Military moves cautiously in identifying plane wreckage

By CASEY GROVE | Anchorage Daily News, Alaska | Published: June 17, 2012

After finding pieces of an old military plane and what are thought to be fragments of its occupants' bones scattered across a glacier east of Anchorage last week, military investigators are working to solve an Alaska aviation mystery.

Among the lingering questions: How did the plane vanish? Who was on board?

Flying low in an Alaska National Guard helicopter near Knik Glacier last week, a crew member spotted what looked like a debris field. The UH-60 Blackhawk did another flyover, and the crew took detailed photos of what military officials described as a vintage plane. Now expert forensic investigators are working to identify the plane and its crew in the hopes of returning the human remains to their families.

As the discovery is still fairly fresh, details are scarce and military officials have not said what type of plane was found and how long ago it disappeared.

Planning is under way for an investigative team to fly from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii to Alaska so they can look more closely at the debris, said Michelle Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, known as JPAC for short.

"We're like 'Indiana Jones' and 'CSI,' " Thomas said, referring, respectively, to the adventurous movie archaeologist and the TV show know for its forensic science. "We definitely see this as what we call a pop-up. It's on our front burner."

The plane is one of about a dozen military aircraft missing within the same 20-mile radius, and it's so far been impossible to say which one was discovered, Thomas said.

"I think the biggest thing is we're just not there yet," Thomas said. "Just based on their pictures, we won't know until we get there."

Part of the delicate nature of JPAC's work is not giving family members of missing service men and women the false hope that loved ones they haven't seen for years might have been found, Thomas said. Some details about the plane, including its color or appearance and any distinguishing characteristics, could not be released to the public for that reason, she said.

"We have gotten some phone calls from family members, just wondering if it's a case linked to that area," Thomas said.

When the investigation makes a final determination on the identity of the plane and its crew, an announcement could affect dozens if not hundreds of people, so they want to get it right, Thomas said.

"We don't want to give false hope," she said.

Though military officials aren't giving a precise location for the plane debris, an order for pilots from the Federal Aviation Administration gives some indication: The edge of Colony Glacier, where it meets Inner Lake George, is now cordoned off with a temporary flight restriction. On a map, the restricted zone is a two-nautical-mile circle about 45 miles east of Anchorage.

Pilots aren't allowed to fly in that area and anyone trying to get to the debris field is asked to stay away for now, said Capt. Tania Bryan with the Alaskan Command, part of the U.S. military's Pacific Command.

"We really need to preserve the site as it is, so the investigators can go out and look at what they need to look at," Bryan said.

History riddled with searches

The 12 or so military planes thought to have vanished in the greater Knik Glacier area are just a few of the hundreds of aircraft that have vanished in Alaska since the early days of flying in the state, said 40-year Alaska aviation historian Ted Spencer.

"The whole history is riddled with searches for planes that never came home," said Spencer, a former director of the Alaska Aviation Museum. "Planes of all types, and they started disappearing when Alaska became an aviation-oriented place. It's so vast."

With military flying dominant over Alaska's skies during and after World War II, pilots found danger in every mountain pass, Spencer said. They were sometimes inexperienced with Alaska and often flew unfamiliar and challenging terrain using incomplete maps and navigational equipment that were crude by today's standards, he said.

"Weather can disable some of those primitive early-style navigational aids," he said. "(The pilots) had usually been transferred from some other place. And Alaska was the ultimate testing ground for their skills."

Pilot error and poor weather, typical and sometimes fatal problems for Alaska aviators, might have contributed to the plane's disappearance, Spencer said.

"They go down in the water, crash in the mountains, or get covered up with snow, and the thing about glaciers is they gradually reveal things over time," he said.

One of those curious about what the glacier has revealed is Michelle Gilmore a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, whose uncle, Lt. Col. William Barrett, disappeared with six others during a flight in Alaska in February of 1977. Gilmore's husband saw initial reports about the old plane near Knik Glacier on a national news website, and the family has been cleaning out the home of Gilmore's aunt, Barrett's wife, Gilmore said.

Packing away Barrett's pictures and Army mementos understandably got the family thinking about "Uncle Bill," Gilmore's favorite relative from her childhood and the reason she came to Alaska in the summer of 1976, she said. That visit was just a few months before Barrett disappeared, when the story of his 36-year disappearance began, Gilmore said.

"My aunt called our house, and I heard my dad talking on the phone. I just overheard them talking about it. But of course as a little kid, I was like 'What's that all about?' "

It's unlikely Barrett's remains are in the debris near Knik Glacier-- his plane is thought to have crashed into Iliamna Mountain on the Alaska Peninsula southwest of Anchorage. But hearing about the wreckage perked up Barrett's family's hopes and likely stirred similar emotions in many others whose fathers, uncles and brothers vanished after flying off into Alaska's skies, Gilmore said.

"It's like, 'Are you kidding me? They found something after all these years?' " she said. "In the back of your mind, you think, 'could this be him?' "

"You know that (C+C Music Factory) song, 'Things that make you go Hmmm'? In the very least, it's like that."