Dolores Graybill 2010-08-12
John Graybill

2 dead in plane crash in mountains near McGrath
TWO DEAD: The aircraft was registered to a Chugiak couple.

By JAMES HALPIN,, Published: August 13th, 2010

Federal investigators are looking into the cause of an airplane crash that killed two people in the mountains near McGrath.

The two people, who were not immediately identified, were found dead in the wreckage Friday about 37 miles northeast of McGrath in the Sunshine Mountains, said Major Guy Hayes, a spokesman for the Alaska National Guard. Alaska State Troopers were notified of the crash a little after 11 p.m. Thursday, a spokeswoman said.

The crash was reported by another pilot in the area, and the National Guard launched a search shortly after midnight, Hayes said. Pararescuemen arrived by helicopter and found the two people dead in the plane, which was at about 2,000 feet elevation in the mountains, he said.

A dog in the plane was found alive and was hoisted to the helicopter, he said. Efforts to recover the bodies were stopped because of bad weather, and the guardsmen returned to McGrath, where they turned the dog over to troopers, Hayes said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has called in additional personnel to respond to several accidents in Alaska this week, is investigating the crash.

The aircraft, a Piper PA-18 built in 1979, is registered to Dolores Graybill, 78, according to Federal Aviation Administration Records. She and her husband, John Graybill, 79, live in Chugiak, according to public records. There was no answer at the home Friday.

A man who answered the phone at a listing for John Graybill Jr. in Custer, Wash., declined to comment.

"The family is still reeling from the effects of this," he said.

Graybill was known in some aviation circles and was described in National Geographic's Adventure Magazine in 2001 as a "legendary bush pilot, notorious poacher in Alaska's Outlaw Wars, and, at 70 years old, the last of a dying breed."

The author of the Adventure article, Jeff Wise, on Thursday posted a blog entry on Psychology Today's site recounting Graybill's experiences and relating them to Monday's crash near Dillingham that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens.

Wise writes that Graybill asserted in 2000 that he had been in at least five potentially fatal crashes and that he had survived by simple luck.

McGrath crash killed 'legendary bush pilot'

By KYLE HOPKINS. Published: August 17th, 2010

The Chugiak couple killed in a Super Cub crash last week north of McGrath were on their way home from a tour of Western and Interior Alaska -- their dog Hala wearing a homemade helmet to protect her ears -- when bad weather turned worse, the couple's daughter said. A second plane flying the same route radioed to 79-year-old pilot John Graybill to say he was turning back, as Graybill and his wife, Dolly, 78, pressed on.

"Dad said, 'OK buddy, I'll catch you down the road,' " said Teri Graybill-Jones.

They never made it home. It was the end of a decades-long adventure for the retired couple who moved to Fairbanks from Michigan in the early 1950s and wrote a colorful, controversial chapter into the history of Alaska Bush pilots.

A larger-than-life profile in National Geographic's Adventure magazine from 2001 called Graybill a "legendary bush pilot, notorious poacher in Alaska's Outlaw Wars, and, at 70 years old, the last of a dying breed." In the early 1980s, the guide played a center role in what newspapers at the time called "the largest game violation case ever prosecuted in Alaska."

Convicted of 18 violations, including herding a bear from a plane using explosives, Graybill was sentenced to 18 months in prison and the loss of his hunting license in February 1982, according to news accounts at the time.

Graybill had fought a 1970s case over illegal possession and transportation of a bear hide all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 1976 that any aircraft used to transport illegally taken game can be seized as part of the punishment.

"There was no doubt Johnny was ornery, but he grew up here in a time when you could legally land and shoot a moose," said John Bath, the pilot who was flying with Graybill the day he died.


On the other hand, Graybill knew the laws had changed to ban same-day flying and hunting, said Stephen Reynolds, a retired state Fish and Wildlife trooper who wrote a book that included a chapter about Graybill called "Bandit Bob." Reynolds said an emergency locator transmitter that disappeared from his patrol plane was later discovered in a plane that authorities seized from Graybill.

If all Alaska hunters and pilots did the same things Graybill was convicted of decades ago, there wouldn't be game left for others, he said. "You can see the interesting nature of this guy, to be so well thought of by some people, who would never almost believe this kind of activity by him."

