Just a bit . . .

Just a bit lower . . . Just a bit further . . .

Sunset is fast approaching at Koyukuk Airport, Alaska.  I’m going to assume it is, anyway.  It’s about 4:00 PM local in January.  Weather is VFR and the flight to Nulato is only is a short one down river.  Weather should be good there, too, right?  No mountains to cross or anything.  (Nulato is a guess.  The report only says the destination is about 20 miles downriver.)  No enroute weather available.  Now, I admit I’ve never been to Alaska, but I understand the flying conditions can change very quickly there.

Our pilot launches in the Navajo Chieftan for the quick cargo flight.  We’ll call him “Larry.”  No idea what his real name is.  Unfortunately for Larry, the weather actually is different down river.  He is unable to find Nulato “due to weather conditions” and starts flying back to Koyukuk, using the river to navigate by.  You know, IFR (I Follow Roads, although rivers also work really well).

Let’s talk weather for a minute.  The important pieces of weather here are air temperature in the neighborhood of -29º C, moisture in the air (not much when it’s this cold, but weather did obscure Larry’s intended destination), and calm wind.  With sunset approaching, air temp will probably fall.  The closer the air temp gets to the dew point with no wind to stir things up, the more likely fog will form.  Back to our story.

The weather hiding Nulato is now making the return to Koyukuk more than a little sporty.  The ceiling is getting lower and so is visibility.  Been there.  Not fun.  Are you wondering how much gas he has?  It’s not reported.  How about available diverts?  Pitka Airport is 20 or so miles away and has approaches.  Larry is an ATP.  He can shoot an approach.  What is the terrain like?  Higher to the northwest.  River valley to the east and southeast stretching all the way to Pitka.  It’s on the Fairbanks sectional, if you want to see it.

Larry flies a little lower and then just a bit lower . . . it’s just a bit further.  The weather must still be good at Koyukuk.  He just needs to break through, only he ends up in the fog and a whiteout.

Navajo Chieftan N45008, operated by Larry’s Flying Service, impacted the surface of the frozen Yukon River January 2, 2004.  The Piper was substantially damaged and the pilot was seriously injured.

The Brief of Accident basically says the pilot flew into weather and then hit the ground.  I wonder if the pilot really was Larry and he was worried about the dollar signs the failure to deliver were costing him.  Or did his more than 5000 hours make him over confident in his ability to get out of this one?  No human factors matters were addressed in the report, but that nasty get-there-itis is a suspect.

What kind of things do you do to avoid this scenario?

Findings in Brief of Accident ANC04LA018:

  • Occurence #1 In flight encounter with weather
  1. (Factor) Weather Condition – Fog
  2. (Factor) Weather Condition – Whiteout
  3. (Cause) Flight into Adverse Weather – Continued
  4. (Cause) Altitude/Clearance – Not Maintained
  • Occurence #2 In flight collision with terrain/water
  1. {No classification given} Terrain Condition – Water, Frozen


Brief of Accident ANC04LA018

Search for “ANC04LA018” in the Accident Number field at


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