The rugged terrain of Alaska’s Mystic Pass, looking north. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

In the age of Google Earth, it’s tempting to think human knowledge of the world is complete, with no frontiers to be charted. Which is why Alex Stack thought modern technology could get him through the mighty Alaska Range after a successful 2006 moose hunt.

Stack and his buddies Aric Beane and James Eule hit bad weather as they flew home through Mystic Pass, a narrow valley winding through 8,000-foot peaks southwest of Mount McKinley. One minute, the weather was fine; the next, clouds were rolling down the snow-streaked ridges.

“Have you ever been in 100 percent fog? That’s exactly what it’s like,” recalled Eule, an Anchorage surgeon. “You’re flying blind, knowing there’s mountains all around you.”

Alone in a nimble Cessna, Eule was able to turn around. Stack and Beane, in a larger plane carrying most of the 1,000-pound moose, were forced to press on, eyes glued to a handheld GPS screen, praying its fusion of satellite signals and government terrain maps would guide them to safety.

Unfortunately, the maps were wrong.

Alaska, it turns out, has never been mapped to modern standards. While the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is constantly refining its work in the lower 48 states, the terrain data in Alaska is more than 50 years old, much of it hand-sketched from black-and-white stereo photos shot from World War II reconnaissance craft and U-2 spy planes.

Errors abound. Locals tell of mountains as much as a mile out of place. Streams flow uphill, and ridges are missing because a cloud happened by when the photo was taken.

“Mars is better mapped than the state of Alaska,” said Steve Colligan, president of E-Terra, an Anchorage mapping firm that specializes in aviation safety. Thanks to the Pentagon, the wilds of Asia and the Middle East are better mapped, too.

“We have this amazing map of Afghanistan. It’s the most modern geological map ever made,” said Kevin Gallagher, associate director for USGS Core Science Systems. “I would love to invest in America like this.”

Now, Gallagher is getting the chance. The USGS, along with numerous state and federal partners, has launched the 3D Elevation Program, an effort to chart all 50 states with airborne lasers (lidar) or radar (ifsar). The new technology permits astonishingly precise measurements of terrain, buildings and roads, waterways, coastline, even vegetation, right down to individual plants.

“It’s not an image; it’s data. That’s what makes it so powerful,” Gallagher said. “Lidar is like looking at the world through a new set of glasses.”

The technology is transforming archaeology and geology, revealing lost cities in the jungles of Cambodia and Belize and new fault lines under the streets of Seattle. It has guided rescuers after the Oso, Wash., landslide; gauged flood risk in North Carolina; and helped residents decide whether to install solar panels on Manhattan rooftops.

Lidar also has countless commercial applications. A 2012 report on the benefits of better elevation data drew support from Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Co. (precision agriculture), the Mendocino Redwood Co. (timber inventory and landslide avoidance), TomTom (vehicle guidance) and an array of energy firms (windmills, solar farms and oil-well siting).

Gallagher predicts the 3-D program will be as “transformational” to the U.S. economy as the original Army Corps surveys that fueled the Westward expansion in the 1800s. For about $150 million a year, the USGS estimates the new maps could boost government savings and private investment by as much as $13 billion annually.

Because Alaska is so badly mapped, the project kicked off there in the summer of 2010 using ifsar, which is slightly less accurate than lidar but cheaper and able to penetrate clouds. Within months, however, Republicans had won the U.S. House and begun squabbling with President Obama over government spending. The 3-D program has since struggled to gain a toehold in the federal budget as gridlocked policymakers have repeatedly rubber-stamped old spending priorities in quickie budget bills, known as continuing resolutions, or CRs.

The USGS has persevered, cobbling together existing federal funds and money appropriated by desperate Alaska officials. Still, four years later, just half of the state has been mapped and impatient contractors have been flying extra territory on spec in hopes that Congress will finally boost the program’s budget.

“We lobby. I’m sure Fugro lobbies. But as soon as they go to a CR, you’re screwed,” said Ian Wosiski, sales director at Intermap Technologies, which, along with Fugro EarthData, is flying the planes that collect the ifsar data.

