The experimental World War II-era plane that crashed on takeoff in mid-October resulted in the first fatal aircraft crash at Missoula International Airport in at least 63 years.
That’s as far back as an aviation accident database kept by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) goes.
Local and federal investigators are still looking into what caused the single-engine Bucker Jungmeister BU 133 piloted by 52-year-old Patrick Carter, a former Delta Airlines pilot, to veer and crash in an airport parking lot and burst into flames on Oct. 14.
Carter had reportedly just repurchased the plane he’d sold to a western Washington hobbyist in 2003 and was flying it home to Monroeville, Alabama. He stopped off in Missoula to refuel.
His was the seventh fatal crash in or near Missoula since the federal safety board began compiling records in 1962.
The deadliest occurred two years before that. On Oct. 28, 1960, a Northwest Airlines pilot fighting a low cloud bank and light snow on approach to the Missoula airport made a wrong turn and crashed the DC-4 into a steep hillside above the Ninemile store. Four crew members and all eight passengers died.
At the time, it was Montana’s second-worst air tragedy, superseded only by one near Butte in 1950 that killed 22, also a Northwest Airlines flight. Another Butte crash in 2009 claimed 14 lives and pushed the Ninemile crash into third place on the grisly list.
The airplane mishap that claimed Carter’s life was the third in Montana this year. A crash in Meagher County in March killed one person, and another in August near Canyon Ferry Lake took two.
Carter was victim of the first flight fatality in or around Missoula since Dec. 12, 1999, when 70-year-old Marlin Soulliard Walmer of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, encountered engine trouble northeast of Missoula and crashed in the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
The only other fatalities related to Missoula airport operations occurred on April 6, 1982. A Cessna 321 was in a holding pattern west of town while snowplows finished clearing the runway from a spring storm.
Three Missoula men – Paul Ricci, 41; Ronald Hoppie, 34; and Donald Gillie, 55 – perished when the plane lost power and crashed near the Clark Fork River three miles south of Frenchtown Elementary School.
Missoula airport director Cris Jensen said the longest-tenured employee has been at the airport for just over 30 years, but couldn't recall another air fatality there. That's a good thing in an airport surrounded by mountains that sees up to 200 takeoffs and landings per day, he said.
“Aviation in general is a very safe mode of transportation and the fact that we haven’t had a crash in the last 33 years I think is saying something,” Jensen said. “Certainly we’d like to go another 33 years or more before the next one.”
According to NTSB records, Montana has suffered 335 air crashes since 1962 that resulted in a fatality. Of those, 94 happened west of the Continental Divide, with Butte leading the way with 12.
Carter’s was just the 13th of 176 crashes statewide to occur on takeoff since the NTSB started keeping track of such things in 1982. Only four were ascribed to landings.
Jensen said crews at Missoula International work “every day, 24 hours a day” to keep the runways in shape for the heavy volume.
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On Thursday, all airport staff went through a winter operations training class. Snow removal becomes a priority when the first flake falls, and it’s “not like you’d see on the highway or around town,” Jensen said.
When a commercial airliner or a jet lands at 120 or 140 mph, the runway must be clear and smooth.
“We’re very aggressive in maintenance. We inspect the pavement multiple times throughout the day,” said Jensen. “We have staff that’s responsible for going out there to inspect, looking for foreign objects, debris, pavement defects – lots of different things.
“Because of the speeds these things travel at, you can’t afford to have potholes.”
Two of the fatal Missoula crashes happened shortly after takeoff, the first exactly 45 years ago.
On Nov. 1, 1970, Missoulians watched in horror as two light planes tumbled from the sky after colliding above the Intermountain Co. lumber mill west of McCormick Park. One had just left the airport carrying four skydivers. The other held only the pilot.
Both pilots and three of the skydivers died amid wreckage strewn for two miles. The survivor, 41-year-old James Ledbetter of Great Falls, parachuted to safety after he was thrown from the plane.
Fourteen years later, on March 9, 1984, a plane carrying pilot Duane Clark of Gig Harbor, Washington, and three passengers from the Tacoma area took off in the early afternoon and was never heard from again.
The wreckage wasn’t found until December 1987, when a hunter in the rugged Petty Creek drainage stumbled upon it in the snow. The plane had crashed 13 air miles from the airport.
That was a bad year for plane wrecks in Missoula.
On Sept. 21, 1984, a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza carrying three Illinois men disappeared while making an instrument approach to Johnson Bell Field, now Missoula International.
Searchers battled inclement weather and didn’t locate the wreckage until four days later. It was on McLeod Peak, in a remote part of the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Stuart Peak.
One of the victims, Cliff Salter of Glen Ellen, Illinois, grew up in Missoula and graduated from Sentinel High School in 1967. The three men were flying to Missoula to visit his father.
Missoula lost another of its own virtually within sight of his hometown on July 29, 1994. Randy Lynn, 44, was co-pilot of a Neptune Aviation slurry bomber making drops on the Butler Creek fire in the Ninemile Valley.
The coroner said both Lynn and pilot Bob Kelly of Alamogordo, New Mexico, somehow survived the crash into what’s now called Ch-paa-qn (Peak), but perished in the explosive fire that followed.