Deadly flights

Gene Peltola’s plane at takeoff carrying trophy moose antlers in a position pilots have been warned can “can cause a significant airflow disturbance to the tail surfaces”/NTSB photo


Retired BIA director victim of risky job

Ten days before Gene Peltola’s 2022 retirement from his position as Alaska director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs – where he championed the idea of a subsistence priority to protect rural hunters from competition with wealthy guided hunters – he obtained an assistant guide and transporter license from the state of Alaska.

Why Peltola decided to get into the risky business of flying guided hunters, their equipment and sometimes the meat of the animals they killed into and out of makeshift airstrips is unknown, but it is a decision that cost the 57-year-old husband of Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, his life.

Only 14 months later, he was at the controls of a Piper Supercub belonging to guide Bruce Werba, owner of Alaska Pike Safaris and Wilderness Adventures, when it crashed shortly after takeoff from a tundra airstrip on a hilltop 80 miles southeast of Werba’s home base near the 181-person, Yukon River village of Holy Cross in Southwest Alaska.

In a 2001 study of “Air Safety in Southwest Alaska” prepared by the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hunting came up again and again as a factor in aircraft crashes.

One resident of the Bethel area in Southwest, where Peltola spent most of his life, this weekend said that is no surprise given the basic problem of human nature.

“Whether it’s operating commercially or privately, and you’re moving lots of weight from game animals, other people and gear, and you’re on a schedule, people are going to push the limits,” he said.

Many of the crashes and incidents cited in the ISER report involved landings on remote, unmaintained airstrips. In most cases, the pilots luckily survived low-speed crashes. But there was one fatality, and the study reported 65 percent of the smashed airplanes in the area involved “air taxis and part 135 operations flying under part 91.”

Part 91 excempts Alaska lodges and guide operations from the more stringent regulations that govern air taxis.

“Generally, if the flight operations are conducted by the guide, lodge, or employees of the guide or lodge, and the operations are incidental to providing guide services in the field, then they may be conducted under Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations and Part 119 and 135 does not apply,” according to a handout from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. 

Parts 119 and 135 set stricter flight standards for air taxis and small commuter airlines, but that has not stopped the NTSB from being critical of the operations of both air-taxis and Part 91 flights in Alaska due to what the agency has labeled “the ‘Bush syndrome’ defined as an attitude of air tax operators, pilots and passengers ranging from their casual acceptance of risks to their willingness to take unwarranted risk.”

Pilots involved in commercial Alaska hunting activities are especially prone to Bush syndrome. It is not uncommon for them to push their aircraft to the limit to get hunters, gear and game into airstrips near remote hunting camps.

Peltola’s plane, according to the information in a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) preliminary report, was near its weight limit when it took off late on Sept. 12 with a massive set of trophy moose antlers lashed to the strut beneath the plane’s right wing.

According to the report, the hunters for whom Peltola was flying the meat and antlers said 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. The group initially thought that the pickup had been successful, but the airplane did not reappear from behind the ridge. The group ran to the top of the ridgeline, looked down, and saw that the airplane had crashed.”

Similar crash

There has been considerable speculation among experienced Alaska bush pilots about what those antlers might have done to the aerodynamics of the plane, and the crash itself is eerily similar to one that claimed the life of Big Lake, Alaska, pilot Scott Mueller a decade earlier.

He had caribou antlers tied to the left strut of a a heavily loaded Super Cub that took off, veered left and crashed.

After that incident, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) analysis stated that “before departure, caribou antlers were attached externally to the airplane’s left wing lift struts, the airplane’s main wing fuel tanks were refueled, the airplane was loaded with two butchered caribou and hunting gear, and the passenger’s rifle was strapped onto the right wing.

“The passenger (who survived) reported that, after taking off toward the east, the pilot stated that he ‘should have taken off the other way.’ A witness stated that the airplane departed downwind and began a shallow climb, followed by a gradual left turn,
before descending into the trees just beyond the departure end of the runway.”

The NTSB concluded the Mueller crash was due to “the pilot’s improper decision to load the airplane beyond its allowable takeoff weight and center of gravity limits, which resulted in a loss of control during the initial climb. Contributing to the accident was the external load and the downwind takeoff.

After the Mueller crash, the FAA developed a list of suggestions for how to carry external loads on fixed-wing airplanes and noted that “it has been reported that on some aircraft, antlers secured to the wing struts can cause a significant airflow disturbance to the tail surfaces.”

The tail surfaces are the rudder, which controls the plane’s movement from right to left, and the elevators, which control the plane’s pitch.

