Unique challenges in Alaska cause frequent crashes
Ted Stevens, the former senator killed Monday in a plane crash in the rugged terrain of western Alaska, was no stranger to the ...
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Ted Stevens, the former senator killed Monday in a plane crash in Alaska, was no stranger to the extraordinary risks of flying in his home state.
Stevens lost his first wife of 26 years, Ann, in December 1978, when a Learjet carrying the couple attempted to land in heavy crosswinds in Anchorage and crashed upside down, breaking into four pieces.
Even before that crash, which left him with serious neck, head and arm injuries, Stevens had spoken of a premonition that he would die in a plane crash, meeting the same fate as Rep. Nick Begich, the Democratic Alaska congressman who died in a 1972 crash. Begich was the father of current Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.
Long before and long after Stevens' first brush with death, Alaska's skies have claimed victims by the dozens.
About 35 percent of all U.S. commuter and air-taxi crashes have occurred in the state, where transportation depends on aviation to bridge vast tracts of wilderness. There were 551 crashes in the state over a 19-year period ending in 2008, federal reports show.
The terrain, weather and challenge of flying into rugged wilderness create unique hazards. The area where Stevens' plane went down Monday, north of Dillingham, is particularly dangerous.
"It is dramatically beautiful country, but when the wind blows out there, it really blows," said Michael Schneider, an Anchorage pilot and lawyer specializing in aviation litigation. "If you get the mountains running one way and the wind blowing the other way, you can get turbulence that no aircraft can overcome."
Many crashed planes never are found.
When Begich's plane crashed in October 1972, it also carried House Speaker Hale Boggs, D-La., who had gone to Alaska to help Begich campaign in a tight race.
Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force aircraft searched for the crash site for 39 days. The wreckage never was located, and both men were re-elected posthumously.
Perhaps the two most famous people killed in an Alaska crash were humorist and social commentator Will Rogers and aviation pioneer Wiley Post, who crashed together with Post at the controls in 1935.
Rogers asked the famed aviator, who had made the first solo flight around the world, to fly him to Alaska to look for stories. The two were taking off from a lagoon near Point Barrow when the engine lost power and the plane went nose-first into the lagoon. They died instantly.
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.