Mark Schroeder, 07-07-05

Floatplane crash leaves one dead

JOHNSTONE LAKE: Teen perishes in cold water after surviving impact.

By PETER PORCO Anchorage Daily News, Published: July 8th, 2005

A 17-year-old South African died but four people survived when a single-engine floatplane crashed into a lake near Seward on Thursday morning, according to Alaska State Troopers.

All five aboard the aircraft, including at least two tourists, survived the initial impact with few injuries, troopers said. But the teenager succumbed to the cold water, went under and did not surface, said troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

The person who died was Mark Schroeder of Durban, South Africa, Wilkinson said. The survivors included pilot Kurt Stenehjem of Anchorage, 54; Ryan Fisher, 28, of Seward; and William O'Neal, 59, and his wife, Carolyn O'Neal, 60, from Overland, Kan., according to Wilkinson.

Fisher works for Stenehjem, he said.

The plane, an M7 Maule, crashed into Johnstone Lake near Seward because of a loss of power, troopers said.

Stenehjem's company, Alaska Glacier Air Adventures, specializes in flying visitors to recreational camps in the Seward area, Wilkinson said. He was reported overdue at 3:30 p.m. by an unidentified couple who were to have been picked up at Bear Lake north of Seward and flown to Johnstone Lake by Stenehjem about 10 a.m.

Members of the Civil Air Patrol began searching for the plane. Troopers also launched a search using a helicopter that already was in Seward.

Sgt. Brandon Anderson of the troopers' Seward post, who spoke to Wilkinson, was aboard the copter as a spotter. The helo pilot, Mel Nading, flew to Johnstone Lake and made several passes around the lake before seeing "small black dots on a small iceberg," Wilkinson said.

Nading later said the iceberg was no larger than a mattress. Two people, William O'Neal and Fisher, were on it waving at the plane. Nading hovered the helo above the iceberg while Anderson, standing on the skids, helped them aboard, according to Wilkinson. It was 5:30 p.m.

The troopers asked them whether anyone else was in the lake. "They point to two others on another iceberg," Wilkinson said. Nading and Anderson rescued Stenehjem and Carolyn O'Neal in the same manner as the other two.

From the survivors, the troopers learned that the plane suddenly lost altitude and crashed into the lake. The impact tore off the floats and collapsed the wings. The fuselage stayed afloat long enough for the five to get into the water.

"They know it's going to sink," Wilkinson said. "They see a fairly large iceberg and all swim to it." They hoped to climb on to it. "But it has steep walls and they can't climb it, so they swim back to the plane. But the kid stays with the big iceberg. So then the pilot goes back, he swims to the kid and says, 'Come back to the plane.' But the kid was overcome by the icy water, and he goes under."

The survivors soon made their way to the two small bergs. The plane sank.

The survivors were taken to Seward Providence Hospital, treated and released, Wilkinson said. The only apparent injuries were minor scratches suffered by William O'Neal and bruised knees and ankles by his wife.

Schroeder was working for Stenehjem in some capacity, perhaps as a summer employee, Wilkinson said.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at or 257-4582.

Reason for crash remains unknown

FLOATPLANE: A clearer picture of rescue, day leading up to it, emerges.

By PETER PORCO Anchorage Daily News, Published: July 9th, 2005

Mark Schroeder, the 17-year-old from South Africa who died this week after a floatplane crashed into a glacial lake near Seward, was visiting Alaska this summer to help build a cabin on land his stepfather owns and to experience the state's wonders for the first time.

A friend of his stepfather's described the athletic teenager as a poised, energetic young man beyond his years.

"He'd walk into a room with a group of (strangers) and he'd introduce himself and shake hands," said John Stadum of Anchorage, who's long known Schroeder's stepfather, Chris McLean of Durban, South Africa. "He had a very British accent, very proper."

The single-engine M7 Maule that apparently lost power suddenly and crashed into what's called Johnstone Lake by locals was owned by McLean, according to Stadum.

The pilot was Kurt Stenehjem, 54, of Anchorage, also a friend of McLean's and the owner of tour businesses based in Anchorage and Seward.

All five on the plane initially survived the Thursday morning crash. But why Schroeder died afterward when the four others managed to pull themselves onto icebergs and survive a six-hour wait could not be learned.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash but had nothing to say about it Friday.

Three of the survivors -- Stenehjem and William and Carolyn O'Neal of Overland Park, Kan. -- declined interviews Friday, according to a staff member in the Anchorage office of Stenehjem's Glacier Air Adventures.

The fourth survivor, 28-year-old Ryan Fisher of Seward, would talk only about the gallantry of the Alaska state troopers who rescued them.

