Lawrence Smith, 06-05-99

By Jon Little, ADN 6/6/99

Soldotna ---An Anchorage pilot died Saturday morning after his Cessna 185 overturned on gusty Longmere Lake near Soldotna.

Lawrence Smith, 56, apparently drowned after he couldn't unfasten his seat belt in the overturned plane, according to a preliminary investigation by Alaska State Troopers.

Smith's three passengers, Leon Chandler, 57, Sheila Stubbs, 29, both of Anchorage, and Don Smucker, 45, of Florida, climbed safely out of the airplane and were rescued by Longmere Lake residents who rushed out in boats. The plane touched down, then dipped its right wing into the water and cart-wheeled before settling upside down about 30 yards from the lake's edge, said Tim Gleason, who saw the accident at 10:30 a.m. from the window of his shoreside log house. Gleason is a Soldotna anesthesiologist who knew Smith, a pharmacist.

Smith was flying to Soldotna with Chandler, a doctor, and Stubbs, his nurse, to check on a patient, troopers said. Smith kept a car parked at Gleason's house for such visits.

"I think it was a combination of wind and bad luck," Gleason said. "It wasn't the kind of accident I thought was going to end in a fatality."

He and other witnesses ran for the lake, some jumping in a canoe, some swimming. They helped Chandler, Stubbs and Smucker to shore, but Smith didn't make it out of the cockpit in time, Gleason said.

The cold lake water shocked Gleason when he dove down to reach the pilot, forcing him to surface before he could do much to help, he said. The low temperature ripped the breath from his lungs, surprising him. "I'm an anesthesiologist," he said. "I thought I knew that stuff."

Winds out of the north created small white-topped waves Saturday on the narrow lake popular with floatplane pilots and air charter operators. Gleason, who flies his own floatplane, said the winds were strong in the morning when the plane flipped.

Crews from Central Emergency Services worked most of the afternoon to right the aircraft, which was floating upside-down with only its pontoons breaking the surface of the lake.

An official from the National Transportation Safety Board flew down from Anchorage to investigate the accident.