Colleen Mondor speaks about the history of missing aircraft in Alaska during a lecture presented by the Cook Inlet Historical Society on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in Alaska. (Screenshot)

Cook Inlet Historical Society seminar explores mystery of Alaska’s missing airplanes

The Feb. 17 lecture was given by Colleen Mondor

From a vanishing plane with two congressmen on board, to pieces of aircraft washed up on the beach, Alaska has a rich history of air travel gone wrong. Sometimes, however, speculation over what happened takes up more space than what is known to have actually happened.

That’s the thesis of a Feb. 17 seminar titled “The Mythology of Missing Aircraft in Alaska,” hosted by the Cook Inlet Historical Society and given by Colleen Mondor, an investigative journalist who specializes in aviation. She is also the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska.”

Mondor said the Alaska bush pilot myth describes a heroic, albeit doomed, pilot who takes on an inherently dangerous Alaska for the sake of flying — never because of money. In fact, Mondor said many of Alaska’s famed bush pilots don’t necessarily fit that mold.

Take, for instance, Russel Merrill, a famed Alaska bush pilot pioneer. Merrill took off from Anchorage for Nyac on Sept. 16, 1929, with 50 pounds of first-class mail he intended to deliver at several spots along the way. A snowstorm hit Cook Inlet the night Merrill departed for Anchorage and by Sept. 18, no one had seen him.

The disappearance prompted the largest air search in Alaska history, with more than 10,000 miles covered. It wasn’t until five weeks later that a piece of aircraft washed up on a beach in Tyonek that was determined to be part of Merrill’s plane. Historians now believe Merrill was forced down in Cook Inlet because of the storm, Mondor said.

“There are some folks in Tyonek who recalled seeing something strange out in the water in the midst of that storm, but they couldn’t really tell what it was,” Mondor said. “There was no way that they could get to it, and then it was just gone.”

The role the mail route plays in Merrill’s final flight, Mondor said, should not be overlooked.

“He made multiple flights that day in that aircraft, open cockpit, flying in September, in Alaska for over 12 hours a day,” Mondor said. “Then he departs on a last flight, but he had a schedule to keep for the mail. And he didn’t want to not keep that schedule. That’s something else that a lot of times we just don’t talk about.”

Even in Merrill’s case, however, remnants of the aircraft were found. The most frustrating types of accidents, Mondor said, occur when a missing aircraft is never recovered. Undoubtedly the most notorious case of this in Alaska, she said, is the 1972 disappearance of a plane carrying Hale Boggs and Nick Begich, both U.S. Congressmen, during a flight from Anchorage to Juneau.

The plane, a small twin-engine Cessna, had been inspected the day before takeoff and loaded with fuel hours before takeoff at 8:59 a.m. The plane was scheduled to travel for about three and a half hours, but was reported overdue in Juneau around 1:15 p.m. The ensuing search covered more than 325,000 square miles, but no sign of the aircraft has even been cited, Mondor said.

“These are by far the most frustrating accidents in existence,” Mondor said of cases where the plane appears to disappear off the face of the earth.

Following the 1972 crash, she said, conspiracies ran rampant. People searched for meaning in Boggs’ membership on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy, as well as in Boggs’ previous calls for the resignation of J. Edgar Hoover, who served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“There was some thought early on (of) ‘Maybe the FBI was behind whatever went down with this airplane,’” Mondor said. “OK. None of those things really took off.”

The special elections that took place after both congressmen were declared dead resulted in Congressman Don Young representing Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat which he still holds. Other conspiracies ranged from mafia involvement to planted bombs, but Mondor said all that can be known for sure is the evidence gathered by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the crash.

Mondor conceded the allure of some of the embellished speculations that have emerged since 1972.

“It’s just way more interesting, isn’t it? To say that this missing aircraft had to have blown up and not just gone down in Prince William Sound because the pilot had made some real questionable choices in the past, and probably got into a situation that day where he made one last questionable choice,” Mondor said.

Still, those types of speculations undermine the investigative work that was put into a horrific incident.

“I have covered aircraft accidents now for 35 years, and what I know for sure is that they involve so much tragedy to begin with that, at the very least, they should have the dignity of a factual investigation,” Mondor said. “No matter how badly you and I might want a story.“

Mondor’s full presentation can be streamed online at www.crowdcast.io/e/cihs_mondor.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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