Alaska: The land of disappearance


Almost 20 years have passed now since the plane with Kent Roth aboard disappeared somewhere into the wilds along the Gulf of Alaska. It happened in the spring of the year, but I always tend to remember in the fall because Kent, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, shared my passion for waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.

He had a passion for fishing, too, and in the end, it was what killed him. He flew to the Situk River in Yakutat, just north of Glacier Bay, in early May to fish the steelhead trout on their return from the ocean. The Situk is one of only a handful of truly great Alaska steelhead streams, and with the fishing season just beginning in the North in May, it is the place to be if fishing is your passion. One can fly into Yakutat, a community of only about 800 people, on an Alaska Airlines jet due to the oddities of air travel in the 49th state, but Kent decided to fly down on a twin-engine Cessna 340 with his two brothers -- Scott and Jeff -- and friends Brian Barber and Tim Thorton.

Jeff, a successful Anchorage attorney and an experienced pilot, was at the controls of that aircraft when it left Yakutat headed back to Anchorage after a successful fishing trip. After takeoff, his last report to Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controllers was that he was at 12,000 feet and heading on instruments to Anchorage.

The plane was never heard from again. There was an exhaustive search.

No sign of the aircraft was found. Jeff's wife, Gayle, went and listened to FAA air traffic tapes, and thought she heard a transmission from someone she thought could be her husband saying something about 6,000 feet and "icing conditions'' several minutes after Jeff's last known transmission.

"An enhancement examination of the tapes by the FBI laboratory failed to confirm this information,'' the official report from the National Transportation Safety Board later reported, long after the search for the plane's passengers had been given up along with all hope for the five men.

Sheila Nickerson, one-time Alaska's poet laureate and for a time a co-worker of Kent's at Fish and Game, later wrote about the incident in her book: Disappearance: A Map -- A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes:

But then you could sort of say the whole friggin' state is one big, Bermuda Triangle. To this day planes still disappear. The latest went missing out in Katmai National Park and Preserve in August. The National Park Service led a two-week-long search. It found nothing.

The search was called off Saturday.

Searchers knew exactly where Branch River Air Service pilot Marco Aletto, 47, picked up three young, Park Service employees. Brothers Neal Spradlin, 28, and Seth Spradlin, 20, from Girdwood by way of Indiana had been helping 26-year-old Mason McLeod from Jacksonville, Fla. rebuild a ranger cabin at Swikshak Lagoon on Katmai's Gulf of Alaska coast.

Searchers knew, too, the most likely route Aletto would fly across the park from south to north to deliver the three men back to park headquarters in King Salmon. When Aletto's deHavilland Beaver -- an aircraft out of production since 1967 that remains a workhorse for Alaska charter operators -- failed to show up on time, searchers in airplanes and helicopters went out and scoured that route.

When a hasty search found nothing, the search broadened. A fleet of aircraft laden with observers began combing millions of acres of wilderness with everyone always listening for the telltale, highway-patrol like wooping of an Emergency Locator Transmitter or any stray electric noise that might be coming from the ELT that was in the missing plane. Searchers neither heard nor saw anything.

Day after day, through search conditions that ranged from marginal to perfect, the Park Service could only report in its dispatches that "no sign of the floatplane or missing men has been reported since" Aug. 21, the day they left Swikshak. On Sept. 4, the day the by-then nearly million-dollar search was "scaled back'' -- a gentle way of saying organized efforts to find the men would end -- Alaska Parks Regional Director Sue Masica put out this statement:

Unwritten between the lines was the message that the Park Service would not put people at risk -- and aerial searches are always risky -- to look for those now presumed dead. Nobody comes right out and says this, of course, because no one wants to think it. But everyone in the search-and-rescue community or familiar with SAR knew what Masica was saying.

All hope is lost. Alaska has claimed four more.

The father of McLeod almost immediately posted notice of a $15,000 reward for anyone who can find the aircraft. Some nameless internet commentators quickly criticized that, suggesting that a reward might spur a private pilot to go ground spotting when he should be paying attention to his flying and thus cause another crash. It has happened in the past, but $15,000 didn't seem enough to tempt anyone to take much risk.

Now that the families have gotten together to raise the reward to $65,000, however, the question looks a little more serious. Sixty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money to the owner of a beat-up airplane in the Alaska Bush. The families of the missing took note.

"The families ask that you do not endanger yourselves or anyone else in your efforts to find our children," Mason McLeod's father, Steve, said in a public statement this week. It's obvious the families are concerned, but you've got wonder how much a warning like this really helps in a place where people are already somewhat accustomed to endangering themselves.

Flying in much of Alaska, at least if you're doing it often, is a regularly dicey business as some of this summer's high-profile crashes have underlined. Someone really has to ask publicly if it's wise to encourage pilots to push the margins even a little bit more in hopes of finding the dead.

This a hard and horrible thing to say, I know. It's nicer to believe these four men could still be out there alive somewhere. But even if they survived the crash somehow uninjured, two weeks is a long time to go without food or water. And if they were alive, given the Park Service training of McLeod and the Spradlin brothers, they'd know well the importance of making themselves somehow visible.

That they didn't is telltale. It's probably best now to leave it for time to tell if the wreck will ever be found. Most are, but some -- like the crash that claimed the life of Kent Roth -- remain forever missing.

U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, a Democrat from Louisiana, and Alaska Rep. Nick Begich, the father of now Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, were on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau when their small plane disappeared on Nov. 24, 1972.

The U.S. government threw every resource it could muster, reportedly including the latest in high-tech spy planes, at trying to find the crash site. The search went on for 39 days before it was abandoned. No hint of the airplane or its passengers was ever found. Nothing new has been discovered to this day.

The accident did prompt Congress to pass the law that now mandates Emergency Locator Transmitters in all U.S. civil aircraft, but as we've seen in the case of several major crashes this summer in Alaska, ELTs don't always work either. Sometimes Alaska is, as Nickerson labeled it, the land of "disappearance.''

Contact Craig Medred at