Body of missing Petersburg pilot found near Admiralty Island

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Lawrence "Smokey" Howell, a pilot from Petersburg whose plane went missing during a hunting trip, was found dead on West Brother Island on Monday afternoon.

His body was spotted on the beach by a group of deer hunters who knew him.

"He was on the beach just below the high tide mark on the northern tip of the island," said David Tracy, Juneau post supervisor for the U.S. Coast Guard. "He was wearing a life jacket."

The state medical examiner ordered an autopsy to determine the cause of death, Tracy said.

Howell, 32, left Petersburg for a solo hunting trip in clear weather on the morning of Dec. 13. He was headed to Hoonah Sound on Chichagof Island. He made his last radio transmission from Cape Fanshaw south of Juneau, calling in a new flight plan, saying he was heading toward Gambier and Pybus bays on Admiralty Island.

"He was comfortable and relaxed (on the radio)," said his best friend, Lee Gilpin, a Petersburg pilot and commercial fisherman who coordinated an exhaustive civil aircraft search when Howell went missing. "I think he saw that it snowed on Admiralty. It is easier to hunt if you have a little snow."

West Brother Island, where Howell's body was found, is about 12 miles northwest of Cape Fanshaw, off the coast of Admiralty.

Howell was last seen by a fisherman and neighbor who spotted him in his blue-and-white Cessna 180 float plane above Gambier Bay on Admiralty Island.

"From there it is all dead ends," Gilpin said.

The Coast Guard suspended its search Dec. 19, but Gilpin and other pilots from Petersburg, Sitka and Juneau continued to fly over the forested rises of Admiralty, and to walk miles of beaches looking for a trace of their friend.

Howell was an avid hunter and experienced outdoorsman who was known to log nearly 300 flight hours a year in Southeast Alaska, Gilpin said. He grew up in Petersburg, where his family lives, and his grandfather also was a pilot in Alaska. Howell owned a construction business, called L and L Trucking, that took him all over Southeast.

"He had a lot of friends; everybody in town is pretty torn up about it," said Ty Cummings, a volunteer searcher.

Howell was working on getting his commercial pilot's license and was in the process of building his own plane from a kit, Gilpin said. The plane he was flying the day he disappeared was built in the 1970s and had regular maintenance, Gilpin said.

On board his plane Howell had food and some survival gear, two radios and an emergency locating device engineered to give a signal upon impact. He also was carrying a cell phone. Searchers never heard a signal.

The night before Howell disappeared, he stayed up late with Gilpin watching movies and telling stories. For many sleepless days after Howell disappeared, Gilpin entertained the hope that his friend had been hunting on Admiralty when his plane was taken out by the tide. He hoped Howell was holed up in a public-use cabin, waiting impatiently to be rescued. Had that been the case, Howell would probably have told the story later in his characteristic nonchalant way, Gilpin said.

"He'd tell the story, you would have no idea it was a big deal 'till you realized he just said he crashed," Gilpin said. "He had such a knack for telling stories that was absolutely hilarious."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.



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