Disappearance in an Alaskan valley

My initial interest in the “crash” was professional. Did I perform professionally? Could I have done anything to prevent it? What was I responsible for? I was one of the last people who did not die with him to speak to the pilot. They are gone now, still out there somewhere, and we do not know when they will be found. It has been almost 30 years.

My job was to brief pilots on weather information prior to their flights. I was a flight service specialist working for the FAA in Anchorage. I was only an advisor. I stood ready, a phone call or radio call away. I was ready with updates on the weather reports. Pilots needed the information. Weather can kill.

So in the interest of safe flights, pilots would call for briefings and updates and sometimes the weather was questionable, but they might launch anyway. It was always the pilot’s responsibility. Pilots would launch to “take a look,” inferring they would make the 180 degree turn if the weather required them to turn back.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

–Simple Gifts (Old Shaker Hymn)

My interest in the “disappearance” of the aircraft was professional. How is an aircraft lost on a well-traveled route of flight? Did I lead the pilot to make a “go” decision rather than a “no go” decision?

My interest in the crash and disappearance of N7984Q was also somehow personal. I cannot say it dogged me over the years. Every now and then, there was a trigger of remembrance. There was a “Reward” poster that hung for some time in the Talkeetna Flight Service Station where I worked occasionally. I was surprised how long it stayed on the wall.

I did not know the passengers or pilot. But, after the event, I knew the pilot’s voice. I can hear him today as if I had briefed him this morning. He had a strong baritone voice. As part of the accident “package” put together by Air Traffic, the organization I belonged to, I had to review the tapes of our conversations and write up my statement. I do not have the complete file today. I have the reports and the transcripts of my contacts with the pilot. The tape recordings are gone. It has been almost 30 years. I want to know more now. I have a greater sense of mortality. It comes with age.

‘tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

–Simple Gifts (Old Shaker Hymn)

Map of Alaska Range
A map of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (courtesy of Bearfoot Guides, Anchorage, AK).

The “valley” ends just across the Cook Inlet north of Anchorage. It is the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. This drainage out of the Alaska Range where the tallest peak in North America is located is what our pilot would have seen before heading north toward Cantwell, before heading north to a place unknown.

I was working the tail end of a midnight shift on July 25, 1984.

At 6:31 a.m. the pilot called the Anchorage FSS/IFSS (International Flight Service Station). I was on the Preflight 5 weather briefing position and answered the call which dropped into my headset:

Briefer: Anchorage Flight Service, good morning.

Pilot: Good morning – ah – I am going to head up Cantwell shortly here wonder if you have anything on the airport – the strip itself at Cantwell conditions – with ah any weather up that way ah I suppose I better get Talkeetna (unintelligible) up by Summit and anything else like [that]

Briefer: All right – what time are you planning on leaving and what airport?

Pilot: I am leaving from international in about half a hour.

Briefer: All right this is going to be a fixed wing

Pilot: Yes it is

Briefer: All right – I don’t have anything for Willow or Talkeetna either as far as observations go – Windy Pass is forecast to be open occasional marginal – possibility of icing in clouds above the freezing level in the Cook Inlet Susitna Valley – freezing level is around eight thousand feet – synopsis there’s a low in the Gulf of Alaska drifting –ah—to a point south of Seward by ah Wednesday evening – ah – the weather in the Anchorage area – at international four thousand scattered estimated ceiling eight thousand broken higher overcast layer visibility three zero temperature six zero dewpoint four eight wind two zero zero at six – there is precip in the area – Merrill Field is reporting light rain and – ah – that’s about it I’ve got on current weather for ya it’s IFR up at Fairbanks – ah – low broken layer at four hundred feet, visibility ten miles ceiling ragged – don’t have any pilot reports for ya yet – area forecast calls for on the Cook Inlet Susitna Valley generally four thousand scattered to broken eight thousand broken to overcast, scattered light rain mainly over Cook Inlet – showers in the Susitna Valley this afternoon – lower conditions over the lower portions of the Cook Inlet this morning.

Pilot: Okay – ah – I guess can’t get much for weather do you have anything ah on the airport itself what’s the runway conditions?

Briefer: Ah I expect it’s normal summer conditions – I don’t have any local NOTAMs or ah report on any mud or anything like that up there

Pilot: Okay I guess that’s the best I can do seven nine eight four quebec

Briefer: All right and if you give us a call back after seven a.m. we should have some Cantwell weather for ya

Pilot: Okay thanks

Briefer: You bet

A low pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska would be expected to influence weather conditions along the pilot’s intended route over South Central Alaska. Moving northward, its counter-clockwise circulation would result in a southerly flow of moist air. This flow would fetch up onshore from the Pacific Ocean.

