Ted Stevens' Death: Flying Alaska's Perilous Skies

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Blaine Harrington III / Corbis

Seaplanes at Lake Hood in Anchorage

No one yet knows why the propeller plane carrying Ted Stevens went down outside the town of Dillingham, Alaska, killing the man who had been the most prominent icon of Alaskan politics until Sarah Palin came along. It was a small plane, maybe able to ferry 11 passengers at most, but it was of a classic design: a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3T, fondly known as "the Otter." Like most commuter planes, it was probably equipped to depart and arrive on ice, water or, of course, land. Flying in a small plane is the most efficient way to get around the country's largest state — but also one of the riskiest. In the period from 1990 to 2002, about 130 pilots were killed in crashes in Alaska.

Little planes are ubiquitous in Alaska. Locals like to say there are more planes than cars, even though that isn't true. Alaska does, however, have the highest ratio of plane owners to residents (about 11,000 registered flyers, out of more than 600,000 people). It makes sense. Much of the state is inaccessible by road in the winter months, and even when the roads are open, they aren't the most efficient means of transport. It takes 19 hours to drive from Juneau to Anchorage but just 100 minutes to make the trip by plane. The state has more than 600 private and public airports. And flyers don't have to land at them: there are plenty of natural runways to choose from. In the winter, folks can land on snow skis, while in the summer, they can land on water skis. A few years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board said Alaskans were 76 times more likely to fly than residents of the lower 48 states.

I had to fly into Dillingham during the July 4th weekend in 2009 for an interview with Sarah Palin, who had just announced her intention to resign as governor of Alaska. Palin's mother-in-law lives in Dillingham, and Todd Palin runs his summer commercial-fishing business from the town of 2,000 people. Like much of rural Alaska, the place isn't accessible by road — only by air and, in the summer, by boat.

With no larger aircraft available and a looming deadline, I flew out of Anchorage on a six seater on the local milk route, landing first in King Salmon, at the base of the Aleutian Islands, before heading on to Dillingham. After leaving Anchorage, you follow the mountain range southwest with Mount McKinley (Denali to the locals), the highest mountain in North America, on your right. You fly over the snow-capped peaks of Lake Clark Park and descend into a lush river delta, one of the most pristine places I've ever seen. The flight was treacherous, even in fantastic sunny and hot (for Alaska) weather of 70 degrees — that would be the temperature in the plane. We kept the windows open.

Coming down to earth is a little harrowing — like landing in Kathmandu, which is at sea level after you've cleared the Himalayas at 30,000 feet. We weren't that high up, but Dillingham has no radar to help guide travelers in, so everything must be done off the plane's own gauges — and those indicated little more than what was just beyond the pilot's eyesight.

Dillingham sits on Portage Creek, which looks a lot like the Mississippi River, wide and silted. The vivid green marshlands fan across the delta for hundreds of miles, pocketed by little round ponds that glint with the sun's reflection as you fly over. But given the proximity to the Bering Sea, bad weather rolls in often and suddenly, and visibility can be difficult in the summer fogs — not to mention storms. August, it seems, is also the deadliest month for plane crashes in Alaska, probably because the heat often leads to thunderstorms and unpredictable turbulence. Early afternoon on Aug. 9, weather conditions deteriorated around Dillingham, with visibility about three miles, about the time Stevens' plane took off from Lake Nerka, roughly 40 miles away from Dillingham.

Back in 2009, my assignment done, I left Dillingham on one of Alaska Airlines' 100-seater jets — by far the biggest planes that land in Dillingham. These planes aren't as nimble as the small ones (they can't take you to that special but out-of-the-way fishing spot), but they don't usually have problems with the weather.