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BILLINGS – A cargo door came unlatched on an airborne Alpine Air Express plane carrying mail from Billings to Kalispell at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, but it is uncertain whether any mail was lost.

“We have not ascertained that any bags were missing,” said Gene Mallette, CEO of Alpine Air, which is headquartered in Provo, Utah.

The Beechcraft 99 twin engine turboprop was about 40 miles north of Lewistown when the pilot noted a light on the instrument panel had come on, indicating the door was unlatched. Because there was about 3,000 pounds of mail cargo in between the pilot and the door, he couldn’t close it. Mallette said that because the door is located below the plane’s airstream, even when open it wouldn’t compromise the ability to fly and land the plane.

The U.S. Postal Service won’t know if there was any mail lost until customers call, said Lisa Blomquist of the Billings office. The postal inspector is investigating the incident, she said. Alpine Air launched a search along the flight path of the plane on Sunday, but snow was falling on Saturday when the door came open. If bags did fall out, they would be orange nylon. Anyone finding such a bag is urged to contact Blomquist at 657-5775 or the nearest post office.

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Alpine Air is contracted by the Postal Service to fly mail from its Billings hub to nine other cities in Montana as well as to Casper and Cheyenne, Wyo.; Denver and Sydney, Neb., according to its Web site.

On May 23, 2008, Billings pilot Kelly Lynch was killed when the Alpine Air plane he was flying crashed during takeoff from Logan International Airport. Lynch was flying a Beechcraft 1900C loaded with mail. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation said the cause of the crash was Lynch’s inability to maintain control of the plane as it climbed, but couldn’t say why. Lynch was an experienced pilot with 4,700 flight hours.

In August 2004, an Alpine Air plane flying mail from Billings to Great Falls crashed southeast of Great Falls into Big Baldy Mountain in the Little Belt Mountains. Pilot Larry Baier and his friend Scott Kiral, both of Kalispell, were killed.

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