August 10th, 2010
04:39 PM ET

Alaska's terrain, weather complicates flying, searching

The pilot of a private plane that crashed Monday night in a rugged stretch of Alaska did not file a flight plan, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plane, which was carrying former head of NASA Sean O'Keefe and former Sen. Ted Stevens, was being flown using visual flight rules and didn't need a flight plan, FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said Tuesday. Stevens and four others died. O'Keefe and three others were injured.

The DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter crashed around 7 p.m. Monday amid rough weather conditions near the southwest Alaska town of Dillingham, a destination for big-game hunters. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are looking into whether those conditions may have contributed to the accident and complicated search efforts.

The flight originated at GCI Lodge on Lake Nerka and was bound for Dillingham, the agency's Alaska office said.

Pilots flying under visual flight rules generally are required to file a flight plan when visibility is less than 3 nautical miles and if it is overcast from 1,000 feet above ground level, according to aviation experts. All commercial passenger flights require one.

Flights under an “instrument flight rules” plan come under the control of air traffic controllers, who determine the exact routes and height for the pilots. “Under visual flight rules, you have much more flexibility to set your own route,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Most private flights, which are common in Alaska, rarely need a flight plan, said aviation expert John Eakin, head of Air Data Research in Helotes, Texas.

Flight plans also need to be closed when a plane reaches its destination. If a flight doesn’t close its plan 30 minutes after its estimated time of arrival, it is considered overdue, and a search and rescue effort may be launched, according to the FAA.

“The reason they might not want to file a flight plan was, maybe this lodging they were going to didn’t have any telephone communications, so there’ll be no way for them to contact the FAA to say that we’ve arrived safely and close the flight plan,” Eakin said.

Inclement weather was reported in the area at the time of the crash, said Maj. Guy Hayes, a spokesman for the Alaska Air National Guard.

It has been an "unseasonably wet" summer in Dillingham, said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Justin Rodgers, who lives in the area and assists in searches and rescues.

Reduced visibility created by rain and fog, combined with a low ceiling and fairly high winds, would have made flying difficult, especially in a coastal region like Dillingham, he said.

"Weather conditions are probably one of the prevailing limiting factors anywhere in Alaska. The weather has been poor here for literally a month, so it's been a challenging month to fly around," he said.

Wet conditions also hampered search and rescue efforts Tuesday night and early Wednesday. Good Samaritan pilots located the wreckage on a 40-degree mountain slope, authorities said. But the rain and fog prevented rescuers from landing until Tuesday morning.

"When I heard about the accident, I could look out the window and tell the search would be challenging," Rodgers said.

In a land of few roads and lots of dense forest, rugged peaks and tundra that turns swampy at times, icy at others, aircraft is the state's primary mode of transportation - be it for personal travel, supplying towns with food or search and rescue.

Most of the time, smaller planes known as bush planes, shuttle passengers to otherwise hard-to-reach areas, said Michael Boyd of Boyd Group International Inc., an aviation research and consulting firm.

"Alaska is far more aviation dependent than any other state in the union due to its rugged and diverse geography," he said. "It's wild and woody out there."

Searches in areas such as Dillingham utilize air, foot and sea patrols in searches, depending on the situation, Rodgers said.

"Sometimes it’s a combination. You might land a mile or two away and walk; sometimes the terrain might be like a great big swamp that you can’t traverse by foot. Sometimes you might reach an area by boat and walk, or use snow machines in the winter," he said.

"But the most prevalent means of locating people has always been aircraft, and helicopter is the best because it can get to the most areas and land in the worst of conditions."

Mort Mason, a former Alaska bush pilot, said the DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter is equipped to land on water. Hundreds of such planes fly in Alaska every day, he said.

Though that type of plane originally had a 600-horsepower engine, Mason said, FAA data show the Otter in question was fitted with a more powerful turbo-prop engine. The plane would comfortably carry about 12 people, Mason said.

With air transportation as prevalent as it is in Alaska, search and rescue has become a fact of life for the intrepid souls who choose to live there, Rodgers said.

"Search and rescue is a big part of everyone's life here," he said. "There's some of the best trained, best equipped search and rescue teams living out here, but sometimes in spite of all that training and equipment, the conditions don’t allow you to respond in time."

CNN's Emanuella Grinberg, Jason Hanna and journalist Derrick Ho contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Air travel • Alaska
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Lars Gleitsmann

    The CNN Headline "stevens plane did not file a flight plan" is so stupid, typical for the CNN reporting. FlightPlans make no difference in safety, and the fact that none was files is meaningless, its use in the headline pure sesationalism!
    We are sure depressed here in AK about the loss of our best politician and the others on board. Pilot Terry Smith was about the best I ever knew and certainly the most experienced ! Accidents happen, and no new rules and FlightPlans and Gadgetry can or will prevent them.
    I am very sad about the loss.

    August 10, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • D Teeber

      Lars..... I like headlines to be factural, and apparently you do not. "stevens plane did not file a flight plan" is so stupid, you said. And yet, it is the truth....

      And thank God, he was your best politician...... For a moment I thought you might use the P word.

      August 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fat Harry

      Lars is exactly right. The filing of a flight plan is not necessary and had absolutely nothing to do with the accident.

      October 20, 2010 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  2. Karma Bites

    The CNN Headline is merely a statement ... a headline and fact. It looks like the X Senator took a "flight to nowhere" ... just like the "bridge to nowhere" that he orhestrated through Congress. And, I'm sad to hear that he was the best politician that Alaska had to offer ... oh, there is still Sarah Palin. Karma bites hard sometimes!

