The pilot missing for four days now along with three National Park Service employees in rugged terrain in Western Alaska has a history of questionable judgment calls, according to a lawsuit filed in Anchorage in 2009. Marco Alletto and his employer, Branch River Air Services, are in the process of being sued by a group of bear hunters who say the Italian-born pilot crashed not once, but twice during the same trip and, along the way, refused to call for help.
A call to Alletto's attorney on Tuesday was not immediately returned.
He was reported to be traveling from Anchorage to Oregon.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Alletto -- Jerry Bagneschi, his 12-year-old grandson, and two of Bagneschi's friends -- had hired Branch River Air to fly them to an area near Puale Bay in Sept. 2007, according to the complaint. An unidentified Branch Air pilot flew them in. Alletto was the pilot sent to retrieve them a week later on Oct. 7.
What the hunters didn't know, according to their lawsuit, is that Branch Air was sending in to get them a pilot who had only weeks earlier completed a Federal Aviation Administration mandated re-examination. The federal action required that after finding Alletto at fault for a crash in August at Crosswind Lake, 60 miles northwest of King Salmon. Alletto, in that case, attempted to back-taxi in rough conditions after dropping off passengers. A wind gust upended one wing, forcing the other to cut through the water and strike the bottom of the shallow lake. The FAA deemed Alletto had "demonstrated questionable aeronautical decision making," according to the complaint.
Sixteen days after the FAA re-exam, according to the lawsuit, Alletto was trying to take off with the four hunters from a soft, rain-soaked runway despite warnings it would be problematic to do so. Here is the hunters' version of what happened next.
Alletto tried to throttle the plane through the soft mud, causing the tail to go airborne. The still spinning propeller then hit the ground and the plane came to a stop. The group worked two hours to dig the plane out of the mud. Afterward, Alletto said he would be unable to continue on, citing FAA rules banning the transport of passengers in the damaged plane. The pilot, however, later changed his mind, deciding he would either obtain a replacement propeller or transport the hunters on a different plane. But in the end, to the hunters' dismay, Alletto attempted to fix the bent propeller blades himself.
"Marco Alletto found a medium sized rock and beat on the ends of the propeller. Marco Alletto pounded on the blades of the propeller over and over again, until Marco Alletto was convinced that the propeller blades were somewhat straight," states the lawsuit, which goes on to describe how Alletto also used a pocket knife to shave off any rough edges on the blades.
Alletto then climbed into the Beaver, fired up the engine, revved the prop and, noticing no "unusual vibrations," deemed the plane airworthy. This time, however, he planned to lighten the plane's load and stated he would only take two passengers at a time. The plan was to ferry them in two groups to a runway adjacent to a nearby lake, and then, from the new take-off location, carry all four men on to King Salmon.
Hunters Jeffrey Rutledge and 12-year-old Zecaraiah Robinson were loaded along with some of the gear and off they went in the plane. But the landing at nearby Becharoff Lake didn't go well. Alletto, according to court records, "ground-looped" the Beaver and cart-wheeled the plane, leaving his passengers trapped in their seatbelts as he kicked and swore at the aircraft. Neither Rutledge nor Robinson saw Alletto activate the emergency locator beacon. The hunters believe it was because he wanted to cover up the accident, worried about another FAA finding of negligence.
According to the lawsuit, Alletto also told Rutledge not to call for help on the radio, and said that it was of no use attempting to call Alaska State Troopers because the mountains would block the signal.
"Marco Alletto refused to use the radio to call for help on the emergency frequency," according to the hunters.
When a good Samaritan flying past noticed the crash and landed, the passengers asked if he could take them out. Although Rutledge was in pain - his neck, knee and back hurt badly - he wasn't in need of immediate medical attention, and so the other pilot chose to continue on his way. He had hunters to pick up himself, he said, but promised to radio for help from the air. Alletto, at this point allegedly told the pilot that Rutledge was claiming to be hurt merely to get an insurance payout.
But the hunter says that wasn't the case. Rutledge was seriously injured, according to his attorney Bob Stone. And the 12-year-old was both hurt and frightened.
The pilot who stopped at the crash scene did radio for help, and an hour and a half later a second plane from Branch River Air Services arrived. It took the two at Becharof Lake to King Salmon. But no one went back for the other hunters. They were left overnight wondering what happened. They were finally rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and, according to the complaint, had to charter a second air taxi to retrieve their gear.
The group claims Branch River did not refund any money, pay medical bills or cover other expenses the group incurred as a result of the crashes.
Rutledge and Bagneshci settled out of court with Branch River and Alletto this summer, according to Stone. But Robinson's case appears headed for trial next year.
For reasons unknown, Alletto's first crash with the hunters - when the drove the airplane's propeller into the ground on an attempted take off -- appears to never have been reported to the authorities. The second crash that day - the one in which the plane cart wheeled - was reported. According to the subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation, pilot error was to blame. The NTSB cited the pilot's "inadequate compensation for gusty wind conditions" as the probable cause in both the August and the October accidents.
According to the lawsuit, Alletto's boss and owner of the air-taxi company, George Hartley, told an FAA inspector two days after the crash "that his pilots were not as proficient in land operations as they might and could be."
Hartley is also quoted as saying Alletto "strikes him as being too driven to complete a task" and that "he possibly fails to fully consider how his pilot decision might affect any event outcome."
"It's one thing to make bad decisions when you are a private pilot," Stone said Tuesday. "But you have a greater expectation of safety when you fly with a commercial operation."
"He [Alletto] had a history of bad decisions," the attorney said, noting that as both a certified pilot and an airframe mechanic, Alletto should have been keenly aware of operating rules, safety regulations and reporting requirements.
In their written response to the allegations, Alletto and his employer disagree with the hunters' version of events, including the characterization of the August incident as a crash and whether the bear hunters were injured, and have denied any wrongdoing.
The search for Alletto and the three park service employees missing with him is to continue tomorrow. Their plane is known to have gone down in bad weather, but there remains hope that it might have safely landed somewhere or successfully crash landed without killing the people aboard. Many have survived crash landings in small planes in Alaska.
Contact Jill Burke at firstname.lastname@example.org.