ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The pilot killed in a small plane crash over Lake Clark National Park last month sent a mid-flight text message to a friend describing difficult weather conditions not long before the aircraft went down, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Rescuers found the body of 55-year-old David McRae among the wreckage of his single-engine Fairchild Pilatus Porter following a multi-day rescue effort that was continually hampered by challenging weather, low visibility and the mountainous terrain of the search area. The aircraft was eventually found on a steep, snow-covered slope in the Neacola Mountains at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet.
McRae was the nephew of former Alaska First Lady Bella Hammond who lives at the family’s homestead near Port Alsworth. McRae was an experienced pilot and would routinely fly from Anchorage to Lake Clark to deliver fuel to Hammond. In fact, he had successfully undertaken the same trip just one day prior to the crash, according to the report.
McRae took off from Lake Hood just after 5:10 p.m. on Oct. 28. He was the aircraft’s only occupant. Shortly before takeoff, he requested information on weather conditions at Lake Clark which were reported as “windy with a high overcast cloud layer and ‘no blue sky,’” NTSB said.
The airplane made it to the northwestern side of Cook Inlet before turning west to approach the Lake Clark Pass entry. According to family members, McRae would usually take Lake Clark Pass to fly through the mountains but would sometimes take the northern Merrill Pass Route if weather was low, NTSB said.
“According to a text message provided by a friend of the pilot, the pilot communicated that the pass ‘looks fuzzy’ and ‘on my way, holes out west’ while flying en route prior to crossing the mountains,” NTSB wrote.
Above: David McRae. Photo courtesy Nick Hall
Investigators say the plane climbed to about 14,600 feet as it began crossing the mountains. It then descended to about 7,700 feet shortly before it crashed into a mountainside at around 6:28 p.m. Minutes later, the aircraft’s emergency locator transmitter began broadcasting its location to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.
A Pave Hawk helicopter crew and HC-130 airplane with the Air National Guard made daily attempts to locate the wrecked plane and rescue the pilot, but search efforts were continually hampered by poor conditions.
“Low ceilings and visibility prevented a search of the immediate ELT area for 5 days,” NTSB wrote.
It wasn’t until Nov. 3 that weather improved and the plane was located by the Civil Air Patrol. McRae’s remains were then recovered from the mountainside.
“The wreckage is located about six miles south of Merrill Pass west and 14 miles northeast of Lake Telaquana within the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve,” NTSB said in the report. “Search crews reported substantial damage to the forward portion of the fuselage and nose.”
Investigators are still working to determine the exact cause of the crash and a detailed examination of the wreckage and the plane’s engine is pending, NTSB said.