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Bush Pilot

Aircraft missing in Alaska Bush remain among state's unsolved mysteries

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 8, 2015

On Sept. 9, 2013, pilot Alan Foster disappeared while flying a Piper PA-32-260 from the Southeast Alaska community of Yakutat to Merrill Field in Anchorage.

It was the final leg on a cross-country journey that began with the acquisition of the plane, bearing the tail number N3705W, in Atlanta. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Foster, who was flying under a visual flight rules flight plan, fueled the aircraft in Yakutat and departed around 3:30 p.m. He contacted Juneau flight service soon after departure and asked for updated weather conditions, indicating he would stop at Cordova if necessary.

Eighteen minutes later, between the Gulf of Alaska and Malaspina Glacier, radar data showed a target near 1,100 feet with the aircraft's general transponder code -- but Alan Foster and N3705W were never seen or heard from again.

In its investigation, the NTSB determined that Foster had more than 9,700 flight hours in a variety of aircraft. His family told the Anchorage Daily News that he had extensive experience flying in places across Alaska from Fairbanks to Nome to Bethel and Koyuk and flew for a variety of companies, including MarkAir, Era, FedEx, Greatland Air Cargo and more. Yakutat was familiar territory to him.

"He sounded happy and knew he would be coming home soon," Foster's daughter Nikita wrote later, in a college essay. "I could hear the excitement in his voice that he was finally going to fly back to see us. September 8th 2013 was the last day I spoke to my dad."

A long history of missing aircraft

Aircraft have gone missing in Alaska from the earliest days of flight in the state. In the 1920s and '30s, it was not uncommon for weeks to go by with no word before pilots emerged on foot near remote mines or cabins seeking assistance. In 1943, the sole survivor from the missing B-24 dubbed the "Iceberg Inez" was located after an astounding 81 days hiking in the Charley River valley.

Over the years, wrecks large and small have accumulated across the state. Many remain in the same spots where they went down years or decades ago.

They are tracked in the Aircraft Crash Database, maintained by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center. The database is a modern version of the longstanding "pins in the map" system which had been used for decades. Although less graphic, the database provides investigators with a valuable tool to separate the known from the unknown; it is the repository of coordinates for where wreckage was found. In more poetic terms, it records the place where crash stories find their endings.

Prior to World War II there was no system or agency charged with storing records of missing aircraft, and the details of loosely organized volunteer search and rescue attempts reside primarily in old newspaper articles and family accounts.

For example, to learn of how Russ Merrill was lost in 1929, apparently in Cook Inlet, readers would have to look through news reports from that period or in the book "Flying Cold," by his son, Russ Merrill McLean.

During the war, the U.S. military kept files on its aircraft lost in the territory, many of which were involved in the Lend-Lease program. The Civil Aeronautics Board was active in this period as well, but civilian records -- especially of the single-pilot aircraft so common in the Bush -- are hard to come by.

After the war, search and rescue operations in Alaska were conducted by several different squadrons and air wings over the years, under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force's Alaskan Air Command.

Since 1994, the RCC has been the primary respondent for overdue aircraft in the state. It maintains open files on aircraft that have gone missing in the years since. For aircraft lost prior to 1994, the files were misplaced or lost entirely in the many transfers and reassignments that occurred in the previous decades.

So for cases like a Cessna 170 that went missing between Anchorage and Northway in 1968 or a Beech Bonanza last heard to be in the vicinity of Gulkana in 1992, there is only one place where a record still resides: the NTSB regional office in Anchorage.

Current missing files

The NTSB is congressionally mandated to investigate every aircraft accident in the U.S. and it is the NTSB which formally assigns probable cause to each case. For the missing, such as Alan Foster, it typically reads "Undetermined because the pilot and airplane were not found."

A search of NTSB databases back to 1962 reveals more than 40 open cases for missing aircraft. These include examples where some slight debris might have been located -- generally near water -- but the aircraft itself is still lost.