    August 10, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      RE: Karma bites

      Well at least Stevens didn't spend his life watching his lava lamp, listening to his wind chimes and try to have a decent conversation with his barking mad wife named 'Moondust' or 'Amber' about things like 'karma'. No. He actually made use of his life by dedicating it to the building of Alaska, which, I might add, was no small feat.

      August 10, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Randall Smith

    I get so tired of hearing the "bridge to nowhere" comment. The airport there has over 15,000 operations per year. Let's suppose Speculator, NY or Miller City, IL was cut off from the rest of their respective states. I guarantee someone would build roads in and out, and they don't have nearly as important of a transportation hub in those locations.
    But, I guess that's beside the point – The news media in general is ignorant of most scientific news items, particularly when it involves aviation, so for reporters to be commenting on "flight plans", does not surprise me at all. If people knew how many airplanes fly around without filing anything with anybody, there would be panic in the streets, probably.

    August 10, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Smith in Oregon

    These utterly corrupt Big Oil Republican Potty'ticians are so polarizing, what do you expect from the people here as News Media tries to make Alaskan Republican US Senator Ted Stevens into a saint? I'm certain many here hope he was still alive as the plane he was in burst into petrol-chemical induced flames.

    As a result of the multiple big Oil corruption charges and multiple felony convictions, Ted Stevens knew his home was still bugged and his phones were wire tapped.

    What was the purpose of Ted Stevens trip to the remote Agulowak Lodge? The public is being told to go 'fishing'. The corrupt Big Oil Republican former Alaskan Senator was likely flying out to the remote Aqulowak Lodge to broker a power deal in a very select meeting in a very isolated lodge where he knew there would be no wiretaps or bugs to intercept the conversations at that meeting.

    Served Alaskans for many years. Dedicated. Hard-working. Dam n, that airplane will be missed.

    August 10, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      Wow. I never knew there was so much B.C. bud up in Oregon but Smith sure seems to have been smoking alot.
      Guess what, Smith. Conspiracy theorists generally have no interest in solving the conspiracies they weave.
      They just use them as a way to bring attention to themselves. It's a sign of low self-esteem.

      August 10, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Nate

    Flight plans should be filed for visual and instrument flights because they alert FAA when a pilot fails to close the flight plan within 30 mins of the proposed arrival. This is not a matter of needed regulation, just the need for caution. If the weather was marginally VFR, at night, and had an emergency landing, the flight plan would have provided search teams with a proposed route, and the search would begin much sooner. It is also possible to close the flight plan by radio prior to landing if that was a concern.

    Yes, a flight plan does not make flying more safe, but the certainly add a margin of safety when things go wrong.

    August 10, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Nate

    Sorry for the incorrect phrasing...the search begins 30 mins after the proposed arrival time, not within 30 mins.

    August 10, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jimbo in the South

    I'm amazed at the tone of one of these posts with five dead and still more in citical condition. To mourn the plane but not the people? To wish death by firey plane crash upon someone? If your post was a joke it was in VERY poor taste and I for one am not amused. If your post was serious....... I won't even go there.

    And we wonder why our politicians are so uncivilized and polarized and can't get anything done? Maybe they reflect people that voted for them.

    August 10, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Debbie

    I live in Alaska and am appalled by the tone of some of these comments. This is not the time to spew diatribe about politics, oil people or "bridge to nowhere". Five people, including a 16 year old girl, have died. I didn't always agree with Ted Stevens but he did a lot for this state. I mourn his and the others who have died even though I didn't know them. I hope none of you who are using this forum to turn this tragic plane crash into your own agenda never have to face dealing with this type of loss.

    August 11, 2010 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
  9. Tracy Reed

    WHY do they always say "didn't file a flight plan"!?!? The filing of VFR flight plans is quite rare. You don't generally file a flight plan unless you intend to go IFR, are crossing the border, or you are a student pilot who has to prove that you know how to do it. I haven't filed a non-ADIZ crossing VFR flight plan in 9 years despite flying all the time. I always have flight following in case of trouble but that isn't a flight plan. I've seen the statistics on Alaska flying and if I were going to have a VFR fight plan anywhere I would have one there. I fly mostly in the southwest US where there is nearly always radar coverage. But even on flights around the southwest US whenever there is an accident they ominously say "no flight plan was filed". It has been like this my whole life. Somehow the media has latched onto this flight plan thing like a pitbull on a toddler. What gives, media?

    August 11, 2010 at 3:29 am | Report abuse |
  10. Donovan

    Come on "Smith", we are talking about five people who have lost their lives and you want to make it out to be some sneaky oil company plot that went bad. I personally had never voted for Ted Stevens, and if he had lived and ran for office again, I would not vote for him. However, the majority of the voters in our great State of Alaska kept him in office and he did a lot for us. Get back to reality and remember that there are families of those who died in this horrific accident who are hurting and we should respect that. Thank you Jimbo and Debbie for your good words.

    August 11, 2010 at 4:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Smith in Oregon

      A great many Alaskan residents remember former Republican Senator Ted Stevens as a corrupt influence peddler for the US Military who sold Alaska to Big OIl interests. This likely explains why he wasn't re-elected after the large number of corruption and felony charges were filed and made public to the Alaskan people.

      August 11, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |