Two central peninsula men are presumed dead after an Everts Air Fuel plane crashed north of Tuxedni Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet Wednesday.
Pilot Jim Munson, 44, of North Kenai and co-pilot Fletcher Machen, 33, of Soldotna, were the only two aboard, according to Alaska State Troopers. The plane, a Curtiss C-46 Commando, is a World War II-era, piston-powered, twin-engine military transport converted for use as a bulk fuel carrier.
Everts pilot Les Bradley said the Kenai-based plane delivered a load of fuel to the village of Nondalton, just north of Lake Iliamna, about 130 miles southwest of Kenai, and failed to return at its scheduled time. Everts is a family-owned Fair-banks-based company.
According to the troopers, the wreckage was spotted from the air around 1:22 p.m. Thursday, at the 2,800 foot level of an "extremely steep" ridgeline due south of Mount Redoubt.
Two Air National Guard pararescue personnel were lowered to the crash site and, after an hour's search, found no indication of survivors, according to Staff Sgt. Jeff Wells, an Alaska Army National Guard spokesperson in Anchorage.
National Transportation Safety Board officials and troopers will travel to the crash site today, along with avalanche control experts, to recover the bodies and investigate the crash site.
Bradley said Everts' pilots flew over the area and reported the crash appeared to be not survivable.
Family and friends of Munson and Machen gathered at the Everts office at the Kenai airport Wednesday, first to await word on the fate of their loved ones, then to console each other.
Everts began its own search procedures for the missing pilots and plane at about 4:40 p.m. Wednesday, Bradley said, by issuing an advisory to any pilots in the area to monitor the emergency frequency. He said he also called villages in the area to see if they had heard or seen the plane.
"Several people reported noise, on a couple different routes," said Bradley, a seasoned captain with Everts. "So we had conflicting reports."
Bradley said Munson used Lake Clark Pass to reach Nondalton, but he did not know what route Munson took coming back, since the company only files point-to-point flight plans.
He said the FAA began its search procedures shortly after Everts did.
Joette Storm, community affairs manager with the Federal Aviation Administration in Anchorage, said the last contact the FAA had with the plane was at 3:40 p.m.
Wells said the Rescue Coordination Center on Fort Richardson received a call from the FAA at 6:30 p.m. An HC-130 Hercules was launched from the Kulis Air National Guard base, but inclement weather stymied the search.
Wells said no emergency locator transmitter signal was heard.
Wells said another HC-130 and a HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron were launched Thursday morning to continue the search.
They were joined by Civil Air Patrol pilots and others from Kenai who volunteered to help.
"There were rugged peaks of 3,500 to 4,000 feet all around," said CAP pilot Henry Knackstedt. "Basically the foothills of Redoubt."
Wells said an Elmendorf Air Force Base radar track of an airplane ended on the west side of Cook Inlet, along a path the Everts plane could have taken. The wreckage was found about a half mile from where the radar track ended.
The weather on the west side of Cook Inlet Wednesday evening was deteriorating, according to Wells and Storm.
"There was a notice to airmen about the meteorological conditions," Storm said. "It said the mountains were obscured, there was turbulence, surface winds and icing."
While Kenai had sunny skies Thursday, searchers were hampered by stormy weather.
Bradley said Munson had about 1,000 hours in the C-46 and had qualified as a pilot-in-command of the plane in July. He described both Munson and Machen as experienced pilots.
"Both are veteran pilots. I'd ride anywhere with them," Bradley said.
Munson was the owner of the now-defunct SouthCentral Air, a commuter and cargo airline based at the Kenai Airport that went out of business in mid-1999.
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