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.”
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.
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.
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.”