When you picture Alaska, what do you see? Do you imagine rugged mountains, waves crashing into sheer cliffs, roaring rivers, steep glaciers, deep canyons, and rolling tundra? Alaska is all of this and more, and it is a thrill to fly over this stunning scenery on a clear, summer day. Take this geography, shroud it in fog and add some wind, though, and a beautiful plane ride turns into a harrowing adventure.
Plane crashes are far too common in Alaska, and many of these accidents are due, at least in part, to poor weather conditions. If commercial pilots refused to fly in marginal weather, though, they would not make money because the weather is often bad in Alaska. For those of us who live or work in remote areas, we must fly in small planes, and we can’t always pick our weather. Mysteries abound in Alaska about airplanes that took off and were never seen again. The following is a story of one of the most famous airplane disappearances in the history of the state.
Cessna N1812H Disappears
On October 16th, 1972, a Cessna 310 with the tail number N1812H operated by Pan Alaska Airways disappeared somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau, Alaska. The plane was piloted by Don Jonz, 38, the chief pilot for Pan Alaska. Jonz was a military veteran with more than 17,000 hours of flight time. The passengers on the plane were Alaska Congressman Nick Begich, 40, his aide Russell Brown, 37, and Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs, 58, the U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader. The three men were planning to attend an election rally for Begich in Juneau.
The plane left Anchorage at 9:00 am, and Jonz filed a VFR flight plan stating he planned to fly southeast over the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, through Portage Pass, over Prince William Sound to Johnstone Point, and then on to Yakutat. From Yakutat, he would fly directly to Juneau. The flight should take approximately 3 ½ hours, and the airplane carried six hours of fuel. The weather was marginal throughout the entire area on October 16th. Yakutat had a 700 ft. ceiling and 1 ½ miles visibility with fog. Juneau also had fog. In addition to poor visibility, icy rain and turbulent headwinds were forecasted in route.
When the plane did not arrive in Juneau and was declared missing, the U.S. launched the largest search-and-rescue effort on record up until that time. The search lasted 39 days and included 40 military aircraft and 50 civilian planes covering over 325,000 square miles. Pilots flew 1,000 sorties totaling 3,600 flight hours. The search encompassed huge glaciers and the jagged Wrangell St. Elias Mountain Range, as well as large portion of the coastlines of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. In addition to the air operation, ground patrols searched Portage Pass twice. No piece of the aircraft was ever located during the initial search or since, and officials at the time decided the plane likely crashed and either sank into Prince William Sound or was buried in ice and snow. Did the plane hit a mountain obscured by fog, or did turbulence play a role in the disaster? Icing on the wings could have affected lift and maneuverability, or any combination of these factors might have caused the plane to crash.
A recent Alaska law passed just months before the plane disappeared required all small commercial aircraft to be equipped with an Emergency Locator Transmitter. Such a device would have sent out a signal if the plane had crashed on land. If it had crashed in the water, it is less certain a signal would have been relayed. Officials claimed no signal was ever received, and they determined there was no locator device on the downed aircraft.
Officials terminated the search for the airplane on November 24th, and the four men were declared dead on December 29th. Even though Boggs and Begich were presumed dead, both men were re-elected to the House of Representatives. Boggs’ widow, Lindy, went on to replace her husband in Congress and served eight more terms. In Alaska, a special election was held, and Republican Don Young, who had originally lost to Begich, was elected. Young is still Alaska’s congressman.
Once the search for the plane was terminated, and the men were declared dead, most people assumed the obvious. The pilot had simply pushed the boundaries too far. Under pressure perhaps from the congressmen to get them to the political rally in Juneau on time, Jonz chose to fly in marginal weather conditions. Pilots are often asked by demanding passengers to fly in poor weather. When those passengers are high-ranking politicians, a pilot might find it difficult to refuse them.