The system would bring rain and low clouds overland as it progressed northward. It would affect higher terrain in advance of lower elevations. The conditions are slow moving and last for significant amounts of time –  days, sometime weeks. As a child living in Anchorage, I remember one summer when I never saw clear skies, never saw the sun…the remembrance is of gray overcast days and occasional weak drizzle.

Anchorage International is barely more than 100 feet above sea level. The Susitna Valley is a drainage, progressively increasing in elevation northward into the mountains of the Alaska Range. The terrain can be considered “rapidly rising” north of Talkeetna in the Chulitna area, although the Broad Pass area is, as its name implies, wider, with few obstructive mountains in the way and rather gently rising compared to the mountains that ring three sides of it. The intertie (powerline) the passengers were supporting construction of, goes through the Chulitna Pass area as does the Alaska Railroad. The Parks Highway goes through Broad Pass. In marginal weather there is little room to deviate around low clouds in Chulitna Pass compared to Broad Pass. Cantwell airport is approximately 2190 feet above sea level; it is slightly more than about 200 feet lower than the elevation of Broad Pass. Broad Pass is about 2400 feet above sea level. To get to Cantwell an aircraft must fly above 2400 feet to avoid impacting the ground.

The forecast called for clouds along the route at “four thousand scattered to broken.” At Broad Pass, subtracting 2,400 feet from 4,000 feet provides a calculation of 1,600 feet of airspace between the forecasted bases of the clouds and the ground. This is more than adequate in theory for the aircraft to transition to Cantwell from Anchorage. The weather falls into the category of Marginal VFR (MVFR): ceilings of 3,000 feet to 1,000 feet. There was no basis here for the briefer to provide a “VFR flight not recommended” (VNR) statement.

The pilot and the briefer must also take the current reported weather into consideration when making a go/no go decision or VNR advisory statement. Unfortunately, at the time of the first call, there were no observations available between Anchorage and Fairbanks, (nearly half the north/south length of the state).

Wide gaps in weather reporting were typical in the 1980s in Alaska. While the coverage of reporting stations still lags far behind the “Lower 49,” the advent of automated surface observation systems (ASOS) has helped provide pilots with greater numbers of reporting locations and more frequent weather reports.

The pilot had been advised to call back for an update to get the Cantwell weather report.

The pilot called back shortly after the new hour:

Briefer: Anchorage Flight Service good morning

Pilot: Yes sir good morning ah going getting ready to go up to Cantwell wondering if ya have any – ya said by seven you might have some weather up that way — Talkeetna Cantwell Summit

Briefer: Ya I think I talked to you last hour you’re flying nine four quebec

Pilot: Yes sir eight four quebec

Briefer: Eight four quebec okay I guess I just copied it wrong here — all right it is marginal up there just like the ah pass forecast indicated — ah — I’ll give you the current weather out of Talkeetna – that’s looking pretty good — estimated ceiling five thousand broken seven thousand overcast and twenty miles visibility — at Cantwell they’re reporting ah nine hundred scattered, estimated ceiling one thousand two hundred broken, two thousand overcast and visibility is ten pardon me five miles with light rain and fog, temperature five one, dew point four seven wind two zero zero at eight knots, pass estimated marginal, altimeter three zero zero three that extends northward into the Tanana Valley, Nenana is reporting about the same ah they don’t have the precip though

Pilot: Okay

Briefer: And reference the runway conditions out there — they’re going to go take a look at it — they’ll report to us later on — didn’t get anything for ya currently out of em

Pilot: Okay that sounds — that’s about what I need thank you much

Briefer: All right then goodbye now

Pilot: Ya

The “current” weather observation that was provided for Cantwell indicated a ceiling of 1,200 feet. A ceiling is measured above ground level at the weather station. Calculating 2,190 field elevation, plus 1,200 feet, gives us the bases of the clouds in mean sea level (MSL) terms which are what the forecasts and elevations are based on. Thus 2,190 plus 1,200 equals roughly 3400 feet. Subtract the height of 2,400 elevation for clearing Broad Pass from 3,400 MSL cloud bases at Cantwell and the result is 1,000 feet between the surface and the bottom of the clouds. In theory, the flight could have proceeded in MVFR conditions to its destination.