Stenehjem and McLean, who lived in Alaska for many years, own property on or in the vicinity of Johnstone Lake, according to Stadum. McLean visited Alaska in June with friends from South Africa. Two days before he returned, his son came up. Schroeder stayed a week with Stadum before Stenehjem took him down to Stenehjem's lodge near Blying Sound outside of Resurrection Bay roughly 10 days ago.

Little Johnstone Lake Lodge is part of the Glacier Air Adventures tourist package, according to the company's Web site. Little Johnstone Lake is about three miles east of the larger lake. Both are just north of Johnstone Bay.

Earlier this week, Schroeder was staying at the lodge, according to Claudette Bonville of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who also was at the lodge with her husband and two teenage children. They got to know Schroeder.

"He was a doll," Bonville said Friday from a cruise ship. "He was an amazing kid."

She said that on Thursday, their last day at the cabin, Stenehjem was to fly the family to Bear Lake, located beside the Seward Highway about six miles north of Seward. Here Stenehjem keeps McLean's plane and the vehicle used to drive tourists back and forth from the city, Bonville said.

Stenehjem flew Bonville, her husband and Schroeder to Bear Lake at 9:30 a.m. The Bonvilles got out, and the O'Neals and Fisher got on. Stenehjem was to drop them off at the bigger Johnstone Lake. He would then return to Little Johnstone Lake for the Bonvilles' children, ages 17 and 19, and fly them at 11 a.m. to Bear Lake for their return to Seward, Claudette Bonville said.

Fisher and the O'Neals, who did not know each other, were going to Johnstone Lake for a day of kayaking and fun on the lake, according to Fisher. They were due back in Seward on Thursday evening.

Over the lake, however, the plane suddenly lost power, according to troopers.

Fisher said: "I don't know what happened. The plane just kind of went straight down. It pancaked."

Troopers reported that the plane lost its floats and the wings collapsed. It was evidently sinking. But no one was badly hurt in the crash, and all had plenty of time to climb out into the water. They swam for an iceberg but could not climb on top of it because it had steep sides, troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said.

So they swam back to the sinking plane -- all but Schroeder, who stayed with the iceberg. Stenehjem returned to Schroeder, Wilkinson said, but the boy was overcome and unable to stay above the water. His body has not been recovered.

When Stenehjem did not return on time, Bonville called the Glacier Air office, which initiated the search. It would be hours, however, before the crash site was found.

About 5:30 p.m., or about 20 minutes after taking off from Seward, Helo 1, the troopers helicopter, with pilot Mel Nading and Sgt. Brandon Anderson aboard, reached Johnstone Lake. After 10 minutes of search patterns, Anderson spotted two of the victims.

"We just saw two people standing on a very, very tiny piece of ice, the size of a mattress," Nading said Friday.

He briefed Anderson on how they would get the two aboard. Nading flew down, instructed the victims -- it was Stenehjem and William O'Neal, age 59 -- on how they were to be rescued, and set the helo into a low hover.

Anderson unbuckled from the aircraft, held on and stepped onto the skids. He was to exert maximum control.

"Those people were either severely hypothermic or in between," Nading said. "They can crash the helicopter by suddenly jumping on it."

Anderson reached out and gingerly took one at a time onto the skid and into the helicopter. They were soaked.

"They had been standing in the freezing water on an ice cube," Nading said. "It just goes to show you how close these folks were to moving on to the next world. It looked for a moment there that they were just standing on the water."

The two victims pointed in the direction of Fisher and Carolyn O'Neal, 60, who were on a larger iceberg, about the size of three or four parking spaces, according to Nading. He was able to touch the helo down beside them, withholding the helicopter's full weight, and the two climbed in.

They identified where the plane went down and did a 10-minute search of the area for Schroeder. He was nowhere to be found. Nading flew the four to the hospital, where they were treated and released.

The O'Neals had the only injuries, which were minor, troopers said.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at or 257-4582.

Pilot faulted in Johnstone Lake crash

JULY: Floatplane too slow on landing, panel finds; teenager drowned.

Anchorage Daily News
Published: February 4, 2006

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled this week that the crash of a floatplane into a glacial lake near Seward in July that led to the death of a 17-year-old South African was probably caused by pilot error.

The NTSB said the crash occurred because the pilot, tour operator Kurt W. Stenehjem of Anchorage, failed "to maintain minimum airspeed during final approach, which resulted in an inadvertent stall, and impact" with the lake.

The NTSB finding comes on top of the revocation last fall by the Federal Aviation Administration of Stenehjem's commercial and private-pilot licenses.

The FAA and the NTSB act independently of each other, and their reports are not linked, though both are connected to the crash.

The FAA told Stenehjem, in an emergency revocation order issued in late September, that he was not qualified to hold a pilot certificate. The agency cited numerous aviation violations.

