Freshman Rep. Mary Peltola’s husband Eugene died this morning in a plane crash in Alaska. He was the only pilot and there were no passengers. He was 57.
Any premature death is tragic. But it is hard to overstate how many Alaska politicians and their spouses have died in plane accidents. And that’s just a particular window into the dangers of air transportation in the state. Peltola was elected after the death of long serving Rep. Don Young (R). Young was elected after his predecessor, Rep. Nick Begich (D) died in a plane crash in 1972. Also killed in that crash was then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. In fact, while “crash” is basically certain neither the plane nor any of its four occupants were ever found, even after one of the biggest searches in US history.
Former Sen. Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash in 2010. And it wasn’t his first plane crash. He survived another plane crash in 1978 that killed his wife.
As I noted above, this isn’t just bad luck for the political class. Small plane aviation in Alaska is wildly more dangerous than in the rest of the United States. A 2021 study by Propublica found that 42% of the country’s fatalities in small commercial aircraft took place in Alaska.
There are a number of overlapping reasons why there are so many air fatalities in Alaska. The state is mountainous. Weather is bad and it’s unpredictable. The state is so large that there are far fewer weather stations relative to area. So pilots can be confronted with dangerous weather with little or no warning. On top of all of this, many trips which might have been taken by car in the rest of the country are taken by air because there aren’t any roads or the distances make anything but air transportation impractical. Most amateur pilots in the United States fly as a hobby or for fun. But many people in Alaska fly planes because they have to get places that can only be reached by air. I couldn’t find details of where Eugene Peltola was flying or why. But the circumstances of his death suggest this may have been the case. Politicians themselves may not be piloting their planes. But by definition they are required to visit constituents as part of their work and their campaigns and that requires lots of flights to isolated villages and hamlets spread across a vast expanse of territory.
In other words, there are lots of reasons why flying in Alaska is more dangerous than in the rest of the country. Propublica’s study found that the proportion of national air fatalities that take place in Alaska has grown substantially in the last two decades. But most of that is driven by an improving safety record in the rest of the country rather than Alaska flying getting more dangerous.
We send our sincere condolences to Rep. Peltola (D-AK) and her family.