APNewsBreak: Ex-astronaut pilot in downed plane

AP News
Posted: Oct 07, 2011 6:12 PM
APNewsBreak: Ex-astronaut pilot in downed plane

The former space shuttle pilot at the center of a bizarre love triangle involving another astronaut survived a small plane crash last month in rural Alaska, federal officials said Friday.

Bill Oefelein piloted the shuttle Discovery in December 2006. Two months later, his former girlfriend, Lisa Nowak, raced the 900 miles from Houston to the Orlando airport to confront his new love interest, Colleen Shipman.

Police have said Nowak donned a wig and trench coat as Shipman looked for her bags. Nowak disputed that she wore astronaut diapers during the long drive, contrary to the initial police report.

Oefelein and Shipman are now married and living in Anchorage, according to Florida attorney Kepler Funk, who has represented Shipman in the past.

In the Sept. 15 crash, Oefelein managed to skillfully steer the stalled small floatplane into some alder bushes and land without any injuries near Judd Lake, about 50 miles northwest of Anchorage. None of the three on board was injured, but the six-seat Regal Air plane was heavily damaged when it went down in a swampy area of alder bushes about 200 feet from the lake.

The plane had just taken off when it lost power, according to the NTSB.

The National Transportation Safety Board said at the time it would have taken "nerves of steel" for the risky maneuver.

An engine check was conducted on the crashed Cessna 206 floatplane on Friday and no problem was found, according to the Jim La Belle, the NTSB's Alaska regional chief.

NTSB's investigation continues and will look at any potential issues involving Oefelein or mechanical problems, La Belle said. The environment does not appear to be a factor.

"We're not assuming any operational errors," he said.

Oefelein didn't immediately return an email seeking comment Friday and there is no telephone listing for him or Shipman in Anchorage.

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A preliminary report of the crash is expected to be released next week, La Belle said.

Mike Laughlin, owner of Anchorage-based Regal Air, declined to confirm that Oefelein was the pilot of the floatplane. The pilot involved in the crash was picking up two campers at Judd Lake and heading to Anchorage when the plane went down, he said.

"The pilot did a phenomenal job in bringing everyone down and keeping everyone safe," Laughlin said. "Everybody walked away."

It's the first crash for the air taxi and flightseeing company, which has been in business since 1982, Laughlin said. The company's busy flying period is over, and the pilot was a seasonal employee for Regal Air, but is "absolutely" expected to return, he said.