Downing: Alaska air crashes and politics collide, once again

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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.

37 COMMENTS

  1. Big Jet planes are hard to get to mess with. A small plane is fairly easy. None of these instances in my opinion were an accident…. especially in Ted Stevens case. Someone wanted him dead in 1978. Got his wife instead. Then he dies years later from yet another crash? Yeah.. Connect the dots. Nefarious people do bad things and get away with it. I feel Peltola was another target that someone wanted gone.
    We live in a very scary world anymore.

  2. Good article, Suzanne. You’ve reminded us that flying, while an essential activity for almost all Alaskans, can sometimes be a one-way journey. Safety always includes vigilant aircraft maintenance, respect for weather, and sound judgment by the pilot. We don’t have all of the facts yet in this case. But in the fall, many pilots work with rapidly declining daylight hours. And, there is that presumption that adding a few extra
    pounds to the aircraft before takeoff will not be a problem. Late minute added weight, and weight shifting, especially on take-off, have often been the demise of otherwise good pilots. When in
    doubt, pilots must always refer to their best survival skills and instincts.

  3. Very interesting article, and well written. It is indeed interesting the “coincidences” in numbers and dates throughout. And the most interesting to me was the 42% of all our country’s air fatalities, a number which has biblical significance. Well written Suzanne!

  4. I had posted something over on the article about her husband’s crash similar to this comment; but, feel it is appropriate here also. Accidental deaths are hard. I want to speak out about the lack of empathy for millions of people losing loved ones or are dealing with turbo cancer due to the vaxx (bioweapon, jabs) push. So many people thought they were doing the right thing to protect their loved ones and society by getting the jabs because that is what the White House, CDC, and local reps like Mary Peltola are saying is the right thing to do. The bioweapon push is political and evil. I have not heard Mary Peltola, Lisa Murkowski, Dr. Zink, Gov. Dunleavy, the White House, CDC, FDA and other entities express sympathy for all of the people that have died suddenly because they took the jabs or express sympathy for all of the people that are now suffering terminal or life-changing illnesses because they took the jabs. If Mary’s husband took the jabs, it is possible that his crash was caused by a vaxx-induced health issue, and not just “accidental” or because of possible sabotage.
    Losing a loved one suddenly is hard to deal with. But, it is very possible that many people’s hearts are hardened because Mary has not shown empathy for all of the people whose lives are being destroyed by her choice to support the illegal government actions that are attempting to take away our freedoms, liberty, rights and way of life. In this case where we have a representative who is destroying many lives in her state, we should not be discouraging people from speaking out. Discouraging people from talking is exactly what the deep state is doing – they believe that they are allowed to speak their minds freely about anything, but the “little people” are forbidden. Accept that Mary Peltola has made a choice and that many people are hurting because of her choices. In the end, there are many people who pushed the evil agenda that will not be able to walk down the street in their home towns anymore because so many woke up to the evil agenda and are standing up against it.
    This is not about politics anymore. This is about good vs evil.

    • Wow. Non sequitur much? Why don’t you try reading a peer-reviewed study about the efficacy of the Covid vaccines. Nothing of what you just said is backed up by the actual science done with double-blind procedures and placebo. Doubtful if any of the conspiracy loving people on this site are going to actually read what the data says. They’re already convinced because of what they heard on some news site or their own “research.”

      Never mind too that many of the comments on here with regard to the death of Gene (who I worked with for years and knew as a kind and knowledgeable man) are despicable and disgusting; showing a complete lack of empathy or compassion. You’d rather blather on like a solipsistic dolt about the deep state and “statists” and “evil” rather than address the actual thesis of the article.

  5. Senator Steven’s sent many cards of condolence as part of his public service to his constituents. For some it was the only card received. He also won surveys expeditiously done to secure and defend the property rights of homesteaders instead of calling them “morons” and telling them to “go to court” where Gerry Spence, noted trial lawyer, said “Justice…in America is largely a myth”. Alaska seldom secures and defends the US Constitutional rights of any kind for Alaskans due to hostility of elected servants now
    toward the constituents in roadless Alaska. They have even taken down many weather stations.

  6. Maybe after this death Mary won’t seek re-election. I know I couldn’t if I was in her place and lost my husband. Women deal with death of a husband differently than a husband losing his wife. Peltola always had a man around and being in the political hot seat she is in without Buzzy’s tender words to her may be too much for her.

