Friday, about 4:30 p.m., in the foothills of Mount Redoubt, the mystery of the missing pilot of a December fatal airplane crash was solved when the body of Jim Munson was recovered.
On December 20, Munson, 44, of North Kenai, and his co-pilot, Fletcher Machen, 33, of Soldotna, perished when the Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft they were flying crashed into the mountain north of Tuxedni Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet. The plane, owned by Everts Air Fuel, a family-owned business out of Fairbanks, was based in Kenai.
Due to winter conditions and the depth of snow in the mountains at the time of the crash, only Machen's body was discovered two days later, on December 22. Machen's body was found under 2 feet of snow, 200 feet uphill from the crash site. It was first located by search-and-rescue dog Chilly and then confirmed by searchers using avalanche probes.
Friday, Munson's body was discovered while recovery crews were working on salvaging the aircraft.
Finding the body was unexpected, according to Cliff Adkins, a helicopter pilot for Kenai Air Helicopter Service, who was transporting the recovery crews to and from the crash site.
"I had just dropped off an insurance guy and one of the recovery crew," he said.
While Adkins was making a second trip to bring in three more recovery crew members, Munson's body was discovered.
A soft spot in the snow next to one of the plane's big engines was at first thought to have been part of the cowling, Adkins said. When someone pulled on it, it was discovered to be a jacket. It was Munson's jacket. He was buried under the big engine.
The recovery crew immediately contacted Alaska State Troopers, who took charge of recovering Munson's body. Brian Shackleton, director of operations of Kenai Air, helicoptered the troopers to the site.
The wreckage on the side of the mountain is scattered over a wide area, according to Adkins. The engine under which Munson was buried was up-slope of the main fuselage about 30 feet. The other engine is over the peak of the mountain on the opposite side. Also on that side of the peak is what seems to be a wing. The uppermost 60 to 70 yards near the top of the peak is very steep, Adkins said. The tail section broke off, but the center section and the fuel tanks are intact.
It is only speculation at this point as to what happened, according to Adkins, but it appears that the aircraft hit the peak of the mountain and the main part of the aircraft slid back down into the bowl below the peak. The area consists of rugged peaks 3,500 to 4,000 feet high all around, which were described as the "foothills of Redoubt," by Civil Air Patrol pilot Henry Knackstedt last December after the crash.
Heavy snows at the time of the crash, and more heavy snows throughout the winter, made further search efforts futile.
Recently receding snows initiated salvage efforts. Everts Air Fuel recently landed a ski plane in the bowl below the summit and decided this would be a good time to attempt the recovery, Adkins said.
As the wreckage is on the boundary of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, a permit had to be obtained for the salvage effort.
The salvage operation is being carried out by Tanalian Aircraft Repair in Port Alsworth, which is cutting up the aircraft and hauling it out in pieces.
Munson is said to have had a fondness for the old aircraft, and both he and Machen were respected and experienced pilots.
Munson had about 1,000 hours in the C-46 aircraft, which is a World War II-era, piston-powered, twin-engine military transport converted for use as a bulk fuel carrier.
The two were returning from delivering a load of fuel to Nondalton, just north of Lake Iliamna, about 130 miles southwest of Mount Redoubt, when the crash occurred.
Munson had lived in Alaska since 1980. He was an experienced aircraft mechanic before he became a pilot. He was employed by Kenai Air Alaska until 1985, when he began working for SouthCentral Air, which he purchased in 1995 and operated until 1999.
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