A plane following an Iron Dog snowmachine team that crashed near Rainy Pass Sunday afternoon, severely injuring both men on board, had turned around after it took off according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Alaska State Troopers say Robert Stone, an Anchorage attorney, and former Iron Dog snowmachine racer Jason Wichman received “critical injuries” in the crash. Stone was listed in fair to stable condition at the Alaska Native Medical Center, while Wichman was in critical condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
Iron Dog Executive Director Kevin Kastner says the plane that crashed -- a Cessna 170B with tail number N2814C, registered to Stone -- wasn’t on an official Iron Dog flight, but was following Team 25’s Aaron Bartel and Brad George. Wichman had been scheduled to ride with Bartel before he dropped out and George replaced him.
NTSB investigator Larry Lewis says weather readings taken at the time by lodge staff, who are also certified weather observers, featured wind gusts to about 18 knots. A final wind speed is pending confirmation through an official weather report from the Federal Aviation Administration.
While an investigation of the crash is in its early phases, NTSB officials believe Stone was at the controls when the plane took off from Pontilla Lake near the lodge.
"Right now, our understanding it that the airplane took off and apparently he turned around to come back," Lewis said. "Until we're actually able to talk to the pilot and get his side of the story, we just want to make sure we preserve all of the aircraft. We want to look at how it was loaded, we want to look at the weather, we want to look at the takeoff conditions."
According to Alaska National Guard spokesperson Maj. Guy Hayes, the 11th Air Force’s Rescue Coordination Center first learned of the incident shortly after 3:20 p.m., when the Cessna’s 406 MHz beacon activated about a mile away from the lodge.
“The RCC called the registration numbers for that 406 beacon and verified that the pilot was out flying,” the center’s superintendent, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Carte, said in a statement. “The 406 beacon wasn’t near the airport, so we knew the plane had likely crashed and we immediately (notified) the Alaska Air National Guard search and rescue duty officer of a mission.”
As Guard rescue assets got moving, people at the lodge ran to the scene to extricate Stone and Wichman from the plane’s wreckage.
“The pilot and passenger in order to be removed we had to cut them out with a sawzall and generator brought to the plane,” lodge owner Steve Perrins said in an email to Channel 2.
The men were brought back to the lodge and kept warm, but Wichman was unconscious until troopers say an Air National Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter arrived at about 6:25 p.m.
The crash victims were flown to Anchorage, where Wichman was treated at Providence and Stone ended up at ANMC -- the state’s only Level 2 trauma center.
Guard officials had high praise for lodge workers’ handling of the crash, mentioning that they had also cleared a landing area for the Pave Hawk.
“The folks at Rainy Pass (L)odge did a tremendous job and deserve a lot of credit,” Carte said. “They organized getting the people out of the crash and provided a location for immediate medical care.”
According to Lewis at the NTSB, Stone was also the Cessna’s pilot in a 2000 crash after it took off about 20 miles west of Big Lake. None of the three occupants were injured, but the ski-equipped plane suffered significant structural damage at the time.
The FAA and the NTSB are continuing to investigate the crash, with Lewis saying plans have been made to retrieve the aircraft’s wreckage in the next few days.
"Nobody said anything about mechanical issues or anything like that, but we'd like to take a look at the airplane, just so we can determine that the engine was making power and and that all the pieces and parts are there," Lewis said.
Channel 2’s Mallory Peebles contributed information to this story.
Contact Chris Klint