An analysis of weather and aeronautical decision making
Anniversaries of important events are times for remembering and other things good and bad, including reminding oneself of the dangers of misplaced trust and overconfidence.
Forty-five years ago, October 16, 1972, two Congressmen on the campaign trail were lost somewhere in Alaska. They had trusted their pilot to get them from Anchorage to Juneau.
1972 was the year 18 year olds got the right to vote. I was an air defense missile crewman stationed overseas. I would be 18 just before Election Day. One of Alaska’s youngest voters, I voted absentee at age 17 in advance of the election and mailed my ballot home. One of the men on the ballot was Alaska’s only Congressman, Nick Begich. By the time the polls opened on Election Day, he had been missing for weeks.
Begich was aboard a Cessna 310C that day with U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, Russell Brown (a staffer), and Don Jonz, the pilot of N1812H.
I was mostly privy only to what news my parents mailed me – clippings from the newspapers covering what turned out to be the longest and most expensive search Alaska had ever seen. Years later, as a retired weather briefer, I have re-visited and analyzed the reports.
The flight was to be undertaken under visual flight rules (VFR) over some of the most hostile and unforgiving geography Alaska has to offer.
A flight from Anchorage to Juneau, as planned by the pilot, is confronted by significant overwater areas of the Gulf of Alaska as well as mountainous features that form the Gulf’s northern boundary. This land mass is the first obstruction to interrupt the moisture-laden onshore flow of North Pacific storms. The storms collide with the coastal mountains and accelerate the wind through venturi-like passes. All the while storm clouds pile up against the North Gulf Coast’s rapidly rising features making VFR flight challenging at times.
Decades after the disappearance, the National Weather Service (NWS) changed their “Area Forecast” (FA) name for the area to “Central Gulf Coast,” but for this article I will refer to it as North Gulf Coast.
The quickest way to get to the North Gulf Coast is via Portage Pass, which is barely 40 nautical miles southeast from Anchorage, opens into Prince William Sound and has about a 700-foot elevation. Portage is narrow, however, with the mountains bordering it approaching elevations of 6000 feet.
To this day, the NWS Area Forecasts in Alaska have continued to provide pass forecast information. On the day of the flight the Pass was forecasted “closed.” For many VFR pilots, that information would suffice to cancel the trip. Don Jonz received this information at 6:56 a.m. along with information that weather observations along the route were marginal VFR to IFR, except for Anchorage which was VFR with light northwest surface wind and a three-degree spread (an indicator of potential low visibilities) between the temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the dewpoint.
A SIGMET weather warning from the National Weather Service was in effect over the Cook Inlet area from which the pilot was departing, forecasting “moderate to locally severe turbulence with strong wind, showers and strong updrafts and downdrafts.” The winds aloft from 3,000 feet to 12,000 feet were forecasted to be southeasterly to southerly (a deadly onshore flow of moist air) in the Anchorage area at 26 knots increasing to 52 knots with altitude. Surface winds locally through passes and canyons were forecasted at 45 to 60 knots.
The winds should have given pause to any pilot that passengers might become alarmed, ill or injured flying in such turbulent conditions that could cause loss of control of the aircraft. While “extreme” turbulence was not forecast, the conditions that day in my experience were such that extreme turbulence could be expected. Extreme turbulence may cause structural damage to the aircraft. Helicopters are generally more resistant to turbulence. An Air Force helicopter pilot reported about one half hour before the Congressmen’s departure that conditions toward the pass were deteriorating and that due to moderate to severe turbulence at 500 feet mean sea level, he was abandoning his attempt to reach Portage.
Moderate rime icing was predicted from 6,000 feet to the forecasted cloud tops at 15,000 feet. Alaska will retain textual Area Forecasts (FA) including cloud top information. These forecasts will be replaced in the near future over the conterminous U.S. with the new “graphical forecasts for aviation” (GFA).
The lapse rate for air cooling with altitude is approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit per 1000 feet and solely based on that rate, icing could be expected lower than forecast, closer to 3,000 feet. The weather chart depicted a warm front, however, extending east and west below the initial route of flight with high pressure dominating off the coast of Southeast Alaska, the pilot’s destination area.
