Search for missing Alaska bush pilot continues into its fourth day

Published: Oct. 31, 2016 at 2:21 PM AKDT
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The search for a missing Bush pilot and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman continued into its fourth day on Monday with weather continuing to be a challenge.

David McRae, 55, has been missing since Friday evening. He’s the nephew of former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond and his widow Bella, who lives at the family’s homestead at Lake Clark.

McRae left Anchorage’s Lake Hood on Friday afternoon, piloting a single-engine Pilatus Porter equipped with a load of fuel for Bella Hammond.

“He’s probably Bella’s primary help as far as fuel and fixing things. He’s a major part of the reason Bella is able to live at their home on Lake Clark,” said Rick Halford, a former Alaska Senate president, Bush pilot, and family friend.

With several decades of flying experience under his belt, McRae is a competent and skilled aviator, Halford said.

The route he was flying through the Alaska Range is marked by steep, rugged mountains. The Alaska National Guard described the weather and visibility on Friday evening as “very poor.”

“There are a lot of places on that route if you run into something, like lousy weather, you might need to put down on a glacier. We’re hoping he’s in the airplane waiting for the arrival of someone to pick him up,” Halford said on Monday morning.

The Rescue Coordination Center received a distress signal from an emergency locator transmitter at about 6:30 p.m. on Friday. The coordinates did not immediately transmit. Controllers used registration information logged with the transmitter to make phone calls to numbers that were registered with McRae’s family at Lake Clark Lodge.

A HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter and aircrew left Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson at 10:25 p.m. It had to turn around due to poor weather.

Search and rescue efforts continued at first light on Saturday but challenging weather, poor visibility and terrain continued to hamper the mission, according to the National Guard. Rescuers are focusing on an area between Merrill Pass and Telaquana Lake, in the northern part of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, about an hour’s flight west from Anchorage.

Weather reports for the search area on Monday indicate variable clouds with snow showers. Lt. Col. Candice Olmstead said challenging weather on Monday continued to prevent the search crew from pinpointing the plane.

“They really need a break in the weather,” said Glen Alsworth, owner of Lake Clark Air.

Alsworth described the missing pilot as a “gentle-spirited guy” who was “very helpful and humble.”

McRae, who was single, commercially fished the waters of Bristol Bay during summers, according to Alsworth and published accounts. He lived in Anchorage, Seattle, and at Lake Clark Lodge.

He was a co-owner of Fly Denali for awhile and flew clients for a few months.

But he liked to keep his own schedule.

“Being a full-time pilot didn’t fit with his lifestyle,” said Fly Denali’s founder Jim Trumbull.

Reached by phone at the family’s Lake Clark homestead, Heidi Hammond, daughter of Jay and Bella Hammond, said the family was not up for commenting.

“They are obviously very worried,” said Halford.

He said the Hammond family remains hopeful that McRae is still alive.

“We all have a very high level of faith in David’s ability.”