We were flying at 70-mph indicated airspeed along the rock face, approximately 500 feet above ground level. I reasoned that we could fly another one-quarter to one-half mile or so before needing to make a course reversal due to the rising terrain. I looked down at my lesson plan and made a note. In the five seconds I was not monitoring the flight path, J.C. descended to a small ridge to the south of the rock face and began flying upslope terrain. When I looked up we were nearly over the small ridge between the creeks. I was startled to see that we were on about 20 feet above the snags, some of which appeared to be around 80 feet in height. It does not take long to get into trouble in the mountains!
I returned to the area in my Cessna 180 and flew the same path, beginning where J.C. decided to descend from the rock face to the ridge between the South Fork of Beaver Creek and Badger Creek. It took 5 seconds to get to the point where I looked outside and saw we were flying upslope terrain about 20 feet above the highest trees. At 70-mph IAS we had about 78-mph true airspeed. At 78 mph the airplane covers 114.4 feet per second. This means that it was about 570 feet from the rock face to the ridgeline.
There was a small drainage (Badger Creek) on the south side of this ridgeline. I would have made a left turn and flown Badger Creek to escape. When I said, "We've got to get out of here," J.C. made an immediate climbing right turn. I yelled and yelled, "Nose down, nose down, nose down." The airplane stalled while in a slipping turn, with not quite enough right rudder pressure for the climbing right turn.
When moving to the right of the longitudinal axis in a right turn the fuselage blocks some of the airflow to the left wing causing it to stall before the right wing. The airplane rotated to the left as the nose fell. The nose fell through the horizon and we were in at least a 45-degree nose-down attitude. The airplane was still stalled as it hit the ground, very hard, with little, if any, forward motion.
For someone who has not encountered this, and I strongly suggest that you don't. Psychologically it is extremely difficult to lower the nose when there are trees higher than your altitude and the ground is rushing up to meet you.
Statistics show the human body can withstand about 6-8 vertical (compression) Gs (gravity units) and about 40-50 lateral Gs, so it's much better to crash while moving forward. We didn't.
After impact I spent about 20-30 seconds breathing hard making loud moaning noises while trying to catch my breath. I asked J.C. if he had turned off the master and the mags. He said he already turned them and the fuel selector off.
Looking at the crash from the tail forward. The left fuel tank is visible.
Note that none of the growth around the aircraft is broken or displaced, confirming that the airplane fell "straight in."
The wings were bent downward from the impact.
Photo by Greg Morris
J.C. said that his right foot was hot. I looked and yelled, "We're on fire. Get out of here." The engine compartment was burning with visible flames.
Because the right wing had collapsed down somewhat, it was difficult to open the "clam shell" doors very far. J.C. held the upper door while I scrambled out. Although I don't have a lot of hair on the top of my noggin, the engine fire got much of what remained as I passed forward by the cowling. My Bose headset was sill around my neck and plugged into the airplane, causing me to nearly trip. I regained footing and J.C. unplugged the headset. Because of the trauma, I dropped the headset on the ground and didn't think about retrieving it.
I tried to pull J.C. but couldn't muster the strength due to injuries to my back. I ended up standing on the lower door and pulling up on the upper window while J.C. got out. We scrambled about 10 to 15 feet from the plane in a crouched walk.
Some of the cowling remains covering the engine. Based upon the appearance of the propeller tips, the engine was not producing power at the moment of impact.
If the engine is producing power the prop tips curl forward.
Photo by Greg Morris
While looking at the wreckage we saw the entire cockpit engulfed in flames. I took several pictures of the airplane burning.
The airplane had about 3/4 fuel in the tanks at the time of the crash and both J.C. and I thought there might be sufficient vapor for the tanks to explode. We moved another 10 or 20 feet and J.C. was in too much pain to continue. He had a broken sternum from the B.A.S. seatbelt system, broken lower right leg, two crushed vertebrae, a small gash on his head and other scrapes and bruises that I could see. I was worried about what I could not see. This started me thinking that I might be better off hiking out and trying to get cell phone reception.
As the fire burned hotter I had visions of the forest catching fire and us, not being very mobile, being unable to escape. The airplane burned totally. The fire was hot enough that it killed the surrounding new-growth trees without catching them on fire, leaving a brown ring in the forest visible from the air. The fuel tanks did not explode.
had not filed a flight plan. I told my wife that we were heading west and
would return in about an hour.
Because the route of flight was northerly in addition to westward from the Townsend Airport, I felt the rescue time might be excessive; while harboring the though in the back of my mind that J.C. might need help faster than waiting around.
I felt my injuries would not preclude hiking to a curve in the river where I might get cell phone reception. I had loosened the shoulder straps for better visibility and this caused me to be flung forward during impact hitting the top of J.C.'s seat. I received a cut above my eyes. Even with this injury I was coherent (should there be something here about hard-headed pilots?).
I have been involved in the "lecture circuit" for aviation safety for more than 40 years. During this time I have had it drilled into my head that if you crash, you should stay with the airplane.
Decision to Leave the Plane
So unless you have some compelling
reason to leave, stay with the airplane.
I started reasoning (arguing with myself whether to stay or go) and determined I had a compelling reason to seek assistance. I thought about the fact that the average time for locating a missing aircraft is 72 hours. I thought that J.C. may have serious internal injuries. Because the fire consumed the entire airplane we had nothing with us. We were dressed in short-sleeved shirts. We lost our caps during the crash. I figured that if the wreckage was located during an aerial search then J.C. would be rescued; if not, I had a chance to expedite the rescue effort. These arguments convinced me that the best way to facilitate our rescue would be to head down the creek and obtain cell phone coverage. So without reservation I told J.C. that I would head down the creek ... heck, I figured I might as well go, we didn't have any coffee with us.
We could see a curve of the canyon about a mile away where the South Fork of Beaver Creek and Badger Creek merge. I thought I could make it to that area in about 1.5 hours. After 1.5 hours of hiking I arrived at the curve, but there was no cell phone reception. There was another curve leading to the confluence of the South Fork of Beaver Creek and Beaver Creek ... and another curve ... and another curve.
I walked from 12:20 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and only made about 4.3 miles during this 12 hours of hiking.
The sun goes down sooner in the mountains because the ridges block the rays. After dark it got chilly. Well, actually it became cold. June started out where May left off; dry with temperatures well above normal as the result of a fairly strong ridge of high pressure that quickly built over the Northern Rockies. The crash site was at 6,585-feet MSL, with an average daytime temperature of 57 degrees and an overnight low of 38 degrees.
Throughout the hike I had a problem lifting my legs, especially over the downfall, so I would approach a log, turn sideways and pull on my pant leg to left one leg over, turn slightly forward and pull the other leg over. The last two times I tried this, in the dark, I fell off the log backwards and couldn't get up for about 5 minutes each time.
As much as I wanted to continue, I couldn't. I began shivering hard. Although there was nearly a full moon that night, it didn't peek out until later, around 2:00 a.m.
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Last modified: 02/19/2009