Still other phenomena must be considered. The spread between temperature and dewpoint (temperature at which the air if chilled to dewpoint will be saturated with moisture) at Cantwell was 4 degrees. A rule of thumb was to beware of fog and moisture reducing visibility with spreads of 5 degrees or less. The observation at Cantwell corroborated the spread with rain and fog reported. The five-mile visibility is not considered unrestricted. Visibilities six miles or less must have a restriction to visibility reported. This was done properly by the weather observer at Cantwell.

Unlike reports at major airports and automated reports, the Cantwell weather report contained a remark: NOSPL. This remark indicates no special reports would be made and only the next scheduled observation would be transmitted. The significance is that, if criteria are met, special reports are issued regarding lowering or rising weather conditions. There would be no special reports to warn away a pilot if Cantwell’s conditions lowered.

In the 1980s, temperatures were reported in Fahrenheit. Today, the temperatures are reported in Celsius and the temperature/dewpoint spread alert is 3 degrees or less. Also in remarks, the weather observer appended the observation that Windy Pass was estimated marginal confirming the NWS Pass Forecast. Windy Pass is north of Cantwell.

At 7:26 a.m. the aircraft was ready to go. It contained four passengers (Pat Murphy, Donald Gabbert, Gerald Dalrymple, Jack Dickey) and Keith Newstrom, the pilot of the Alaska Air Services chartered twin engine Cessna 401. The passengers were employees of Newberry Alaska on an inspection trip along the Alaska Power Authority intertie between Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Keith Newstrom
The pilot of N7984Q, Keith Newstrom (photo from Grand Rapids Herald Review, 7/22/98).

The flight was cleared to taxi to Runway 14 with a right downwind departure which would take the flight on a general heading across Cook Inlet and toward the Susitna Valley. Five minutes after taxiing, the pilot was cleared for takeoff, departing Anchorage International. At 7:33 a.m. the Anchorage Tower local position air traffic control specialist visually confirmed that the flight departed Anchorage International and had turned northbound.

FAA records do not indicate any further radio or telephone communications with the pilot after he left Anchorage Tower’s airspace. One newspaper article stated the pilot had radioed Talkeetna FSS, but official inquiry regarding such a contact on the day of the disappearance was negative.

With weather as reported in the Cook Inlet area, the pilot would have easily seen the top of Mount Susitna (known as Sleeping Lady, elevation about 4,400 feet), and while approaching Talkeetna, 75 miles north of Anchorage, the pilot would have seen lower conditions northward along his intended route of flight to Cantwell, approximately 150 miles north of Anchorage.

An FAA pilot weather briefer at the time of the occurrence was trained and certified by the National Weather Service (NWS). Months of formal classroom and FAA on-the-job training were required prior to “check out” to achieve the ability to brief independently. One key area of learning was called “Local Area Knowledge.” Briefers had to demonstrate intimate knowledge of weather systems, terrain effects, airports, navigational aids (NAVAIDs), geography, place names, and airport peculiarities prior to check out. Recently, NWS withdrew from Pilot Briefer certification. That task is now accomplished by FAA.

Our procedures to provide information to the pilot were prescribed by National Directives and there was quality control checking done routinely by NWS and our own quality assurance personnel. Completely accurate and timely information was the standard required. Federal Air Regulations required the pilot to be familiar with all pertinent information for their flight and the FAA had the responsibility to provide the information on request of the pilot.

As an advisor, the briefer may advise the pilot that “VFR flight is not recommended” when, in the briefer’s judgment, VFR flight is doubtful. It is certainly legal for aircraft to fly VFR in conditions below “a thousand and three” depending on the airspace and altitude of the aircraft.

A lesson in accomplishing a long distance VFR flight in Alaska is, sometimes, launch and get to the next decent place to wait weather out, otherwise you might never launch, might never get anywhere.

Today a pilot may access specialists for briefings by radio or telephone, but technology has developed and evolved. Pilots can get computerized weather information as well as weather and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) – flight data, via smartphones. Pilots can get weather camera imagery in the cockpit with their smart phones (if there is connectivity). The weather cameras have revolutionized VFR flight decision making, by providing near real-time images of the places pilots must fly such as distant airports and mountain passes.

Mt. Susitna
A view of 4400 foot high “Sleeping Lady,” Mt. Susitna (photo: Ed Wilson, 2010).

The aircraft did not file a flight plan with Flight Service, nor was there a requirement for a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) pilot to do so. The main reason for filing a VFR flight plan is to ensure timely and accurate initiation of Search and Rescue (SAR) activity should the flight become overdue. One half hour after the estimated time of arrival (ETA), an aircraft that has not closed its flight plan becomes overdue. FSS then begins a communications search, trying to locate the aircraft.