The agency requires a "preponderance of evidence" in order to reclassify a missing aircraft as a known accident. That could include specific information such as an assigned transponder code and subsequent radar track, wreckage with serial numbers or other unique characteristics or the identified remains of the pilot or a passenger. Years might go by before enough evidence is discovered to provide elusive answers about what happened.

When a hiker or beachcomber discovers an aircraft part, they usually contact the nearest Alaska State Trooper office. Troopers in turn contact the NTSB, which takes the lead in the investigation and checks with the Rescue Coordination Center to see if there is a nearby confirmed crash site in the database that matches the discovery and might be a likely source for the part. If this is not the case, investigators go back to the files and cross-reference the part with any still-missing aircraft from the general area.

"If the files provide us with leads to an accident that fits with the discovery," explains Clint Johnson, NTSB Alaska regional director, "then we will launch an accident investigation as we would for any current crash."

In Johnson's career this has happened several times, most recently in the 2013 discovery of landing gear that was traced to the disappearance of Brendan Mattingley, who departed Soldotna in 2012 in his Piper Super Cub.

Conversely, the 1972 disappearance of the Cessna 310 carrying Russell Brown, Congressmen Nick Begich and Hale Boggs and pilot Don Jonz while en route to Juneau is the subject of several hopeful phone calls every year. So far none have yielded any confirmed signs of the wreckage.

"A missing file is never inactive," Johnson said. "An official end to the search for answers does not occur until we find out what happened."

Still missing

Although the facts about a flight's ending may come years or even decades later, any information is welcome to those who have been left behind.

On Aug. 20, 1958, Clarence Rhode -- then the Alaska regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- along with his 22-year-old son Jack and fellow Fish and Wildlife agent Stanley Fredericksen took off from Fairbanks in a Grumman Goose with the tail number N270. They carried with them 200 gallons of fuel to cache for future patrols in the Brooks Range.

The trio visited Porcupine Lake, where they radioed the office in Fairbanks and then flew on to visit a hunting guide at Schrader Lake and scientists camped at Peters Lake. They told the scientists they planned a return to Porcupine Lake before heading back to Fairbanks, but after taking off and heading west, they were never heard from again.

At least 25 aircraft and 260 people covered an area of approximately 300,000 square miles in the search for the missing aircraft, according to the description of Wien Air pilot James Anderson, who operated the Bettles roadhouse where the search for the Rhode party was organized. Searchers believed, due to their survival gear and experience, that the trio could last for months in the Bush.

Speculation, Anderson wrote in his book "Arctic Bush Pilot," was rampant.

"Did the load of gasoline explode in flight? Had Rhode landed the amphibian in a lake with wheels down wrecking and sinking the plane? Had he somehow flown over the nearby Arctic Ocean, crashing there, never to be found? Had the plane plunged into a dense spruce forest where it couldn't be seen from the air?"

For 21 years, the mystery of N720 remained a significant part of Alaska's aviation lore.

Then, in August 1979, two hikers crossing a pass at the head of the Ivishak River in what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stumbled upon the crash site. In the subsequent investigation, it was determined that at the 5,700-foot level and only 25 miles from Porcupine Lake, the aircraft apparently hit a mountainside while under power and making a left turn; it was torn apart.

Anderson was retired and living in Pennsylvania when the wreckage was found, but its discovery gave him a long-sought peace of mind. "When there is no ending to a tragedy," he wrote, "thoughts about it linger."

Discoveries like N720 have been repeated more recently, such as when a Super Cub that had gone missing 13 years earlier was found near Port Alsworth in 1999. Such a find gives hope to those still waiting, to family and friends who have only vague areas on the map to point to.

There are many aircraft still waiting to be found in Alaska, many stories still searching for their endings.

A GoFundMe page has been created for the children of Alan Foster to provide financial assistance for his two daughters who will be attending college this fall. There is also a Facebook page with details of the search for N3705W.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen@alaskadispatch.com

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