Lee Schlosstein, 10-15-04

Search continues for plane
PILOT MISSING: Native elder advises authorities about effects of currents.

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: October 17, 2004)

Searchers failed Saturday to find any sign of a floatplane that apparently crashed into Knik Arm near Point Woronzof early Friday afternoon and then sank. The sole occupant believed to be aboard remains missing, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Without a body, authorities have no way to confirm the identity of whoever was aboard the Super Cub, they said. But based on interviews with family and other evidence, troopers said, they're reasonably sure the pilot was Anchorage physician Lee Schlosstein.

"Circumstantially, we believe that's who's on the aircraft," said Lt. Craig Macdonald, the troopers' search-and-rescue coordinator. "As far as we know, he is the sole occupant."

Little could be learned Saturday about the 66-year-old Schlosstein. A call placed to the Anchorage home of his son was not returned, nor was a message left for a physician who shares his office.

Troopers based their belief Schlosstein was aboard the plane on statements by his family that he had intended to go pleasure flying Friday, and on the fact that investigators found his car parked at Lake Hood.

The missing plane has several owners, including Schlosstein.

His son, Brent Schlosstein, was among a half-dozen private pilots who flew above the Inlet's murky waters at low tide Saturday hoping to see an outline of the plane or some other sign of it, Macdonald said.

A state helicopter crew flew for three hours Saturday morning, then returned to the search area after authorities received a report of debris on the water. But the debris proved to be tidal flotsam, Macdonald said.

The helicopter crew launched again to search during the afternoon low tide but was quickly diverted to Talkeetna to pick up a lost hiker, troopers said.

Plans call for the helicopter to be out again on the search at today's first low tide, according to Macdonald.

The Super Cub took off from Lake Hood just after 2 p.m. Friday and just after another Super Cub, piloted by Joe Schuster of Anchorage.

Schuster, accompanied by his two young daughters, was headed for a lake 10 miles north of Lake Hood, he said Friday evening. When he saw that the lake was fogged in, he turned around for Lake Hood. He knew from overheard conversation with the tower that the other Cub, the one presumably piloted by Schlosstein, also was turning back, he said.

Meanwhile, a state airport worker was driving his truck north on Postmark Drive and stopped where it meets Northern Lights Boulevard, roughly 75 yards from the bluff overlooking the Inlet.

Jim Grant, a heavy equipment operator for the Department of Transportation's airfield maintenance section, said he suddenly saw a small plane flying left to right across his field of vision, parallel to the bluff, low on the horizon and close by.

The plane, Grant said, was 40 to 60 feet above the ground and about the same distance out from the bluff, flying with its right wing pointed down and its left wing pointed straight up. Grant could see the top of both wings.

"It was out of place to see a plane making that maneuver," said Grant, who has worked at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport since 1975. "It was not what you'd expect any plane to do other than a stunt plane. It made me notice right away that something wasn't right."

The propeller was spinning, however, and the plane maintained its speed, he said. Grant assumed it would crash nearby, so he parked his truck at a little turnoff west of Earthquake Park and walked to the bluff. He saw nothing but fog at first.

Then, through an opening, he saw a plane taxiing on the water. That turned out to be Schuster, who had landed and was looking for survivors of the crashed plane.

As Schuster was headed back to Lake Hood, he said, "I spotted something suspicious-looking in the Inlet and confirmed with clearance (air traffic control) they were no longer communicating with that airplane."

Schuster, therefore, landed on the water and stepped out onto his floats. He saw the plane's tail above the surface, aimed skyward. He never saw anyone get out of the plane before it sank.

Schuster did not know Schlosstein, he said, but they had mutual friends. Schuster was among those flying search patterns Saturday.

Troopers on Saturday also called on a Native elder of the village of Eklutna to learn more about where Cook Inlet's notorious tidal currents might carry the plane.

Leo Stephan, who'll be 76 on Tuesday, spent decades setnet fishing in the waters around Anchorage from seasonal camps that had been in his Dena'ina family for generations.

"They asked me about the currents and the tides and stuff like that, and maybe if this airplane was moving around," Stephan said Saturday night. Tides were "real big" Friday and Saturday, he said. "I told them the current from Point Woronzof goes out quite a bit toward Point MacKenzie. There's a big eddy behind Point Woronzof when the tide's coming in."

What Stephan told troopers, particularly about shape of the Inlet's floor, was useful, said Macdonald.

"We've modified our search plan in according with the information he was able to give us," he said.

Authorities consulted Stephan and another Eklutna Native three years ago on a similar matter. An Era Aviation helicopter with the pilot and four passengers crashed into the Inlet just west of Anchorage International Airport on Oct. 18, 2001, as it was flying in from Fire Island.

Two people were quickly rescued but three died and two of those remained missing until the helicopter was retrieved nine days later. The craft eventually was found 2.5 miles west of the crash site. The information Stephan and the other elder, George Ondola, gave them proved instrumental, a search leader said at the time.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at pporco@adn.com or 257-4582.