Ted Stevens crash is nothing unusual in Alaska

Ted Stevens, the former senator killed Monday in a plane crash in the rugged terrain of western Alaska, was no stranger to the extraordinary risks of flying in his home state.

Stevens lost his first wife of 26 years, Ann Mary, in December 1978, when a Learjet carrying the couple attempted to land in heavy crosswinds in Anchorage and crashed upside down, breaking into four pieces.

Even before that first crash, which left him with serious neck, head and arm injuries, Stevens had spoken of a premonition that he would die in a plane crash, meeting the same fate as Rep. Nick Begich, the Democratic Alaska congressman who died in a 1972 crash.

Long before and long after Stevens’ first brush with death, the skies of Alaska have claimed victims by the dozens.

About 35% of all of the commuter and air taxi crashes in the U.S. have occurred in the far northern state, where transportation depends on aviation to bridge vast tracts of wilderness. Over a 19-year period ending in 2008, there were 551 crashes in the state, federal reports show.

The crash rates have improved in recent years, but the terrain, weather and challenge of flying into rugged wilderness still create unique hazards for pilots and their passengers.

In fact, the crash that killed Stevens was one of two plane accidents Monday, and among a string of recent tragedies, said Michael Schneider, an Anchorage pilot and lawyer specializing in aviation litigation. The area where Stevens’ plane went down, north of Dillingham, is particularly dangerous.

“It is dramatically beautiful country, but when the wind blows out there, it really blows,” Schneider said. “If you get the mountains running one way and the wind blowing the other way, you can get turbulence that no aircraft can overcome.”

Stevens, a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School, was a pilot in World War II, where he flew transports that supported operations in China against Japan. He kept his pilot license valid for many years afterward, though it could not be located Tuesday on a federal database.

Many crashed planes are never found, but search and rescue teams were able to locate the wreckage of the single-engine float plane that carried Stevens and former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

When Begich’s plane crashed in October 1972, it also carried House Speaker Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat, who had gone to Alaska to help Begich campaign in a tight race.

Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force aircraft searched for the crash site for 39 days. The wreckage was never located, and both Begich and Boggs were reelected posthumously.

Perhaps the two most famous people killed in Alaska skies were humorist and social commentator Will Rogers and aviation pioneer Wiley Post, who crashed together with Post at the controls in 1935.

Rogers had visited Post in Burbank, where a Lockheed plane was being modified by Pacific Airmotive. He asked the famed aviator, who had made the first solo flight around the world, to fly him to Alaska to look for stories.

On Aug. 15, 1935, the two were taking off from a lagoon near Point Barrow when the engine lost power and the plane went nose-first into the lagoon. They died instantly.