Mat-Su

Multiday search for plane near Hatcher Pass ends with troopers learning pilot self-rescued days earlier

A small aircraft’s emergency beacon activated early this week after the plane experienced a mechanical problem and overturned near Hatcher Pass, prompting an expansive, multiday search effort that ended with authorities learning that the pilot was safe — and had coordinated his own rescue days earlier, Alaska State Troopers said.

Troopers first received the beacon transmission on Feb. 6 from what seemed to be an unidentifiable aircraft east of the Parks Highway, near Willow and Talkeetna, troopers said in an online report.

Most modern emergency locators installed on planes include data in their transmissions about the plane and who it is registered to. But the transmission on this plane was an older-style beacon that didn’t include any data except the general vicinity where it was coming from, troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel said Saturday.

After troopers found no distress calls in the area or reports of overdue aircraft, multiple volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol searched for the plane over multiple days using special equipment to locate beacon transmissions, troopers said. Severe weather brought high winds and low visibility, challenging volunteers who also undertook a 13-hour ground search in their attempt to find the aircraft, according to troopers.

The Alaska Army National Guard and Alaska Wildlife Troopers deployed helicopters to find the beacon, without success.

After four days of searching, Civil Air Patrol volunteer pilots located an overturned 1946 Taylorcraft BV12-D in the Lynx Peak area near Hatcher Pass on Thursday afternoon, according to troopers.

The Alaska Air National Guard flew a rescue team to the location, where the plane appeared to have been abandoned with no signs that anyone had been injured, troopers said. Footprints from the plane site led up the mountain but didn’t indicate where the pilot may have gone after that, leading state and wildlife troopers to try to determine whether the pilot had coordinated his own extraction, according to troopers.

That evening, authorities were able to reach the pilot of that plane by phone, troopers said. The pilot, whom troopers did not identify in the report, told troopers his plane had run into mechanical problems during a flight Feb. 6, and he’d been forced to do a hard landing. He was able to contact another pilot who picked him up in a different plane, according to troopers.

Troopers notified the National Transportation Safety Board about the incident Thursday, McDaniel said. The plane’s owner is working to remove the aircraft from the site near Lynx Peak, troopers said.

McDaniel said the Department of Public Safety in its press releases doesn’t usually include the identities of people involved in search and rescue operations unless doing so would help them find the missing individuals; they’ve been charged with a crime; or, if they died in the incident, their next of kin have been notified.

Federal law requires pilots to report accidents or incidents to the nearest NTSB office, which McDaniel said the pilot did not do.

The incident was an example of how important it is for pilots to communicate with federal and state authorities when they’re involved in any kind of accident with their aircraft, McDaniel said.

McDaniel encouraged recreational pilots to report incidents like this one to state troopers or NTSB even when they don’t meet the threshold for federal reporting, “just to let folks know what’s going on with that airplane.”

“That way, we don’t have a situation like this where we have, you know, multiple days of searching for (a beacon) activation that the pilot may not have been aware was even activated,” McDaniel said.

Last week’s search efforts cost thousands of dollars and consumed hours of workers’ and volunteers’ time, he said.

“Our search and rescue mission can really be hampered when folks don’t let us know that they self-rescued or made it out of the field,” McDaniel said. “So always let us know that you’ve made it out safely.”

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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