“We’re talking about $30 million to finish the state. Thirty million dollars,” Wosiski said. “When you consider all the benefits of the program, it seems like a no-brainer.”

Some argue the project has already paid for itself. A few months after the project’s “skybreaking” at an Anchorage airport, an F-22 Raptor crashed while training in remote territory near Denali National Park. The pilot died on impact, and the plane — by then a $150 million hunk of hazardous material — was submerged in a 20-foot crater in a streambed between two ridges.

It was just before Thanksgiving. The mountains were covered with snow, and the days were short, with six hours of sunlight. As the military readied a 33-person recovery team, Army contractor Mike Davis remembered the skybreaking and called to see whether ifsar had been collected over the crash site.

It had. Fugro rushed the raw data to Anchorage, where Davis used it to plot a course for helicopters to land safely without touching off an avalanche.

A mapping specialist from Colorado State University, Davis had been campaigning for better elevation data for at least four years, since the Army began moving Kiowa helicopters to Fort ­Wainwright outside Fairbanks. Though the Pentagon had aerial images of its vast Alaska training fields, Davis said, they were useless to the Kiowas without accurate information about the lay of the land.

“We realized we had elevation errors in the hundreds of feet in our maps,” Davis said. “And now we’ve got all these guys coming in, expecting to train at night and fly map-of-the-earth-type stuff. And the answer was just no.”

He put together some PowerPoint slides and began lobbying military commanders. “I said: ‘Here’s the level of data they have for terrain in Afghanistan. And here’s the crap we have here,’ ” Davis recalled. “They got the message pretty quickly.”

Davis may have helped prod the Defense Department’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to put $2.3 million toward the first ifsar flights. Steve Wallach, an NGA executive at the time, did not recall mention of the Kiowas. But funding ifsar “probably served multiple training purposes,” he said, adding, “The quality of the existing elevation data was very poor.”

These days, Davis works for HDR, an engineering firm. As the ifsar data has become available, he has been loading it onto iPads for his associates, including a four-person crew assigned this summer to scour a proposed natural gas pipeline corridor for signs of ancient settlements.

Davis has also scouted Devil’s Canyon on the Susitna River, site of a proposed hydroelectric dam. There, the ifsar data will be used to model water flow in a watershed the size of West Virginia. Davis also dreams of using it to fly drones up the canyon so pilots don’t have to risk their lives photographing the area.

Drones “need crazy elevation data,” he said.

Scientsts, meanwhile, are using the data to model tsunami evacuation routes and waiting eagerly for future flights over the state’s active volcanoes. Earlier this month, new data arrived from the Columbia Glacier, causing a stir in the glacier office at the USGS Alaska Science Center in the hills of east Anchorage.

USGS scientist Louis Sass said the new data will permit better measurements of thinning and shrinkage since Alaska glaciers were last mapped in the 1950s, increasing understanding of global warming.

“It’s beautiful data,” Sass said. “You can actually see details in the ice, like where the glacier is calving.” He pointed to several small lumps on the map on his computer screen.

“Those are icebergs,” he said. “You can actually see little icebergs in the ocean.”


Columbia Glacier, in 2004. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Alaskans, of course, have more prosaic problems than melting glaciers and crashing fighter jets. Take, for instance, land rights. How do you lay claim to land that has never been mapped?

“Stuff that is unthinkable in the contiguous U.S. is perfectly normal here,” said Lars Gleitsmann, a geologist and entrepreneur who has testified in mining disputes. “A surveyer draws on a map, then he goes out into Mother Nature using the GPS to locate his place. Nothing matches, nothing fits. Soon, everybody is at each other’s throats.”

Gleitsmann, an expert bush pilot, is also deeply involved in the state’s most urgent ifsar-related project: improving aviation safety.

Alaska pilots are 36 times as likely to die as the average U.S. worker, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state has few roads, so everything and everybody has to travel in small planes capable of landing on remote runways. Alaska has roughly six times as many pilots per capita as the rest of the nation.