Some media have suggested the Peltola crash is linked to Alaska’s lack of “safety infrastructure like paved runways, statewide communications coverage and – one of the most critical – weather reporting equipment,” but in reality those things had nothing to do with the fatal incident.

The crash is, instead, tied to the realities of Alaska hunting and the hundreds if not thousands of makeshift airstrips used to reach hunting opportunities in a world where the Super Cub is to Alaska guides what the Land Rover is to professional hunters in Africa.

It would cost a fortune to pave all these small and little used airstrips – not to mention the ridges tops and gravel bars used for landings – oufit them with weather reporting euiqment, and then maintain such equipment.

And the problem of Bush syndrome would still remain.

After the Mueller crash, the NTSB reported “the airplane’s estimated gross weight at the time of the accident was about 642 pounds over its approved maximum takeoff weight, and its center of gravity was significantly beyond the aft-most limit.”

Peltola’s plane was also heavily loaded, but nowhere near so overloaded as Mueller’s, according to the NTSB report, which does not provide a total weight but does record “a load of about 520 pounds that consisted primarily of moose meat and a set of moose antlers,” which the hunters said was “about 50 to 70 pounds more meat than during the previous flight.”

Adding in the weight of the pilot and fuel to the moose meat and antlers, the load would likely come close to 750 to 800 pounds. The PA-18 Super Cub has a load carrying capacity of about 820 pounds including fuel, a complicating factor of which Peltola was well aware.

He “told a hunter that he had performed fuel calculations and would be at reserve fuel levels on arrival at Holy Cross,” the NTSB report says. This would indicate Peltola was flying with less than full tanks to keep the weight of the plane down so he could haul more meat.

The PA-18 has a range of about 450 miles with full tanks. Peltola needed only about half that to fly the 160 mile round trip to the hunting camp and back, and provide some reserve. Gasoline weighs a hefty six pounds per gallon. A Super Cub like the one he was flying usually has a fuel capacity of 36 gallons or about 216 pounds.

Any issue with the plane’s center of gravity is unresolved. The NTSB reported that about 150 pounds of meat “was loaded into the airplane’s belly pod, which did not have tie-down provisions.” The lack of tie-downs presents the possibility the meat could have slid to the back of the pod and altered the plans center of gravity on takeoff.

But more on that awaits the full NTSB report.

Hunters successful in previous hunts pose in front of the Werba-owned Super Cub that Peltola crashed/Alaska Pike Safaris and Wilderness Adventures photo

Well-established business

Werba, the guide for whom Peltola was flying, is pretty well known for helping hunters kill trophy-size bull moose, animals with antlers 5-feet wide or more. He was featured in a story in Outdoor Life in 2019. Writer John B. Snow reported being flown out of Holy Cross in a fleet of three Super Cubs piloted by Werba employees.

Snow described Werba as “a bit of a legend in Alaskan outfitting circles….His reputation for putting both his guided and self-guided hunters on big bulls is why I sought him out. I’ve been on half a dozen moose hunts over the years and have killed three, but I’d never had a chance on a true monster – one of those gaggers in the mid-60s (60 inches) that just takes your breath away – until now.”

Alaska law requires that hunters salvage all of the meat on such a bull, and it can be a load. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game warns hunters that a big bull moose can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and dress out to 950 pounds.

If all the meat is boned out, it is possible to get the load down to about 500 pounds, but some big moose will top that. The NTSB report said Peltola’s Super Cub was on its second meat hall of the day when it crashed.

Werba isn’t talking about the crash, but his employment of Peltola has generated a fair bit of discussion with those in the know in the Alaska hunting community.

Rod Arno, director of the Alaska Outdoor Council called Peltola’s death tragically ironic.

“…We’ve got years of minutes from Federal Subsistence Board  (FSB) meetings with Gene crucifying nonlocal hunters,” Arno said. “Interesting how the media has kept the fact that Gene was on the FSB out of the papers.”

The FSB works to keep nonlocal hunters, like those for whom Peltola was working, out of rural Alaska, and Werba has in the past run into some problems with unhappy local hunters.

A 2003 report from the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge records testimony about “big money people coming in to hunt our moose,” and “complaints about Bruce Werba leaving moose meat in the field.”

Such complaints are common in Alaska and may or may not be accurate. Rural subsistence hunters complain about urban Alaska hunters wasting meat. Urban Alaska hunters complain about rural subsistence hunters wasting meat. And both complain about non-resident hunters leaving meat on carcasses.

