DILLINGHAM, Alaska -- Neither of the men who first went looking for a single-engine Otter missing from the Agulowak Lodge north of here on Monday expected to find the turbo-powered floatplane bent and broken in a patch of alders in the Muklung Hills with five dead. Even though the plane was late returning to the fishing lodge and had never shown up at its scheduled afternoon fishing stop, there was no panic when Bob Himschoot, an employee of lodge owner GCI Inc., got a call suggesting a search was in order.
Otter pilot Terry Smith, 62, of Eagle River was a hugely experienced veteran of Alaska's skies. He'd grown up flying in the far north. He was former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines in the 49th state. He had logged 29,000 hours -- a lifetime -- in the pilot's seat. And it wasn't like he was likely to be doing anything risky at the controls with revered former Sen. Ted Stevens, former chief of NASA Sean O'Keefe, and one of lodge owner GCI's most important executives, Dana Tindall, among his passengers.
So Himschoot called friend Tom Tucker at Tucker Aviation and asked him if they could take his helicopter up to look for the plane. Tucker was getting ready to sit down to supper but said he'd be happy to fly. Outside his hangar the weather was wet, windy and foggy, but that's normal in Southwest Alaska, the summer home of commercial fishermen like former "First Dude" Todd Palin.
Tucker, like Himschoot, expected that at worst they'd find GCI's missing Otter parked on a lake somewhere with a mechanical problem, the passengers likely nearby fishing for the salmon and rainbow trout that fill the many lakes and rivers in and around 1.6-million-acre Wood Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the nation.
"It was just a couple of friends going to look for a couple of friends," Tucker said.
Neither could guess that Stevens, Smith, Tindall and two others were already dead.
Normal operating procedure
Small single-engine airplanes are the town cars of the comfortable fishing lodges that dot Southwest Alaska. The planes run anglers here, there and everywhere in the pursuit of salmon and rainbow trout. Daily fight schedules tend to be loose and flexible.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday back in Anchorage that the Otter in question appears to have left the Agulowak Lodge at about 2 p.m. Monday but never reached a nearby fish camp where the passengers were to try for silver salmon.
At about 6:30 p.m., she said, the lodge called the Federal Aviation Administration's flight service station to ask if Smith had radioed in. FAA said no and asked if GCI wanted to initiate a search and rescue operation. Lodge managers at that point declined.
About 15 minutes later, however, Hersman said, they called back and asked for the search. At 7:16 p.m. a report went out to local pilots to be on the alert for a missing aircraft. A description of the Otter was provided. Four minutes later, a pair of pilots in the area -- John Bouker and Eric Shade -- radioed they were already in the air on flights elsewhere but would start searching.
One of them would quickly change Tucker's journey from a search flight to a mission of mercy. Tucker and Himschoot were in the helicopter whoop-whooping north when Bouker radioed that he had spotted a downed plane.
How the plane was found
Bouker had earlier dropped some passengers in the village of Manoktok, heard a call on the radio that the FAA was reporting a plane missing, and decided to backtrack its route. He radioed another pilot, Shade, who was in the area doing the same. They agreed to search opposite sides of the Muklung Hills.
Bouker took the west side. It didn't take him long to find the wreckage. "It looked like a crashed airplane," he said. "The weather was just touching the wreckage when I found it."
He didn't get too see a whole lot more. "The weather wasn't good," he added. "I had to concentrate on what I was doing."
One of the things he was doing was radioing GPS coordinates to Tucker in his helicopter. With that aide, Tucker quickly located the missing Otter in the brush next to a big patch of rock on the north slope of a mountain less than 20 miles from his hangar back along the airstrip here.
The fuselage of the downed plane appeared largely intact. The wings were bent back, an indication of a crash at some speed, but they were still attached to the fuselage. It was impossible to tell if anyone was alive in the wreckage, but given the looks of the airplane Tucker and Himschoot held out hope. Tucker started looking for a place to land.
On the ground with Stevens, others dead
The terrain around the crash site was steep, rugged and brushy. Tucker had a hard time finding someplace to put the helicopter down. He finally ended up landing in the mountains nearly a half mile above the wreckage and dropping Himschoot off. It seemed the only option. "I landed the only place we could really land," Tucker said. He did not know then if anyone was alive in the wreckage, but he knew more help would be needed.