Nick Begich was only a freshman congressman from a sparsely populated state, but Hale Boggs was a colorful, out-spoken representative from Louisiana who likely would have been chosen the next Speaker of the House of Representatives. Many people refused to believe he disappeared by accident, and conspiracy theories swirled around his untimely death. To this day, many think he was the victim of foul play instead of a hapless passenger on an ill-fated flight. (insert Hale Boggs photo Tie w/dark hair black suit)
Hale Boggs, a Democrat, was first elected as a U.S. Representative from Louisiana in 1946, and he was re-elected thirteen times. Boggs was the youngest member of the Warren Commission which investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In a 1966 interview on Face the Nation, Boggs defended the findings of the Warren Commission and said he believed Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone when he killed Kennedy. Despite this assertion, though, a rumor persisted that Boggs was not happy with the Warren Commission’s findings and was seeking to reopen the Kennedy investigation.
Around 11:30 pm on July 23rd, 1970, two years before he disappeared, a Lincoln Continental ran Boggs’ car off the road in Washington D.C. Boggs chased the car, wrote down the license plate number, and called the police, but there is no record the incident was investigated. The Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police would have been the agency in charge of the investigation, but they now say they can find no relevant records relating to the case.
In April 1971, Boggs claimed the FBI tapped his telephone. Furthermore, he said several other Representatives also believed their phones had been tapped. Boggs said he knew why the FBI tapped his phone and how they intended to use the information they heard. He refused to say what that information was but said once his lawyers finished their investigation, he would release the details to the public. Boggs then called for the immediate resignation of J. Edgar Hoover. Attorney General John Mitchell denied Boggs’ allegations about the FBI, but Boggs said he was “absolutely certain” the FBI had placed a tap on his phone.
Transmissions from the Downed Plane?
Immediately after the Cessna 310 carrying Boggs, Begich, Brown, and Jonz disappeared, the U.S. Coast Guard station in Long Beach, California received a call from an anonymous tipster claiming he knew where the plane had crashed. The man said he had access to experimental electronic equipment, and he provided detailed directions to the coordinates of the downed airplane. According to recently released documents, the FBI apparently found the source believable, and one agent wrote, “The source of the aforementioned information is reliable.” Agents who interviewed the man reported he “appeared rational, extremely intelligent, but somewhat strange.” It is not clear whether searchers checked the coordinates the tipster provided.
In the hours and days following the disappearance of the plane, several, independent ham radio operators in Northern California reported hearing a transmission from someone on the downed plane broadcasting there were survivors on the plane. Searchers were never able to pinpoint the location of the origin of these transmissions.
According to the FBI file, the day after the plane disappeared, a search plane picked up a signal for 40 minutes some distance from Juneau from what was believed to be a crash locator beacon. Another, weaker signal was heard 150 miles northeast of Anchorage, but search planes were unable to pinpoint the source of either signal.
Freelance writer Jonathan Walczak has spent a great deal of time and money investigating the disappearance of Pan Alaska Airways N1812H, and he believes if the plane was sabotaged, the likely target was Nick Begich, not Hale Boggs.
Walczak writes that the consensus is the plane crashed somewhere between Portage Pass and Johnstone Point about an hour into the flight. If the plane was covered with ice, as weather conditions that day suggest, and it crashed into Prince William Sound, it likely would have sunk to the bottom. One question remains, though. What caused the plane to crash?
Walczak learned that on March 4th, 1974, less than 17 months after the disappearance her husband, Pegge Begich, the window of Congressman Nick Begich, married Jerry Max Pasley, a Mafia-connected killer and bomber. The marriage lasted only two years. In 1994, when Pasley was in prison in Arizona for murder, he spoke with investigators from the Anchorage Police Department, the Alaska State Troopers, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Pasley provided details to several unsolved murders and made shocking claims, but the most surprising thing he said was he transported a bomb to Alaska in 1972.