All are guilty from time to time, and many are innocently accused as wars rage over hunting opportunities and what some claim to be hunting “rights,” although no one has any right to hunt.

Meanwhile, there is a debate over the economics of all of this. Guided hunting operations based out of communities like Holy Cross generate a flow of cash that ripples through a community where there are no other businesses or industries.

And the Alaska Professional Hunters Association notes a fair amount of the meat from animals killed by trophy hunters often stays in those villages.

“In addition to the impacts of jobs, payroll, and spending for goods and services, hunting guides provide a significant level of voluntary support to residents of rural Alaska,” the organization says. “The most important of these is the distribution of meat donated by hunters. Because of the expense and logistics of taking meat home from Alaska, the majority of all game meat harvested in the state is donated. While the total amount of meat
distributed is unknown, it could reasonably be assumed to be tens of thousands of pounds annually.”









20 replies »

  1. Depending on the final math, the load might have been about 200 pounds over, not 20 or so under, if that is a utility category plane. That’s what the registration says, it’s not clear from the report if that was understood.

  2. It is true that skilled back country pilots have been successfully flying hunters etc in and out of remote Alaskan area for many years. But when ever you are higher than you care to fall there is a risk. And that risk is significantly enhanced when pilots operate out of  non improved short areas surrounded by inhospitable terrain in varying visibility and weather conditions.
    Throw in some money and pressure to fly  into the equation and the risk grows. Fatal accidents have and will continue to occur. 

    Sometimes it is just the thrill of landing and taking off from a very challenging unimproved remote area that motivates pilots. And that only adds to the risk. 

    Just yesterday a very very  highly respected and skilled Alaska  / Arizona pilot tried to land in such a remote place in Washington and failed to execute a missed approach, which resulted in him being  killed.
    From what has been reported there was no reason for his actions except for his desire to do a very challenging back country off airport landing. Go figure. 

    • Tweto, Vanyo, McSpadden…it almost seems like if you do it long enough and aren’t completely anal about everything from weather to weight to CG balance to airframe and engine maintenance, the odds catch up with you.

      What was that old saying? Oh yeah, “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

      Mounain bike racer says a lot about Vanyo. Racing, in general, attracts people who want to push things right to the edge with the best of them recognizing they’re sometimes going to go over the edge but who then push on anyway.

    • Its all about choices. 
      The Arizona pilot chose to land in a questionable spot. Then chose not to find a safe place to put down for emergency landing when his plane was damaged in said risky prior landing. 
      He liked risky so maybe this was his preferred ending. Idk 

  3. According to friends and family,Peltola loved hunting and flying.
    I worked for 4 decades in the hunting guide industry and while the income was good, I do not believe that his obtaining an assistant guide and transporter license was due to “greed”.
    Possibly the man was pursuing a dream of working professionally with an office that was wilderness Alaska, something that most keyboard warriors only wish they had the courage to do.

  4. I pioneered those fly in strips for Werba many years ago, and it was an amazing experience for me at the tail end of my years of flying as a air taxi owner/operator hauling hunters opening some new country up to hunting. It’s too far for local ATVs, past the river drainages access so inaccessible by boat, thus aircraft are the only access in that area. Residents are only now just starting to hear about it and hunt that area, successfully too.

    So not only did I put that camp in where this accident occurred, but I’m pretty familiar with the logistics and pressures of that exact mission, and they’re actually kind of complicated. 

    However, I disagree with these blanket “Bush Syndrome” statements being made; (successful) commercial hunting pilots (may) accept higher than “normal” risks, but, professionals also have the knowledge, skills, equipment and very strong motivation to mitigate these “higher” risks.
    “Bush Syndrome” makes it sound like some sort of disease for which there is no cure, and after mitigating these risks successfully for 20+ years of this exact work without bending airplanes or hurting anyone as I did, anyone in the same position as myself, and a lot of other professionals which have also safely done this work for much longer than just my little 27 years might rightly take umbrage with these blanket conclusions.

    These general one-size-fits-all statements are disrespectful to all the successful operators still out there, and always come right after someone has an accident who perhaps didn’t effectively mitigate the risks, manage logistical challenges and pressures, and so it doesn’t work out for them; so then terms are bandied about with a wide Blankie covering ALL commercial hunting operators which isn’t factual or fair.

    • Certainly isn’t fair. I’d agree with you there. A lot in life isn’t fair and most always the broad, stroke categorizations of people.