Forecast and current conditions were such that, as a weather briefer looking back on this, I would have unhesitatingly provided a “VFR Flight Not Recommended” (VNR) statement to the pilot. In 1972, however, that statement was not part of the briefer’s tool chest.
And yet, weather-wise, there was some hope offered. High pressure, generally a predictor of good weather, influenced Southeastern Alaska, albeit with significant areas of fog. The terminal forecast for the pilot’s arrival time in Juneau was for scattered cloud bases at 5,000 feet and visibility of seven miles or more.
Aeronautical Decision Making
To get anywhere of some distance VFR in Alaska, the first step is to depart in flyable conditions to as far as you can get – otherwise you might not get anywhere. Sometimes choosing an alternate route of flight is required. The same day the Congressmen’s flight departed to its doom, another pilot attempted going the “long way” via Chickaloon Pass (a dryer overland route) in interior Alaska which was forecasted “open” and then southward to Valdez, an airport in the North Gulf Coast, north of the Congressmen’s route of flight.
That pilot made it to within two miles of Valdez and then reported that he was unable to reach the destination due to unflyable weather. The pilot, Dennis Anderson, wisely turned around and lived to try again another day. Another pilot, Al Curtis, driving to Anchorage from the Turnagain Arm area just southeast of Anchorage said that Portage “Pass looked like it was partially closed at 7:30 a.m.” and that “it can get pretty turbulent over Portage Lake,” the Anchorage Times reported.
Don Jonz wrote an article for Flying Magazine, published the month he disappeared with the Congressmen, entitled: “Ice Without Fear.” The article provides insight into his confidence level, attitude toward fellow pilots and strategies for beating icing:
“Racing westward out of Scotland, I hugged the surface until beyond the coastal weather, found a long crack in the papier-mache mask, and went up for a suntan. My friend Jerry Hook, of Fairbanks, flying a 15-year-old Cessna 180 with a 55-gallon drum of fuel in the back seat got down to 1,000 feet and motored across the drink. Neither of us encountered icing. I would bet the real pros like Ernest Gann, Louise Sacchi and Mira Slovak didn’t find any ice either. But you should have heard the 25-odd-dingbats in the middle altitudes. Some were airline types, too…
“Except for really far-out occasions (in which case you’ll have a warning from the weatherman), ice isn’t found very low or very high. It is an effort to sympathize with pilots who insist on flying oceans between 2,000 feet and 12,000 feet when the highest obstacle is a mast… I prefer climbing out of trouble, but it is a critical decision…”
Far from humble comments. They came from a man who also said: “If you are sneaky, smart and careful, you can fly 350 days a year and disregard 99 per cent of the [b.s.] you hear about icing.”
Mr. Jonz was held in high esteem by some members of the aviation community but as one anonymous source was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News, he was “… a crackerjack pilot, but unorthodox. He’s a good guy in a tight spot, but one who doesn’t care for all the rules and regulations.”
Mr. Jonz was no stranger to enforcement actions. In 1966 it was reported in the Anchorage Times that he made a forced landing on a highway in Florida, collided with a car and subsequently had his Airline Transport Pilot license revoked for irregularities including flying a Piper Cherokee with an unapproved fuel tank, 700 pounds overweight, and without proper paperwork. Nonetheless, at the time of the disappearance, he and his aircraft were fully qualified and certificated for flight.
So, while few other pilots would launch VFR into the forecasted and reported conditions on the day of his disappearance, Mr. Jonz had above freezing surface temperatures along the route, and a destination forecast for good weather. Procedurally he complied with some good practices such as getting a preflight weather briefing and filing a flight plan. He also had some major “attitude,” and the confidence to get himself and the Congressmen dead center into harm’s way.
His aircraft was not IFR-certified without a co-pilot or autopilot. It did not have anti-icing capability nor was its oxygen system serviced. That the flight could be accomplished in VFR conditions was doubtful. So was the potential for topping the clouds and icing. Even if he could have legally flown IFR that day, Alaska’s generally high minimum enroute altitudes would have put them into the forecasted icing conditions.
