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Ex-astronaut involved in air crash, years after NASA scandal

Federal officials confirm that former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein, one of the figures in an infamous astronaut love triangle, was the pilot of a small plane that stalled and crashed last month in rural Alaska.
Image: Oefelein
Former astronaut Bill Oefelein, shown here in a 2006 photo taken during his space shuttle mission, was involved in a recent plane crash in Alaska, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.NASA file
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Federal officials confirmed Friday that former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein, one of the figures in an infamous astronaut love triangle, was the pilot of a small plane that stalled and crashed last month in rural Alaska.

Oefelein was the pilot of the shuttle Discovery in December 2006. His former girlfriend, astronaut Lisa Nowak, stirred up a scandal in February 2007 when she confronted a romantic rival, then-Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, at the Orlando International Airport in Florida.

The incident became even more notorious when police claimed that Novak made a marathon 950-mile drive from Texas to Florida while wearing diapers to cut down on bathroom stops. During a court hearing, Nowak's lawyer said that the story was "an absolute fabrication" and that the toddler-size diapers found in her car were left over from a hurricane evacuation a couple of years earlier.

After two years of legal wrangling, Nowak agreed to a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to charges of felony burglary and misdemeanor battery. This year, the U.S. Navy gave Nowak a demotion and an "other than honorable" discharge.

Oefelein, meanwhile, left NASA and married Shipman. The couple moved to Alaska and set up a freelance writing and public-speaking business.

No injuries, but heavy damage
In the Sept. 15 crash, Oefelein managed to 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 National Transportation Safety Board. At the time, the NTSB said it would have taken "nerves of steel" to execute the risky maneuver.

An engine check was conducted on the crashed Cessna 206 floatplane on Friday, and no technical problem was found, according to the Jim La Belle, the NTSB's Alaska regional chief. The 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. A preliminary report of the crash is expected to be released next week, La Belle said.

'Phenomenal job'
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 told The Associated Press. "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 he is "absolutely" expected to return, Laughlin said.

AP said Oefelein did not immediately return an email seeking comment on Friday.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.