A plane flown by U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s husband was loaded with more than 500 pounds of moose meat and a set of antlers before the crash near St. Mary’s earlier this month that killed him, investigators say.
The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report Thursday on the Sept. 12 crash that killed 57-year-old Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr. The report, compiled after an NTSB team traveled from Washington, D.C., to Alaska, sheds new light on both the crash and Peltola’s death as he awaited an overnight rescue flight.
According to the report, Peltola had been flying the Piper PA-18-150 Super Cub on the second of two flights that evening to ferry moose meat to Holy Cross. A group of five hunters had camped near a landing strip about 80 miles northwest of Holy Cross, and started to load the plane at about 7:40 p.m. on Sept. 12 with the second load.
“During the next hour, the pilot and the hunters loaded the airplane with the meat,” investigators wrote. “One of the hunters reported that the airplane held about 50 to 70 pounds more meat than during the previous flight. The meat was strapped into the rear passenger seat area with both the seatbelt and chord 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 also told one of the hunters that he expected to be at reserve fuel levels when he reached Holy Cross. The two also noted that intermittent wind gusts were passing over the airfield.
“Members of the group reported to the pilot that the wind was gusting much stronger at the departure end of the airstrip,” investigators wrote.
When Peltola took off at about 8:45 p.m., one of the hunters recorded a video of his takeoff from the airstrip. Investigators noted that the plane rolled about 20 degrees right then leveled after takeoff, with no abnormal engine noise or smoke seen in the video.
“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,” investigators wrote. “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.”
At first the hunters thought the Super Cub’s takeoff was successful, according to investigators. But when the plane didn’t reappear beyond the ridgeline, they climbed it and found the crash site. One of them sent an SOS on an InReach satellite communicator, then pulled Peltola from the crashed plane.
“Once he was removed, they covered the pilot in blankets, and set a heater upwind to keep him warm,” investigators wrote. “The pilot was talking and did not appear to be in pain, but he became less responsive during the next 2 hours, after which time the pilot no longer had a pulse.”
The Alaska Air National Guard sent a rescue helicopter and a rescue plane to the crash site from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. Guard officials have said the aircraft had to refuel in McGrath, with the helicopter arriving at the crash site at 1:50 a.m. on Sept. 13.
Investigators at the crash site, including representatives from plane manufacturer Piper and engine maker Lycoming, found no initial sign of engine failure. The propeller had separated during the crash, with divots in the ground marking the impact points of its right wingtip and main landing gear.
“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,” investigators wrote. “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.”
Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s Alaska chief, stressed Thursday morning that investigators have not yet determined what caused the plane’s crash. Investigators are examining how the plane was loaded, he said, but are still determining the weight of everything on board — as well as whether the plane was rated for a higher maximum weight than the stock PA-18-150 Super Cub’s 820 pounds.
“Right now, we’re still looking and trying to find the maintenance records for this aircraft. We’re in the process of doing networking with family,” he said. “So we don’t really know whether there was a loading issue or not.”
NTSB meteorologists are planning to model weather conditions at the airstrip, Johnson said, to estimate the strength of the wind gusts during the plane’s takeoff. Investigators are also awaiting results of an autopsy conducted on Peltola.
The next step, according to Johnson, is a closer look at the wrecked plane — which is no longer at the airstrip.
“The wreckage itself has now been removed and brought back to Anchorage,” he said. “And we plan to revisit that wreckage again, to begin the analytical part of the investigation.”
Peltola, a family man and a former Alaska regional director for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, retired from the position to support his wife’s successful run for Congress. A funeral for him was held in Bethel on Sept. 18, with hundreds of Alaskans in attendance.