Mark Mueller, 06-14-05
NTSB report blames pilot, FAA in crash
FATAL FLIGHT: Cocaine, alcohol found in man with history of substance abuse.
By MEGAN HOLLAND Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 22, 2005
An experienced commercial pilot who died in the crash of a twin-engine cargo
plane near Kodiak last year had cocaine and alcohol in his system, and lax FAA
medical certification procedures are among factors that may have contributed to
the accident, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB's report on the June 14, 2004, crash, released last week, says the
probable cause of the accident was pilot Mark Mueller's failure to follow
procedures for missed approaches to the airport. It says dense fog and
equipment problems contributed, but says "additional factors were the pilot's
impairment from cocaine, alcohol and over the counter cold medication, and the
FAA's inadequate medical certification of the pilot and follow-up of his known
substance abuse problems."
Representatives from the FAA dispute that. In an interview Wednesday, Willis
Simmons, the FAA's regional flight surgeon in Alaska, said, "I don't know that
we knew he had substance abuse problems. He had a history of substance abuse
problems. There's a difference."
Simmons said the FAA may hear about pilot problems from law enforcement or
tipsters. Mostly, though, the federal agency relies on employers and the
honesty of its pilots to report drug or alcohol problems on their medical
forms, he said. Mueller never lied to the agency, Simmons said.
Mueller had experienced a series of substance abuse and drunken driving
problems over more than a decade, according to the NTSB report.
At the time of his death, he faced a hearing proposing the suspension of his
license for landing a plane on the taxiway, not the runway, at Ted Stevens
Anchorage International Airport the month before, the NTSB report and FAA
officials said. The FAA said there was no reason to test Mueller for drugs or
alcohol after that incident.
On the day of the Kodiak crash, Mueller, 56, left Anchorage just before 10 a.m.
in a 1952 Beech C-45H Volpar turboprop plane owned by Anchorage-based Bellair
Inc. He was the only person on board.
A witness in Kodiak saw the plane flying very low over the water in dense fog
before it crashed at the southern end of Long Island just before noon, the
NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said Tuesday the crash likely resulted from a
combination of factors, including several that were unrelated to alcohol or
"This was absolutely not your average case," Johnson said. "There are three
things we normally look at: man, machine and environment. It's not often that
you have all three in one accident."
Johnson said one of the plane's engines was probably not working. The weather
was bad, with a low ceiling, poor visibility and rain. The report also said
that Mueller should have been flying with a co-pilot, as operation procedures
Tests conducted after the crash by the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute
in Oklahoma found traces of cocaine, alcohol and a sedating antihistamine in
Mueller's body, the report says.
Mueller was an experienced pilot with an airline transport pilot certificate --
the same license captains of commercial jets need to fly. He had to have a
medical certificate re-issued by the FAA yearly.
"This guy was very, very qualified and, quite frankly, probably a very talented
pilot in terms of his skill level," the NTSB's Johnson said. At the time of the
accident, he was the chief pilot for Bellair.
Mueller's history of cocaine use first surfaced in May of 1990, after the death
of his wife, when he pleaded no contest to attempted misconduct involving a
controlled substance and received a one-year suspended sentence. Mueller also
tested positive for cocaine in July 1990 in a test for another employer, and
forfeited his pilot's license for one year.
In 1995, an informant told the FAA that Mueller had asked a friend of the
informant's for crack or cocaine, but the federal agency did not follow up on
the charge, the NTSB's report says.
Simmons, who has been in charge of the medical division of the FAA in Alaska
since April 2004, said the NTSB is wrong about that.
Simmons said his files show that the allegation was pursued by the FAA's
investigative security team but the file appears to not be complete. One note
in the file describes the allegations as rumors. Simmons said it is common for
the FAA to receive phone calls with accusations of alcohol or drug abuse from
people with grudges against pilots.
In 1996, Mueller was arrested for drunk driving. He reported it to the FAA; the
agency decided the incident was isolated and renewed the medical certificate
necessary for his license but told him he would have to totally abstain from
alcohol, the NTSB report says.
In 1997, the FAA regional flight surgeon sent Mueller a letter telling him
because of "a history of alcohol abuse" he was ineligible for medical
certification. But the letter said Mueller could be granted a limited temporary
certificate, and that he would have to provide letters from his employer,
counselor and an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor "attesting to your total
abstinence and sobriety."
The NTSB report says Mueller then had several meetings with the FAA surgeon but
that there is no record of the pilot submitting the letters requested. He was
Mueller began working for Bellair in 2001. He passed the company's initial drug
The FAA does not do random drug tests; it says it has no legal authority to do
so. Pilot employers, though, do. Mueller was subject to random drug testing
during the time he worked for Bellair, but apparently was never selected in the
random process after his initial pre-employment test.
Bellair is now out of business. Telephone messages left at a phone listing for
the former owner's home were not returned.
Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.