TALKEETNA — A decorated state Department of Public Safety pilot, a veteran Valley Alaska State Trooper and a Talkeetna snowmachiner were killed late Saturday during an attempt to rescue the injured snowmachiner.
Mel Nading, 55, who had been the pilot of Helo-1, AST’s main rescue helicopter, since 2000, and Trooper Tage Toll, 40, had reportedly retrieved 56-year-old Carl Ober and were returning to rendezvous with medics at the Sunshine Tesoro station when Helo-1 went down, Commissioner of Public Safety Joseph Masters said at a Monday press conference about the crash.
“Helo-1 did not make the rendezvous,” Masters said, adding that after the wreckage was located Sunday morning, “an assessment of the scene was conducted and it was determined there were no survivors.”
Events leading up to the crash began at about 7:35 p.m., Saturday, when troopers received a cellphone call from Ober saying he was injured and stranded near Larson Lake near Talkeetna, said Col. Keith Mallard, Alaska State Troopers director. As part of the rescue effort, Nading took off in Helo-1, picked up Toll then located Ober at about 10 p.m.
Helo-1 retrieved Ober and was last reported on its way to the Sunshine Tesoro gas station at about 11:17 p.m. to meet with medics, but never arrived. A search and rescue effort was initiated and the wreckage of Helo-1 was discovered at about 9:30 a.m., Sunday at the south end of Larson Lake — about a five-minute flight from the Sunshine Tesoro rendezvous point, Mallard said.
Masters added that officials with the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating and that a cause of the crash has not been determined. The bodies of the three men were recovered and transported to Anchorage Sunday.
“An assessment of the scene was conducted and it was determined there were no survivors,” he said. “At this point, we will not speculate as to why Helo-1 crashed.”
Saturday’s rescue attempt was fairly routine, Mallard said. He said it’s standard procedure to have another trooper on board Helo 1 to act as a spotter. He also said that Nading, who lived in Anchorage, had put in more than 3,000 hours flying the aircraft and had helped save many lives since being hired as the primary pilot of Helo-1 in December 2000.
His contributions to AST rescue efforts earned Nading “so many (decorations) that I wouldn’t be able to recite them at this point,” Mallard said.
The crash is a sad epitaph for Helo-1, which has been at the forefront of search and rescue efforts that have saved numerous lives over the years. In 2012, Mallard said, Nading made more than 900 contacts with individuals while responding to rescue calls. He also said Saturday’s crash was the first fatal incident involving Helo-1. The helicopter also was involved in what has been classified as “a hard landing” about nine years ago, also with Nading as the pilot.
The deaths of Nading and Toll, a 10-year Alaska State Troopers veteran, have affected the AST family deeply, Mallard said.
“As you can imagine, the loss of — it’s like losing a family member,” he said. “Our hearts go out to the families of those individuals, and like family, we’re going to take care of the families of both pilot Mel Nading and Alaska State Trooper Tage Toll.”
Following Monday’s press conference, Gov. Sean Parnell ordered state flags be flown at half-staff in honor of Nading and Toll. The flags will be lowered on the days of the memorial services for the men, which have not been determined.
As for the future of Helo-1, officials said Monday that other AST helicopters will try and fill in until it can be replaced. Cost to replace the aircraft is about $3.2 million, Mallard said, and just last year the state Legislature approved funding to purchase another of the same type of helicopter to be based in Fairbanks. It is not know now if that helicopter will replace Helo-1 in Southcentral instead.
Commissioner Masters called the fatal crash “a great tragedy and loss” for the Department of Public Safety. “Every day our people are put in harm’s way and face it without a thought that ‘hey, today I may not come home.’”
Contact reporter Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.