Without an FAA flight plan, a responsible party such as the company or significant other must declare the aircraft overdue to begin SAR action. The fog of indecision associated with not knowing when to declare an aircraft overdue can be arduously time consuming and result in significant delays to beginning Search and Rescue. The FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) states that generally it takes about 36 hours for a concerned party to report an aircraft not on a flight plan overdue. That is too long to wait.

A flight plan with Flight Service eliminates all the ambiguity of when to start looking. Thirty precious minutes after ETA the search is on.

At 12:06 p.m., N7984Q was reported overdue by the company. Flight Service issued an Alert Notice (ALNOT) and began communications notifications and requests for field checks. All responses were negative.

At 2:03 p.m. Elmendorf Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) initiated SAR for N7984Q.

The AIM states that the chances of an injured passenger surviving an aircraft accident are reduced by 80% if not found within 24 hours. Aircraft are generally required to have Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT) which can greatly aid in locating the aircraft. They do not always go off.

The aircraft Alaska Senator Ted Stevens died in was equipped with the new 406MHZ ELT, but it failed to activate. Conversely, 98% of the old 121.5 ELT signals were false alarms according to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

Radar does not cover all of Alaska at altitudes VFR aircraft operate in, especially in marginal weather conditions. Aircraft just disappear from the radar screens.

No ELT signal from N7984Q was ever heard.

The news over the next few days exhibited much effort and no results. On Thursday, July 26, it was reported that searchers were “plagued by poor weather…there were no major leads in the search and none of the 19 search aircraft had picked up signals from the plane’s emergency locator transmitter.” (Anchorage Daily News, July 27, 1984).

On July 28, the Associated Press reported: “The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane’s pilot, who was identified as Keith Newstrom of Anchorage did not file a flight plan, but received a briefing before taking off on what should have been an hour-long, 150 mile flight.”

On July 30, the Anchorage Times published: “Bad weather forced an early halt to search efforts Sunday and the fate of a Cessna 401 carrying five people remained unknown…Before being grounded, searchers had shifted their efforts northeast of the normal air route to Cantwell. Witnesses reported having seen the Cessna abandon efforts to fly through Chulitna Pass and head toward Delta, said Mel Fry of the Civil Air Patrol.”

On August 11, the Anchorage Times informed its readers:

Search efforts for a twin-engine aircraft missing since it left Anchorage on a flight to Cantwell late last month have been suspended, U.S. Air Force and Civil Air Patrol spokesmen said Friday.

The Cessna 401 with five passengers aboard left Anchorage International airport July 25 en route to Cantwell and was last seen in the Portage Creek area northeast of Chulitna Pass.

CAP public affairs director Mel Fry said the organization of private pilots flew 300 sorties, logged 739.5 flying hours and searched 50,400 square miles for the plane.

But the search wasn’t over.

‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn…
‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.

–Simple Gifts (Old Shaker Hymn)

Days after the official search was suspended, on August 22 the Associated Press reported that “Newberry Alaska Inc. has offered a $5,000 reward for information on a plane which vanished July 25 on a flight from Anchorage to Cantwell with five persons aboard, including four Newberry Alaska employees.”

Gordon Newstrom wasn’t done searching, either. The father of pilot Keith Newstrom was a living legend in aviation. The founder of Masaba Airlines, Gordon Newstrom was eventually inducted into the Minnesota State Aviation Hall of Fame, and was an airport manager, FAA designated check pilot and high time seaplane operator who wrote the book: Fly a Seaplane. The airport in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is named for the father.

Gordy Newstrom was interviewed by the Grand Rapids Daily Tribune on April 6, 1996. The report portrays an indomitable spirit of devotion and love.

For seven years, Gordy Newstrom flew over the lonely wilderness of Alaska, searching for his dead son.

And each year he came back with nothing. No clues. No wreckage. Less hope.

“I always keep hoping someday somebody will find that plane up there, but you…” he said, his voice breaking and trailing off as he stares through the window of the quiet airport café.

That he has never found his son or his son’s four passengers lingers as his greatest disappointment. Still he has no regrets, and he does not consider himself a failure.

His search, though, unsuccessful, resembles the way the Grand Rapids man has lived his whole life: with dedication, optimism and airplanes.

Gordon Newstrom
Gordon Newstrom, father of the missing pilot (photo: Grand Rapids Herald Review, 1988).

