By SUZANNE DOWNING
This week, we received the news of the untimely passing of Gene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., husband to Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola.
Gene met his tragic end as the plane he was piloting crashed during a moose hunting expedition. Loaded with the spoils of the hunt, the aircraft met its doom shortly after takeoff. Despite valiant efforts of fellow hunters to save him, the remote crash site left Gene as another addition to the list of fearless bush pilots who never saw their twilight years.
Gene was no novice; he was a seasoned pilot navigating the skies in a trusty Piper PA 18-150 Super Cub, a reliable workhorse tailor-made for the demanding conditions of rural Alaska. Often hailed as the “Jeep” of general aviation private aircraft, it’s an icon in the state’s aviation circles.
Located approximately 440 miles west of Anchorage, the crash site is in what can only be described as remote territory, even by Alaska standards. The National Transportation Safety Board faces a formidable task in reaching the crash site and retrieving the aircraft’s remains for an analysis back in Anchorage.
As fate would have it, this tragedy unfolded on a September day precisely one year after Mary Peltola took her oath as Alaska’s congressional representative, following the passing of Congressman Don Young on March 18, 2022.
On Sept. 13, 2022, Gene, donned in a traditional Alaska Native kuspuk and a necktie, proudly held a Bible for his wife as she recited the oath of office alongside then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Alaska’s narrative is replete with miraculous moments and dramatic conclusions, many of which are tied to aviation. The vastness of the state is evident, with a mere 17,637 miles of road in a state that is one-fifth the size of the rest of the country.
The collision of air crashes and politics in Alaska is a historical thread that dates back to 1972 when Congressman Nicholas Begich vanished, alongside Congressman Hale Boggs, en route to Juneau for a campaign event. The disappearance of these two congressmen, a congressional staffer, and the pilot remains one of Alaska’s enduring mysteries. Congressman Begich was eventually declared deceased, prompting a special election in March the following year to fill the void.
This marked the beginning of the Don Young era, as he secured victory in March 1972. Fast forward 49 years, and it was also a March day in 2022 when Congressman Young, now revered as the Dean of the House, met his fate on a plane, once again prompting a special election to replace the legendary congressman, who had become the longest-serving Republican House member.
In yet another eerie plot twist, Mary Peltola had learned on her 49th birthday, Aug. 31, 2022, that she would succeed Young, who had served the 49th State for 49 years.
The litany of airplane crashes that have shaken Alaska’s political landscape has undeniably left an indelible mark on its history.
Ann Stevens, wife of Senator Ted Stevens, lost her life in a plane crash in Anchorage on Dec. 8, 1978, while Sen. Stevens survived.
However, he would not survive his next plane crash. On Aug. 10, 2010, Stevens, who had seen his political career upended two years earlier by an unjust Department of Justice, tragically perished in a plane crash in Western Alaska while on a fishing trip.
While midair collisions are a rarity due to the vast airspace, there are exceptions like the 2020 incident involving state Rep. Gary Knopp, whose plane collided with another near Soldotna, claiming seven lives, including Knopp’s. The NTSB investigation revealed that Knopp’s vision had been impaired by glaucoma, and he lacked a valid medical certificate to fly.
Why does it seem that so many politicos meet their fate on Alaska planes? One obvious explanation is that political leaders in Alaska spend more time in the skies than the average Alaskan, and hunters and fishermen venture into even riskier conditions, where flying is the only option.
Alaska boasts more than 8,700 registered aircraft, 3% of all U.S. registered aircraft in a state that has less than half a percent of the entire U.S. population. That’s 12 airplanes for every 1,000 Alaskans.
Combine adventurous spirits with a land as wild and weather-prone as this, throw in numerous single-engine planes landing on gravel bars along rivers and oceans, and it’s no wonder mishaps are inevitable.
Airplane crashes have, time and again, altered the course of Alaska’s history. The Last Frontier bears a somber statistic, representing 42% of the country’s fatal plane crashes involving commuter, air taxi, and charter flights.
With more than one out of every 100 Alaskans being an active pilot, the skies will continue to be a thrilling yet perilous domain, where fate and circumstance, wind and weather, and sometimes human error, define the ultimate destiny of those who take flight in this vast and unforgiving land.
Suzanne Downing is publisher of Must Read Alaska.