      But “Bush Snydrome” is something of a disease, a disease of human nature if you will.. The world is full of people who overstimate their abilities and/or think they know far more than they know. It’s not “disrespectful” to the relative few of excellent judgement to talk about a problem that plagues most of mankind.

      And aviation is somewhat unique in Alaska in this regard. There are lot of other actvities in which the risks are as high as in flying hunters, but the consequences of a mistake are far less. Thast said it’s amazing how many Cub pilots I know who’ve wrecked the machinery and survived.

      Would really like to know if Peltola was wearing a full harness and a helmet. I’ve known people to survive crashes in airplanes that looked worse.

      • Military aviation used to have something called Get Home-itis, a disease that encouraged the pilot to take risks to get from where they were to where they wanted to be. This often involved pushing the boundaries a bit, occasionally with deadly results. Bush syndrome sounds a lot like this. Cheers –

      • Cousins I’d say, Alex. I remembers some kayakers and snowmachiners killed by Get-Home-itis and others. There are times when one should just sit down and wait until conditions are better for travel in the north, but when you’re on a schedule….

      • The air to mud business had another cousin with the pop-up attack. Setup was to rat race at low altitude and high speed toward a target. You got to go low and fast, lighting you hair on fire, knife between your teeth, and all that stuff. Great fun.

        Once you got close enough to the target, you would pull back on the stick, climb and do a quarter turn and 3/4 roll toward the target, partly inverted. Once you saw it, you would put the pointy end of the jet on the target, assume the weapons delivery position, and release the weapon. Do it right, and enemy air defenses don’t see you long enough to shoot you down. Do it wrong, and you become one with the target. We lost a lot of guys who got themselves in a position where the aircraft simply wouldn’t recover (too low to pull out with the nose buried too far below the horizon). Those that survived would recognize they were too close and too high early enough to wave off that attack. Those soon to be dead would figure they could save the pass. A lot of them didn’t. And we did this all the time. Cheers –

      • I have flown quite a few hours in Super Cubs and their close equivalents. Starting immediately after I lost a friend in 1990 who was thrown through the front plexi window when he hit a tree on landing, I had a four point seat/ shoulder harness installed and started wearing a light weight Kevlar helmet with a built in head set and boom mike. The new ones are very light and very comfortable and offer excellent protection. Most of my back country friends do the same. 
        Statistics reflect that a very high percentage of pilots killed in single engine crashes  are caused by blunt force trauma to the head. That’s a good enough reason to have both a good four point shoulder / seat belt and helmet.

  5. The why is usually greed, but this is the second outfitter/pilot to crash this year and I can only feel karma sometimes comes into play…

  6. “although no one has any right to hunt” many states have the right to hunt enshrined in their Constitutions and let’s not forget the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution which says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Our own state constitution says “Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.”

    It’s certainly interesting that a paid proponent of subsistence priority would get his assistant guide and transported licenses shortly before retiring from that paid position. My guess is that he was very well aware of the amount of money involved in flying out non-resident hunters to remote spots that most bush residents would never hunt anyway.

    • Funny. Many urban hunters would argue with the first paragrah; many bush hunters with the second. Which just about sums where we are today in this divided state.

  7. There are many ironies here. But the basic point (for me at least) is that life is dangerous and personal responsibility is always your primary defense.

  8. Great Article.
    Why wasn’t more emphasis put on the question of pertolas health? Both physical and Mental?
    Time and emotional constraints?
    His wife had just flown off in joe bidens plane .
    His family has been busy.
    I guess the biggest question is which way the wind was blowing when pertola made the turn?
    When was the plane last inspected for mechanical? 100 hr ? Annual?
    Guided Moose hunts range 25-30 k or more. Out of state hunters bring a lot of money into our state and their tag fees are doing a lot to help support management.
    Guided hunts are an enormous economic benefit to the state.
    Guides spend enormous sums to stay in operation.
    That money gets spread around mostly in state.
    Planes, trucks , boats , food , supplies, fuel, lodging, machinery just to name a few .
    Guiding is tourism based on a renewable resource when managed properly. Guide’s often consider themselves essentially in the livestock management business.
    Its a little like sport fishing where each animal benefits are maximized.
    Thankfully most guides operate beyond where the majority of the population hunts .
    Rarely near villages or towns.

    • To answer one of those questions: Maybe becuase mental health is hard to determine. Could his judgment have been preocuppied with all of the other things going on his life? Could he have been thinking, “Let’s just get this damn meat loaded and get out of here?” I’d say there’s a good possibliity of both.

      Been there. Done that. Had close calls for similar thinking on several occasions.

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