Later in the article, the mother of the pilot is described, as well as her courtship with the pilot’s father and the eventual loss of both their children: “They have found peace and strength in each other, especially when grieving the loss of their two children. Their daughter, Marsha, was 8 when she died in 1956…The dedication he brought to his family life extended to flying.”

Fourteen years after the disappearance, in 1998, the Grand Rapids Herald Review noted a memorial service at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, Minnesota for Keith Newstrom. The pilot’s father was interviewed: “I was always a pilot and he flew a lot with me years ago so he kind of naturally went towards flying…I spent seven years up there searching with some of his friends…It’s always been tough.”

Fourteen years after the disappearance the “…family have long remained hopeful that eventually a search would turn up something but they are also aware that Newstrom’s plane is among about 250 missing across Alaska. The memorial ‘is a way of bringing closure,’ Gordon Newstrom said.”

Flash forward to 2013. Pilots and airplanes continue to disappear in Alaska without a trace. On September 23, 2013, the ADN.com reported that:

Authorities on Monday suspended the search for a plane and its pilot missing near Yakutat…The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center said in a release that all possible leads were investigated but search efforts were unsuccessful in trying to find [the pilot]. Poor weather hampered search efforts early in the week he disappeared, but eventually, the entire area was searched with no sign of [the pilot] or his plane. Officials say 198 people in 57 aircraft helped look for [the pilot], putting in 278 flight hours.

There have been many more disappearances of aircraft in the 30 years since N7984Q vanished.

Today, while airplanes continue to vanish, there is hope with the adoption of new technology.

Personal GPS locator devices with messaging and tracking features are now available to pilots. The devices have capabilities for reporting aircraft positions regularly at intervals as frequent as every two minutes. They provide timely SAR alerting via text messaging and email. Now, without having to have radio contact via voice through a legacy Remote Communications Outlet (RCO), equipped aircraft generate frequent and accurate “last reported positions” sometimes known as “breadcrumb trails” electronically.

The passengers of downed aircraft that would otherwise be missing can now be found. The confused fog of unknowing and the distress it creates for loved ones and others concerned can also be lifted.

For an investment of as little as about $100 (on sale) but ranging into the $2,000 area, these devices can be purchased and utilized by subscription to ensure no parent, no spouse, no company, no rescue pilot must deal with the unknown or reach into harm’s way to search, often times without result, rather than rescue or recover the victims of an aircraft accident in Alaska’s wilderness. Also, in these days of shrinking government resources, less funding would be needed. Resources spent searching thousands of square miles for the aviation equivalent of a needle in a haystack would be eliminated.

Flight Service is no longer hindered by having to wait until a flight plan becomes overdue or a loved one notifies FSS that an aircraft is missing. With the new equipment such as SPOT, Spidertracks or inReach, FSS can easily accelerate the communications notifications and searches that will eliminate the ambiguity and result in more lives saved or at least, to quote Gordy Newstrom “…bringing closure.”

The major technology which is being implemented by FAA is Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B). The equipment broadcasts and/or receives relevant flight data and position reporting information. Seen as an air traffic control replacement for radar, ADS-B will be mandated for use by aircraft operating in much of United States airspace by 2020.

All the pilots need do is adapt to the new technologies. The old analog VHF 121.5 ELTs are still legal. The new 406 ELTs, recommended but not mandated, have not yet been universally adopted by much of the Alaskan general aviation fleet.

Whatever new technology is adopted, the sooner, the better to reduce the too plentiful rate of missing aircraft in Alaska.

5 Comments

  • It brings a tear, but much needed pilot information and lessons to be learned, even in this day…….in memory of all missing airmen and women, Amen.

  • Great article, Marshal. I was flying on Kodiak when this occurred and remember the incident well. Another of those Alaskan aviation mysteries that have us scratching our heads to this day.

  • I read this article multiple times. It brings to attention the absolute finality of a botched go/no-go decision. I know that based on the forcast briefing, especially the one at 7:10am, I would have stayed on the ground and looked for another day, but I am not an Alaska bush pilot. If the destination forecast was better and I had flown up the canyon, would I have recognized deterioating weather and turned around successfuly? I don’t know for sure, but I have done so in the past… so I hope so. The time of the flight was likely pre-GPS and it could be easy in marginal weather to miss a landmark and get lost. I have done that. Fortunately it only cost me some embarrasment. If that is what happened here, it cost the pilot and passengers their lives. I guess that is why this story haunts me so. Even with SPOT or Spider lives are on the line in consideration of go/no-go decisions that I make. It is almost the same as carrying the power of life or death. I hope that makes me more vigilant, not less.

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