Pasley worked for mobsters including Peter Licavoli. Sr. and Joe Bonanno Sr., and he admitted to several bombings and murders. He was in prison in 1994 for gunning down a man in a Tucson hotel. At his trial, he told the jury he was ashamed he had killed people. Pasley knew he would spend the rest of his life in prison and said he wanted to come clean about several other killings, including the murder of his ex-wife’s first husband, Nick Begich.
Pasley told investigators that in 1972, he was handed a locked briefcase by a Bonanno lieutenant in Arizona. He was instructed to take the briefcase to Anchorage where he handed it to two men. He flew back to Arizona the following day. He said he was told “something big” was about to happen, and soon afterward, the plane carrying Begich and Boggs disappeared. Pasley said he then moved to Anchorage and began dating Pegge Begich, a woman he had met through mutual friends in Arizona and had dated before the plane went missing.
Pasley claimed Pegge gave him lavish gifts, including co-ownership in a bar. His partners in the bar were Pegge and one of the men to whom he had handed the briefcase in 1972. He said he and this man were fishing one day when the man got drunk and told Pasley the briefcase contained a high-tech bomb. According to Pasley, the man said he placed the bomb on Pan Alaska N1812H before it left on its final flight with Begich, Boggs, Brown, and Jonz on board.
The investigators were shocked by Pasley’s claims and immediately notified the FBI who sent agents to interview Pasley in 1995. Retired Anchorage Police Sergeant Mike Grimes told Walczak he was stunned by Pasley’s claims, and when he returned to Anchorage from his interview with Pasley in the Arizona prison, he immediately contacted an FBI agent he knew in Anchorage. When Grimes didn’t hear back from the agent for several weeks, he again contacted her, and she insisted they meet somewhere other than her office. The agent told Grimes that when her boss called FBI headquarters in Washington with the information, he was told, “You will do nothing there. You will send everything you have to us.”
Other investigators also told Walczak they were surprised the FBI did not vigorously investigate Pasley’s claims of a bomb. Pasley agreed to take a polygraph, but it is not clear whether the FBI ever administered one to him. The FBI shut down the investigation immediately.
Max Pasley died in prison in 2010 at the age of 69. Was he telling the truth about the bomb? It is a fact Pasley married Pegge Begich less than 17 months after her husband disappeared, and there was no upside for Pasley to claim he was responsible for carrying the bomb to Alaska. Confessing that someone in the Bonanno crime family sent him to Alaska with a bomb could have put his life in jeopardy in prison, so what reason would he have for lying about the matter?
I admit Walczak’s research is interesting, but we have no way of knowing whether Pasley was telling the truth during his jailhouse confession. What are we to make of the broadcasts heard by ham radio operators in California, and what about the mysterious stranger who claimed to know where the plane had crashed?
In my opinion, the most likely scenario for the disappearance of Pan Alaska N1812H was bad weather, including fog, turbulence, and icing. The plane probably crashed and sank to the bottom of Prince William Sound, but we will never know the truth unless the wreckage is found.
Begich and Boggs both had very successful children. Nick Begich’s son, Mark, became the mayor of Anchorage from 2003 to 2009 and was a U.S. Senator for Alaska from 2009 to 2015. Hale Boggs’ daughter, Cokie Roberts, is a national news correspondent.
Since 1962, more than forty cases of missing aircraft remain open in Alaska. No missing aircraft case is closed until substantial evidence provides information to the location of the aircraft. Maybe one day, we will know what happened to Pan Alaska N1812H.
If you would like to read more stories of true murder and mystery in Alaska, please sign up for my free, monthly newsletter at: https://mailchi.mp/e34d98f1a569/alaska_mystery_newsletter
Robin Barefield is the author of three Alaska wilderness mystery novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, and The Fisherman’s Daughter. To download a free copy of one of her novels, watch her webinar about how she became an author and why she writes Alaska wilderness mysteries.
Special thanks to Robin Barefield for sharing one of her blogs with This Awful Awesome Life and allowing us to reprint it in this issue.