The National Transportation and Safety Board has issued a preliminary report filled with details about the plane crash that took the life of Eugene Peltola, husband of Rep. Mary Peltola, on Sept. 12, 2023.
On that day at about 8:47 pm, a Piper PA-18-150, tail number N109T, sustained substantial damage when it crashed near St. Mary’s. Eugene Peltola, the pilot and lone occupant of the plane, died in that crash.
Two days before the accident, Peltola had flown a group of five hunters, a guide, and their equipment from a lodge’s airstrip in Holy Cross. The group set up camp next to the landing strip, which was oriented north-south within hilly terrain about 80 miles northwest of Holy Cross.
The group planned to hunt for a moose and take it back to the lodge at Holy Cross. During the day before the accident, the group successfully hunted a moose and coordinated with the Peltola via satellite messaging devices to ferry the meat the next day.
On Sept. 12, Peltola arrived at the camp about 3:40 pm. Peltola and the hunters loaded the airplane with the first batch of meat, and the airplane departed to the north from the airstrip.
After takeoff, the airplane made an uneventful climbing right turn over an adjacent ridgeline that paralleled the airstrip to the east and then continued in the general direction of Holy Cross.
Peltola returned to camp about 7:40 pm for the second and final load of meat.
During the next hour, Peltola and the hunters loaded the airplane with the meat. One of the hunters reported that the airplane held about 50 to 70 pounds more meat than during the previous flight. Later it was determined there was about 520 pounds of cargo, mostly moose meat and antler.
The meat was strapped into the rear passenger seat area with both the seatbelt and rope and was loaded into the airplane’s belly pod, which did not have tie-down provisions. The pilot then tied the antlers to the right wing strut; the antlers were cupped outward and perpendicular to the direction of flight.
Peltola told a hunter that he had performed fuel calculations and would be at reserve fuel levels on arrival at Holy Cross. They discussed the weather and observed that the wind at the airstrip was generally calm and from the north but that the wind was also intermittently variable and gusting.
Members of the group reported to Peltola that the wind was gusting much stronger at the departure end of the airstrip.
Peltola then boarded the airplane and positioned it for a departure to the north. The hunters noticed that the ground roll was slightly longer than before, and that the airplane appeared to be more “labored” than during the previous flight.
They stated that, as the airplane reached the end of the airstrip, it pitched up and turned sharply to the right but, rather than climbing as before, the airplane flew behind the adjacent ridgeline and out of view. The group initially thought that the pickup had been successful, but the airplane did not reappear from behind the ridge. The group ran to the top of the ridgeline, looked down, and saw that the airplane had crashed.
One of the hunters approached the accident site and found Peltola still conscious. The hunter activated the SOS feature on his satellite messenger device, but the pilot succumbed to his injuries within two hours of the accident.
The airplane’s emergency locator transmitter activated during the accident, and an alert signal was received by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center about 8:48 pm. According to the hunters, an Alaska Air National Guard team arrived at the accident site via helicopter between 1:30 and 2 am on Sept. 13.
One of the hunters recorded a video of the accident takeoff. The video showed that the airplane began the ground roll at the southern end of the airstrip and departed to the north and uphill. The flaps were retracted, and the tail of the airplane came up as soon as the pilot applied engine power (see figure 1).
The ground roll lasted about 530 feet, and, immediately after takeoff, the airplane pitched up and rolled about 20 degrees to the right. The airplane then appeared to roll to a wings level attitude.
The video ended a few seconds later and it did not capture the accident. The engine was heard operating during the recording, and the airplane was not trailing smoke or vapors.
NTSB inspectors arrived on Sept. 15. Examination revealed that the airplane came to rest on a 30-degree downward slope on the other side of the adjoining ridge line, at an elevation of 1,210 feet mean sea level, about 10 feet lower, and 600 feet east of the departure end of the airstrip (see figure 2).
The surrounding area consisted of rolling hills covered in tundra, grass, and low-lying shrubs and bushes.
The fuselage was on a north heading, and both wings remained partially attached and generally in line with each other on a northwest-southeast orientation. The first identified point of impact, which was located about 20 feet below the main wreckage, consisted of a divot in the soil that contained blue and white fragments that matched the right wingtip (see figure 3).
Next, the right wing landing light assembly and right window frame were located about 5 ft uphill in a west direction. A large divot in the soil, which was located 5 ft farther uphill, matched the general dimensions of a main landing gear tire. Adjacent to this hole was the propeller, which had separated from the crankshaft.
Inspectors say the engine contained oil, and there was no evidence indicated a catastrophic engine failure.
Although the wing tank fuel lines had been breached, residual quantities of fuel were observed in both tanks. Both propeller blades exhibited similar damage, including tip twist, leading-edge nicks and dents, trailing-edge S-bending, and chord-wise scratches.
The airplane cargo was weighed at the accident site, revealing a load of about 520 pounds that consisted primarily of moose meat and a set of moose antlers.
About 150 pounds of meat was found in the forward section of the belly pod; the remaining portions were firmly secured in the rear cabin seating area. The antlers were secured to the inboard side of the right-wing strut.