Graybill-Jones said wardens pursued "trumped up" charges against her father, who once set fire to one of his planes rather than forfeit it to the state. He was a man of integrity and saw himself as an Alaskan providing for his family, she said.

Like the game wardens who once chased him, she knew Graybill as a masterful Super Cub pilot.

"You would not believe how many people my dad has saved. From plane crashes. From being stranded," Graybill-Jones said. "When other people couldn't get in, from weather, dad would go in and pluck them up."

As news of the crash spread late last week, tributes from friends, admirers and even former game wardens soon appeared online.

The author of the Adventure magazine story recently posted the tale to his blog (, where retired game warden Garland Dobson wrote that he was the one who charged Graybill in a 1988 case involving illegal wolf hunting.

While the two men were in a courthouse hallway waiting for a verdict in the case, Graybill told the game warden that the two would have been good friends under other circumstances. They shook hands. "John was indeed a personable fellow," Dobson wrote.

Dobson, who now flies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote that he last saw Graybill at the Valdez air show in 2009. "We were watching the short takeoff and landing competition, and I asked John, 'Why don't you get over there and show them how it's done?' He replied, 'I can't fly that good unless somebody's chasing me.' "

"The Alaskan aviation brotherhood will miss him," Dobson wrote.


Graybill-Jones described her mother as a expert seamstress and wild-game cook who grew blueberries in Chugiak and tomatoes at the couple's cabin in Iliamna.

"In today's standards, you would call her old fashioned, but she was a kick in the pants," said Graybill-Jones, 52, who now lives in Florida but has joined her siblings in Alaska since the accident.

"When she'd come to see us in Florida, she'd dive down for scallops with us and she'd have a margarita on the beach."

Along with flying as a guide and for recreation, John Graybill, worked as a pipefitter and managed a lodge in Kokhanok, on Iliamna Lake, his daughter said. All her life, people told Graybill-Jones there was no finer Super Cub pilot than her dad.

She was 19 when she was flying with Graybill from Kodiak to Peters Creek and her father was forced to land the plane in ocean waves as tall as houses, she recalled.

"He followed the crest of the wave and cranked down the tail and set down the plane tail first at the crest of the wave," she said. "We came down with a "foosh!" and landed in the trough," she said.

A Japanese fishing vessel hauled the father and daughter to safety.


More than a week before the crash, the Graybills joined friends John and Ellen Bath for a tour of the state.

The couples flew to Kotzebue and Nome, spending four days in the Inupiat village of Kobuk, where they caught jumbo sheefish, before heading to Bettles, where John enjoyed a favorite pastime -- swapping old stories at the hangar with young hunters while waiting for the weather to break for a trip into Anaktuvuk Pass.

Bad weather prompted the group to begin the trip home and they gassed up in Tanana, Bath said.

It was Wednesday afternoon and the small planes hit "terrible" weather on the way to McGrath, he said.

"Are you still with me old buddy?" Graybill asked over the radio.

"Barely," Bath replied. "I can't do this Johnny."

Bath, who said he could only see about 300 to 500 feet in the rain and fog, turned back as Graybill continued into the mountains. Minutes later Bath lost contact with his old friend. Only garbled static poured from the radio.

Bath felt sick to his stomach, he said, but still hoped Graybill had somehow made it safety the way he had countless times before.

Graybill once told Wise he'd lived through at least five crashes that could have killed him.

"He believed in what he was doing every minute. He wore that Super Cub like you put on gloves in the winter time," Bath said.

But the couple was found dead in the wreckage of their red-and-white Piper on Friday near Sunshine Mountain, about 37 miles north of McGrath, according to the Alaska National Guard.

Only their dog, who always sat on Dolly's lap in the plane, survived the crash, Graybill-Jones said. The terrier will go to live with the couple's son, John, according to the family.

Asked about her father's age as a pilot, Graybill-Jones said her parents were more active in their late 70s than anyone she knew in their 50s. The couple still flew the state, hiking and fishing, hauling wood and beachcombing. In the middle of nowhere -- in the middle of paradise, really, she said -- they would still stop and picnic.


Daily News reporter Jim Halpin contributed to this story. Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.