Several of them were related to the flight on July 7 that ended in a crash into Big Johnstone Lake, 25 miles east-southeast of Seward. According to the FAA, Stenehjem overloaded the plane, distributed the weight so it exceeded center-of-gravity limits and placed a passenger, Mark Schroeder of Durban, South Africa, in the rear of the plane where there was no seat.

The aircraft, a single-engine Maule M-7-235 operated by Glacier Air Adventures of Anchorage, Stenehjem's company, was coming in for a landing 25 to 50 feet above the surface of the lake when it suddenly lost lift and "pancaked" into the water, collapsing the floats, according to the NTSB report.

Stenehjem and his four passengers climbed out of the mostly submerged plane. One of the passengers, Carolyn O'Neill, 60, of Kansas City, Kan., could not get out initially. But Schroeder worked with his hands beneath the rising water in the cabin and, with the help of others, freed her foot, the FAA reported.

In water of 38-42 degrees, the five swam to an iceberg and tried but failed to climb on top of it. All but Schroeder swam back to the slowly sinking plane and a small iceberg. The boy, who was not wearing a flotation vest, tried to swim back to the plane but went under and never surfaced.

The others, all wearing life vests, eventually climbed on other icebergs, one no larger than a mattress, and were rescued about six hours later. They suffered minor injuries.

Other than insufficient airspeed, the NTSB report does not cite any other factor as a cause of the crash and does not address overloading or weight balance.

Larry Lewis of the Anchorage office of the NTSB, the principal investigator of the crash, was unavailable Friday to discuss the agency's report, the NTSB said.

The FAA, in ordering Stenehjem to surrender his pilot's license, cited an "emergency" for the paying public and said Stenehjem had operated an unsafe airplane on July 7 and without proof of an annual inspection in the preceding 12 months.

"You used the aircraft to carry paying clients of a commercial lodge operation but were willing to forgo very basic inspection requirements that all aircraft operators must abide by," the FAA said in the order of revocation, written by Howard Martin, its regional counsel in Anchorage, and one of only three emergency revocations issued in Alaska in 2005.

Stenehjem, Martin wrote, did not perform essential calculations and failed to follow a "very basic pre-flight process" for ensuring balance in the aircraft that all pilots must follow.

"As a commercial pilot flying a seaplane in remote Alaskan areas with demanding weather and terrain and an absence of readily available emergency services, you were aware or should have been aware that maintaining control of a float-equipped heavily loaded airplane with possible abrupt flight characteristics was imperative," Martin wrote to Stenehjem.

"Ignoring this need, you lost control of the aircraft at a very critical point in flight, where in-flight recovery was impossible. ...Your care and judgment falls short of even a student pilot, and woefully short of the care and judgment a commercial pilot flying paying members of the public should exhibit."

Alaska State Troopers, who investigated the crash and the events afterward in the lake, recently referred the case to the Kenai district attorney, said troopers Lt. Brandon Anderson.

"Any time there's a fatality, for any type of vehicle accident, we look at what negligence there might be on the part of the operator, and we forward charges that may be appropriate," Anderson said Friday.

The charge forwarded to the district attorney was criminally negligent homicide, he said. Whether the case would be prosecuted was the district attorney's call, Anderson said.

Kenai District Attorney June Stein said her office has not yet had the opportunity to review the case.

The 54-year-old Stenehjem, reached Thursday night and again Friday afternoon, said he did not want to be interviewed.

He told The Associated Press that he disagreed with some FAA findings but would rather not argue the details. Instead, Stenehjem told the news agency, it was "best to work for a resolution."

Stenehjem could have his private pilot's license reinstated by the FAA by August, but he'd have to be retrained in some flying matters and retested, said Martin, the FAA's regional counsel.

To win back his commercial certificate, he'd have to go through other retraining and more rigorous retesting, Martin said.

Stenehjem told the Associated Press he has not decided if he will reapply for his license.

The plane was owned by Chris McLean of Durban, South Africa, a former Alaska resident and the stepfather of Schroeder. McLean and Stenehjem were business partners, according to John Stadum, an Anchorage friend of McLean.

McLean had warned Stenehjem against putting anyone in the rear compartment of the plane "as I felt it was unsafe to transport passengers in that location," he told Stein, the Kenai district attorney in an e-mail message provided by his wife, Lesley Schroeder McLean, Mark Schroeder's mother.

According to an e-mail exchange -- one of several e-mail messages she provided -- Lesley McLean wrote to Stenehjem after the crash and said her son was a strong young man, a rugby player and swimmer, and there seemed to be no reason why he should have perished when passengers Carolyn O'Neill and her husband, Bill O'Neill, who was 59, were middle-aged and lived.

Stenehjem responded to Lesley McLean that her son was lean and fit and had the least amount of body fat of those aboard the plane. He was not injured in the crash, Stenehjem wrote, but rather succumbed to the cold water.