  7. And if I was one of the leaders of Alaska I sympathize with them escaping into the skies too. Just to get away from the dysfunctional abusive corrupt leadership of Alaska leaders and the mess we are making. I’d go through flying lessons and get a pilot license and small plane just to get away from everyone.

  8. Loaded with cargo from a hunt.. I’d bet weight and balance issue sorta like the crash withthat R&B singer and band small plane tolerances are not as broad

  9. Thanks for your restraint Suzanne – all the coincidences and phony NTSB reports (Josh Peppard’s AS350 crash NTSB determination was a phony whitewash) lead one to surmise lots of conspiracy theories. Arkancide appears to exist in Alaska, but there is no proof and no evidence of who is doing it. Truth telling without speculation is best.

  10. I get it that you crafted a narrative tying together certain major political figures. However, “the collision of air crashes and politics in Alaska” didn’t exactly start with the Begich–Boggs disappearance. Over a decade prior, you had an incumbent member of the state legislature, Art Johnson, who died while attempting a medevac flight from White Mountain to Nome in hazardous conditions. His story intrigued me after learning that his three brothers and his son also died in separate crashes.

    There were a number of other “lesser” figures who perished in crashes. Off the top of my head:

    * Thomas Carroll, who was appointed adjutant general in 1957, died in a crash near Valdez after surveying damage from the 1964 earthquake.
    * Bob Hartig, who represented Anchorage in the House for a single term in the 1970s, crashed into a lake several miles from Skwentna in 1980.
    * Martin Olson, the father of Sen. Donny Olson who had served as mayor of Golovin, also died in a crash in 1980.
    * C. E. Swackhammer, who represented the Kenai Peninsula in the House for two terms in the 1980s, crashed into a mountain in Canada, several miles from the border, in 1994 while serving as a deputy commissioner of DPS.
    * Cheryll Heinze, who also represented Anchorage for a single term, died in a crash at Homer Airport in 2012.

    There was also Morris Thompson, nominally an Alaskan political figure, even though his crash didn’t occur in Alaska and he wasn’t flying the plane.

  11. Piper PA-150 Super Cub Operating Weights: Max T/O Weight: 1750 Lb, Max Landing Weight: 1750 Lb
    Operating Weight: 1180 Lb, Empty Weight: 930 Lb, Fuel Capacity: 240 lbs Lb AND most important number: Payload W/Full Fuel: 330 Lb!!! Max Payload: 570 Lb. NOT a lot of leeway for weight of pilot and cargo (moose hunt spoils and fuel). ‘https://www.globalair.com/aircraft-for-sale/specifications?specid=411

    Just food for thought. It will all get analyzed to the nth degree by the NTSB.

    • Marginal available payload. And it’d have to be stowed just right lest the plane become unstable. Not too far aft of datum or control isn’t happening

  12. Condolences to the family ! Tragic , lost a grandfather in Thompson Pass flying with a very inexperienced charter pilot . Weather , terrain and bad luck plagues flying in Ak !

    I might add that 8,700 registered aircraft in Ak seems a little light . Probably 2,500 registered aircraft in Fbks alone . Not sure where the statistic came from ?

  13. Too bad about the tragic loss, he may have had many years left. Everyone knows that the plane was likely miss loaded as this has always been a common and expected practice forever in Alaska. Most always it doesn’t create a problem, just a poorly flying aircraft. Pushing or exceeding limitations, be it weather, loads, speed or endurance not to mention personal limits, can catch you on an unlucky day. Accidents should remind us all to be very afraid. Fear is a good thing in aviation.

  14. Oh can you blame it on the aircraft and flying, when the cause is in almost every case “human error” not sometimes but most of the NTSB aircraft crash rulings are “pilot error.”

  15. You couldn’t even use the worn-out “thoughts and prayers” in your comments, Suzanne? Mary’s staff has reported getting overwhelming expressions of sympathy from Alaskans. I’m sorry to see you are in a definite minority of people blinded by partisan devotion.

    • Interesting statement you make Jon: ” I’m sorry to see you are in a definite minority of people blinded by partisan devotion.” Why is it so important to you to have the author of the article give public condolences in her article? Does it really matter if she is focusing on reporting on the news? Just curious.

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