got back into drugs."
The gas can fuel snowmachines and regular vehicles, though a lead-based additive fouls catalytic converters.
The National Transportation Safety Board has never officially determined that fuel theft caused a crash in Alaska. Some pilots who crashed due to low fuel told investigators they thought their tanks were full the night before, but no theft was proven, according to NTSB Alaska Chief Clint Johnson.
The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't have criminal enforcement authority to respond to the crime of airport fuel theft, spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.
It's pilots' responsibility to make sure they have enough fuel before taking off, said Eddie Trimmer, a longtime mechanic with a hangar at Willow's airport.
"If they are somewhat lax in verifying that, they can take off and fly out of here, maybe get 500, 800 or 1,000 feet off the ground and the engine quits because they ran out of fuel," Trimmer said.
But the other problem with gas theft is the thieves tend to leave the cap off the tank. If it rains, water mixes with the gas. Again, pilots are supposed to drain all fuel and refill before they fly, Trimmer said, but that doesn't mean they should have to deal with contamination from someone stealing gas.
"They try to make us be as safe as we possibly can be, but this stuff's ridiculous," he said.