The boy's cause of death is listed as drowning, but no autopsy has been performed. Neither his body nor the plane has been recovered from the lake, where depths reach 800 feet.

Lesley McLean blamed Stenehjem's behavior for her son's death.

"We have read the FAA report, spoken to the survivors and received e-mails from them, and we have no doubt that Mark's death was caused by reckless and irresponsible behavior by the pilot," she said in an e-mail message. "It is reprehensible that Kurt did not ensure my son was wearing a life vest and that he overloaded the plane and put Mark in the back in the storage area where there was no approved seat."

Her family will not pursue legal action against Stenehjem, she said.

Stenehjem has had other aircraft accidents. He crashed a plane, a Cessna 180, on a gravel airstrip near McCarthy in October 2003, but was uninjured. He had been flying as a volunteer pilot in an organized charity operation to bring supplies to the controversial Pilgrim family whose overland access to their home within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was cut off by the National Park Service.

He also crashed an ultralight at Birchwood Airport in August 1997, flying solo ground maneuvers as a student pilot. The crash into a parked plane broke his wrist.

Reach Daily News reporter Peter Porco at or 257-4582. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pilot charged in crash that led to death

TWO COUNTS: 17-year-old drowned after floatplane fell into lake.

By RACHEL D'ORO, The Associated Press

Published: July 8, 2006

The pilot in a plane crash that led to a teenager's drowning death has been charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, an unprecedented move in aviation-dependent Alaska.

Kurt Stenehjem of Anchorage was arrested Thursday in the July 7, 2005, death of 17-year-old Mark Schroeder of Durban, South Africa.

Stenehjem, 55, and Schroeder were among five people on board a floatplane that crashed in calm weather into Johnstone Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. An investigation concluded the plane had been overloaded.

Schroeder, who was not wearing a life jacket, survived the crash but vanished into the glacier-fed lake while the others made it to icebergs with minor injuries.

Schroeder's mother, Lesley Schroeder McLean, said she saw "something cosmic" in the timing of the arrest -- a day before the year anniversary of the crash.

Stenehjem is a longtime associate of the victim's family. McLean's husband, Chris, is a former Alaska bush pilot and registered owner of the Maule M7-235 involved in the crash.

"From my heart, I just miss my son. I would rather have him back than have the pilot in jail," Lesley McLean said Friday from Durban. "But we do feel vindicated that justice has been served, although it's not a happy day for me."

State prosecutors could not be reached Friday to explain why they chose to bring charges in this case. Alaska State Troopers and Federal Aviation Administration officials could not recall an Alaska pilot involved in a fatal crash ever being criminally charged.

Nationally, such prosecutions are uncommon but not unheard of, said Phil Kolczynski, a Santa Ana, Calif., aviation law attorney and former FAA trial lawyer. Convictions are even more unusual, he said, and typically occur in cases involving alcohol or drugs -- factors not present here. Far more common are civil lawsuits claiming negligence, he said.

"It depends on the weight of the evidence," Kolczynski said. "If it weighs a ton, a prosecutor is doing exactly what they should be doing. On the other hand, some cases are politicized."

In its own investigation, the FAA found enough to issue a rare emergency revocation of Stenehjem's commercial pilot license, saying his lack of care and judgment justified immediate action. Among factors noted: The plane was equipped with four seats even though there were five people on board; it was overloaded and had not undergone an annual inspection; Schroeder sat in the back where gear was stashed, without a seat.

Chris McLean has said he warned Stenehjem numerous times against putting four passengers in the Maule because it would disrupt the balance. The single-engine float plane belly-flopped as it began landing near Stenehjem's commercial lodge.

Stenehjem turned himself in to Anchorage authorities Thursday and was released less than two hours later after posting $50,000 bail. Stenehjem said Friday he has not yet entered a plea.

He was indicted by a grand jury June 30 but said he didn't learn about the charges until Wednesday, when he was returning from a fishing trip in a remote location outside of cell phone range. He then made arrangements to surrender to authorities.

"It was news to me there was an indictment," he said, before declining further comment.

The McLeans lobbied hard to get the case prosecuted, saying Alaska authorities are reluctant to pursue criminal charges against negligent pilots in a state heavily reliant on aviation. Less than 2 percent of Alaska is accessible by road, according to the FAA. Alaskans are 16 times more likely to own a plane than the national average, according to state figures.

Alaska State Trooper Lt. Brandon Anderson, who conducted the Stenehjem investigation, said the McLeans were helpful in sharing information. But the state began looking at the case immediately with no outside prompting, he said.

"It was a series of events that led to the accident happening and the investigation concluded there was enough negligence there to pursue criminal charges," Anderson said. "But the case is certainly not completed yet. This is the first step. We just have to see how it turns out."