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
Mark Mueller
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 report said.

NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said Tuesday the crash likely resulted from a combination of factors, including several that were unrelated to alcohol or drug use.

"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 specified.

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 reinstated.

Mueller began working for Bellair in 2001. He passed the company's initial drug test.

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