Plane crashes are far too frequent in Alaska, and poor weather contributes to many of these accidents. To make a living, though, a commercial pilot in Alaska often must fly in marginal weather. Mysteries abound in the last frontier about airplanes vanishing into thin air without leaving a clue to their fate.
On Oct. 16, 1972, a Cessna 310C with the tail number N1812H, operated by Pan Alaska Airways, disappeared somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau, Alaska. Don Jonz, 38, the owner of Pan Alaska, piloted the plane. Jonz was a military veteran with 17,000 hours of flight time, and he logged 15 years as a pilot in Alaska. The passengers on the doomed 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 planned to attend an election rally for Begich in Juneau.
The plane left Anchorage at 9 a.m., and Jonz filed a visual flight rules (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 three-and-a-half hours, and the airplane carried six hours of fuel. The weather was marginal throughout the entire area on Oct. 16. Yakutat had a 700-foot ceiling and visibility of only one-and-one-half miles with fog. Juneau also had fog. In addition to poor visibility, the forecast called for icy rain and fierce headwinds en route.
When the plane didn’t arrive in Juneau and was declared missing, the U.S. launched the largest search-and-rescue mission 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 massive glaciers and the jagged Wrangell and St. Elias Mountain ranges, as well as a 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 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.
Officials terminated the search for the airplane on Nov. 24 and declared the four men dead on Dec. 29. 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 serve eight more terms. Alaska held a special election, and the voters chose Republican Don Young, who initially lost to Begich. Young is still Alaska’s Congressman.
Once the search for the plane ended, and authorities declared the men dead, most people assumed the plane crashed because the pilot 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. Demanding passengers sometimes ask pilots to fly in poor weather. When those passengers are high-ranking politicians, a pilot might find it difficult to refuse them. Don Jonz was an experienced aviator, but some pilots considered him a risk-taker who pushed the boundaries when it came to flying in poor weather.
Several reports of strange radio calls and other electronic communications baffled investigators in the days following the disappearance of the Cessna 310 carrying Boggs, Begich, Brown and Jonz. Immediately after the plane went missing, the U.S. Coast Guard station in Long Beach, California, received a call from an anonymous tipster claiming he knew where the plane 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 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.
Also, 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 aircraft broadcasting there were survivors on the plane. Searchers were never able to pinpoint the location of the origin of these transmissions, and investigators concluded the broadcast was likely a hoax.
According to the FBI file, the day after the plane vanished, a search plane picked up a signal for 40 minutes some distance from Juneau from what searchers believed was a crash locator beacon. The searchers heard another, weaker signal 150 miles northeast of Anchorage (the wrong direction for the flight south from Anchorage), but search planes could not pinpoint the source of either signal. Moreover, the NTSB concluded that N1812H was not equipped with an emergency beacon, nor did the pilot possess a portable one.
Many investigators believe the plane crashed somewhere between Portage Pass and Johnstone Point about an hour into the flight. One question remains, though. What caused the plane to crash?
Begich was only a freshman Congressman from a sparsely populated state. Boggs, though, was a colorful, outspoken representative from Louisiana who likely would have become 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.
Boggs, a Democrat, was first elected as a U.S. Representative from Louisiana in 1946, and the voters re-elected him 13 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 acted alone when he killed Kennedy. Despite this assertation, though, a persistent rumor suggested Boggs was not happy with the Warren Commission’s findings and was seeking to reopen the Kennedy investigation.
Around 11:30 p.m. on July 23, 1970, two years before Boggs disappeared in Alaska, a Lincoln Continental ran his car off the road in Washington, D.C. Boggs chased the car, wrote down the license plate number, and called the police. No record exists, though, to indicate police ever investigated the incident. The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department would have been the agency in charge of the investigation, but it now says it can find no relevant records relating to the case.
In April 1971, Boggs claimed the FBI tapped his telephone. Furthermore, he said several other U.S. Representatives also believed their phones were tapped. Boggs said he knew why the FBI tapped his phone and how it intended to use the conversations it heard. He refused to say what the conversations entailed but said once his lawyers finished their investigation, he would release the details to the public. Boggs then called for the immediate resignation of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Attorney General John Mitchell denied Boggs’ allegations about the FBI, but Boggs said he was “absolutely certain” the FBI placed a tap on his phone.
“When the plane didn’t arrive in Juneau and was declared missing, the U.S. launched the largest search-and-rescue mission on record up until that time.”
Freelance writer Jon Walczak has spent a great deal of time and money investigating the disappearance of Pan Alaska Airways N1812H, and he believes if someone sabotaged the plane, the likely target was Begich, not Boggs.
Walczak learned that on March 4, 1974, less than 17 months after the disappearance of her husband, Pegge Begich, the window of Congressman Begich, married Jerry Max Pasley, who years later was convicted of murder and bombing in connection with his with ties to the Mafia. 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 that 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, Pasley 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, a Bonanno lieutenant in Arizona handed him a locked briefcase. The man ordered Pasley to take the briefcase to Anchorage and give it to two other men. Pasley followed the instructions and then flew back to Arizona the following day. He said the men told him “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 met through mutual friends in Arizona. 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 handed the briefcase in 1972. Pasley said he and this man were fishing one day when the man got drunk and told Pasley the case 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.
Pasley’s claims shocked the investigators, and they immediately notified the FBI, which sent agents to interview Pasley in 1995. Retired Anchorage Police Sergeant Mike Grimes told Walczak he was stunned by Pasley’s claims. Grimes said 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 did not 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, his superiors told him, “You will do nothing there. You will send everything you have to us.”
“On March 4, 1974, less than 17 months after the disappearance of her husband, Pegge Begich, the window of Congressman Begich, married Jerry Max Pasley, later a convicted killer and bomber with ties to the Mafia.”
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 no evidence exists to indicate the FBI ever administered one to him. The FBI immediately shut down the investigation.
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 Pasley had no upside in claiming he carried the bomb to Alaska. By confessing that someone in the Bonanno crime family handed him a bomb to take to Alaska, Pasley likely put himself in danger in prison. Why would he fabricate this story? If Pasley was telling the truth, though, why did someone put a bomb on the plane, and who would want to murder Begich? If Pasley knew the answers to these questions, he never told anyone.
The disappearance of N1812H remains as much a mystery today as it did in 1972. The tragic deaths of the four men make us wonder what they would have accomplished with their lives and what the Congressmen might have done to shape the future of the United States.
Since 1962, more than 40 cases of missing aircraft remain open in Alaska. No missing airplane case is closed until substantial evidence provides information to the location of the plane. Maybe one day, we will know what happened to Pan Alaska N1812H.