And they are usually flying in conditions that are inherently dangerous. The weather is brutal and hard to predict. The rugged and badly mapped terrain leads to a particularly deadly kind of crash called “controlled flight into terrain,” which in Alaska means the pilot has flown a perfectly good plane at full speed into the side of a mountain.

Since 2008, 15 such crashes have killed 16 people and left seven seriously injured in Alaska, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Among them was the crash that killed former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in 2010.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R), a longtime champion of better mapping, said he has lost 25 friends in plane crashes — and he feared for his own life during a 2012 flight through the Alaska Range via Rainy Pass, one of the state’s deadly mountain passes.

“There was a crucial four or five minutes where we didn’t know where we were,” Treadwell said. “Then we landed at the Rainy Pass Lodge, somebody handed me a cold beer and made me a hamburger, and it was wonderful.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has worked since 2000 to improve flight safety with training programs and new technology. But Colligan, of E-Terra, said he had to warn the FAA against trying to produce an in-cockpit map system using the old terrain maps.

“I told them, this is not the same as the lower 48. You’ll kill people here,” he said.

With ifsar, such a map is finally possible. NASA recently released to Alaska officials a prototype of a navigation app that will deliver 3-D terrain maps — as well as real-time weather forecasts — into the cockpit for testing as soon as next year. E-Terra, meanwhile, is developing a hyper-realistic 3-D map that would let socked-in pilots virtually brush the clouds away.

Both projects need more terrain data, however. “GPS is no good if it only covers four blocks downtown,” Colligan said.

So Gleitsmann has been flying the mountains with a camera, documenting the power of ifsar in hopes of helping the state shake loose more federal cash. Among his targets: Mystic Pass, where Nick Mastrodicasa, the state’s project manager for the digital mapping initiative, remembered two hunters finding themselves in bad weather in a plane full of moose meat in 2006.

“That is probably the worst thing that can happen to any pilot, that situation,” Gleitsmann said. “What they were facing was really, really bad.”


Aric Beane and Alex Stack, shown on the morning they headed home via Mystic Pass from a 2006 moose hunt in Stack’s bush plane, a de Havilland Beaver. Both were killed when the plane crashed into a ridge in bad weather. (Courtesy of James Eule/The Washington Post)

An experienced pilot, Stack had purchased a brand new GPS device just before the hunting trip. Studying his position on its moving map, he steered the plane through the clouds nearly the full length of Mystic Pass. He had one last ridge to clear before the land opens up into a wide, friendly river valley.

Ifsar later measured the final ridge 263 feet higher than Stack’s GPS would have shown that day. The plane slammed into rock about 300 feet below the ridgeline, rescuers said — close enough to suggest the bad map may have made a difference.

Stack, 38, and Beane, 33, died on impact, leaving behind three small children.

Eule, meanwhile, was flying west, looking for a safe path through the mountains. Low on fuel, he landed at a remote hunting lodge where the wary female caretaker wanted “to make me sleep in the plane.”

He used a satellite phone to call his wife, who checked Stack’s parking spot on the Web cam at the Anchorage airport. She reported his plane missing around 4 a.m. Two days later, the Alaska Air National Guard found the wreckage. The fuselage was incinerated, and rescuers found no trace of the GPS on which Stack had pinned his hopes.

“He was probably doing a really good job, because he navigated quite a ways in the clouds,” Eule said. “If he had better tools, maybe he would still be around.”

Since the crash, Eule, 45, said his wife has pressed him to stop flying. In September, he went hunting on horseback, instead of by bush plane — along with his wife, who bagged the family moose.

But Eule said he will not give up flying completely.

“It’s the only way to get out,” he said, “and do the things you moved to Alaska for.”


James Eule, an orthopedic surgeon, in his office in Anchorage. Eule was flying along with Beane and Stack in a separate plane when they hit bad weather. Eule was able to turn around, landed at a remote hunting lodge. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)