Added broken links in the chain of safety according to the NTSB included not having an ELT on board or emergency gear. These items were left in Fairbanks, where Mr. Jonz was based. While filing his flight plan, the pilot advised “affirmative” when asked by Anchorage Flight Service Station whether he had the gear on board. It was customary for the specialists to ask the question. In 1972 ELTs were not yet federally mandated, and Alaska law had required them only since the previous month. As a flight service specialist years later, I was eventually trained not to ask for that information since we were asking non-equipped pilots to “incriminate” themselves or lie. Lots of pilots volunteered the information and we would always record what they told us.
Mr. Jonz made the decision to go, perhaps even before or in spite of knowing or considering all potential risks.
The search for the aircraft and its occupants was the largest and most expensive SAR operation in Alaska. Never before had an SR71 spy plane been used for such an occurrence. Nearly 3500 sorties were flown by the military and civilians over 39 days covering 325,000 square miles. Fuel and maintenance cost estimates alone came to almost one million dollars. The Portage Pass area was combed on foot by mountain specialists and other volunteers. No trace of those lost has been found to this day. The toll on the families was enormous and regrettable as well.
The NTSB accident report states that the weather conditions “…were not conducive to flight under Visual Flight Rules.” The Board could not rule out “the possibility of an in-flight malfunction, or catastrophic component failure, that might have resulted in an accident.” No trace of wreckage was ever found; there was nothing to indicate an inflight break-up.
Mr. Jonz was very experienced and highly capable of flying on instruments. Did he intend to fly IFR without clearance below the freezing level that day? Given the conditions he launched into, beyond Portage Pass and heading over water, as Mr. Jonz pointed out, “…the highest obstacle is a mast.”
Would he chance higher? He had counseled in Flying magazine: “If you don’t like ice, stay the hell out of IFR conditions.” He also said that he found de-icing boots “…a pain and ineffective…Playing with ice is like playing with the devil: fun, but don’t play unless you can cheat.” Launching an aircraft without de-icing would require some cheating that day. Topping the clouds and ice would also have put the airplane’s occupants in an altitude zone where hypoxia was predictable with negative consequences to a pilot’s physical and mental abilities to aviate and make rational decisions.
The attitude displayed, and despite the information Mr. Jonz had received, indicate he was committed to the flight and well informed about the conditions he would encounter. Did overconfidence in his knowledge and abilities, not withstanding the lack of capability of his aircraft, lead him to fly when others would not?
While he did not get there, the weather at his destination had improved to VFR conditions of 700 feet scattered and 20,000 overcast with 12 miles visibility near his estimated time of arrival.
Congressman Begich’s electoral opponent was in a light aircraft about two weeks before the Congressman disappeared. That aircraft encountered “heavy icing” with a loss of airspeed and altitude. The pilot decided to turn back and landed safely.
When the votes were counted, Mr. Begich had won another seat in Congress. Months later a special election was held to replace the Congressman, who remains missing to this day. His opponent in the general election was voted in. Amazingly, Representative Don Young has been Alaska’s only Congressman ever since. No doubt he helped build a safer Alaska with wisdom gained the hard way.
There was plenty of information available in 1972 for the pilot to have made another flight decision, either no-go or fly an alternate (and longer) route. But significant enhancements critical to improved decision making have been implemented since, including FAA AVCAMs, which during daylight hours give pilots a view of actual weather conditions at locations that include both sides of Portage Pass. Other technological advances have been developed such as weather radar in Alaska, GPS, satellite tracking, 406 ELTs and ADS-B.
For the families of the missing, without closure there is eternal pain. Today the satellite trackers, (Spot/Spidertracks/InReach/Bendix-King, etc.) a few costing as low as in the $150 (plus subscription) range could provide loved ones some degree of closure in the most unfortunate of events, for example crashing into the sea. Think if MH370 (Malaysia Airlines) had one.
The tracker device’s primary benefit is expedited SAR, of course, and secondarily enhanced recovery, tracking and messaging. Perhaps it is time to consider expanding their use, since ELTs do not always activate properly.
My conclusion is that the pilot should never have taken off on the route he chose. The decision to do so was a flawed and ultimately fatal choice.