Note: this rescue was recreated early this year by a production company for The Discovery Channel’s Raging Planet 2, tentatively scheduled to air this coming winter.
Into Thin Ice
by Shaun Roundy
The lure and freedom of flight has captivated man’s imagination since the beginning of time. Technology has now taken him into the airy realm that formerly belonged only to birds and clouds. But long after Icharus fell from the skies with his waxen wings, flight still continues to carry significant risks. Gravity never sleeps, and nature often grows restless. There is no such thing as solid footing in the atmosphere, and the 10 – 12,000’ mountain peaks that jut into the sky claim several lives during the course of an average Utah winter.
Flying in stormy weather somewhat resembles a game of blackjack. You count the cards on the table the best you can and decide whether to take another or hold. Take off or stay on the ground to wait out the storm. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The dealer’s job is to make sure you cash in with as few chips as possible.
A dozen factors combined to stack the deck against a Utah County pilot when he took off with copilot Michael Rampton on a late Saturday afternoon, January 6, 2001. The three or four dozen factors stacked in his favor all sported coats labeled “Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue,” plus perhaps one you could imagine equipped with non-waxen wings and white robes hovering in the background.
Factor 1: Low Visibility
A winter inversion kept the upper atmosphere clear while thin fog burned slowly away in the valley throughout the day. The pilot had just sat down to dinner when Michael called and wanted to see the Cessna 152 Sparrow Hawk he had for sale. The pilot got up and went down to the airport to meet Mike in the clothes he had on – a light coat and shoes with no socks.
The sun had already dropped below the horizon, temperatures had plummeted, and moisture condensed in mid air, filling the valley with a soupy fog. Against his better judgment, Gary took off into the mist and instantly lost his way. He could not find his way back to the airport
Factor 2: Search and Rescue out of town
With the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games a year away, the seven counties involved in Olympic venues gathered to prepare for the estimated five daily call outs. Olympic visitors turned out to be spectators rather than participants, call outs were sparse or nonexistent, but SAR had to prepare for the worst. A winter emergency scenario was staged at Powder Mountain, up Ogden Canyon, two hours north of Utah County, and the majority of the Utah County team attended, returning to Provo after 7:00 p.m.
As the Sheriff Department van carrying eight team members approached the airport freeway exit, they passed Robert Creer, another team member who had not attended the training. Robert rolled down his window and so did CJ in the front seat.
“Are you going to the call out?” Robert shouted over the wind.
“What call out?” CJ asked as everyone’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Eight pagers immediately squawked out the answer. 02-39-58. Water Rescue – Provo Boat Harbor – Airplane Crash.
Factor 3: Force of Impact
The pilot dropped lower and lower through the fog in hopes of catching sight of Provo Airport’s lights. The ground came abruptly into view and he was relieved to find himself gliding above flat fields with scattered clumps of weeds. He dropped the plane lower to land safely and worry about his location later.
The ground rose harder than expected. It turned out to be not fields, but an icy marsh. The weeds they had seen from the air were reeds and cattails. The impact instantly snapped the Cessna’s nose gear and both of the pilot’s ankles. The plane lifted off again and when it touched down a second time, they lost control and skidded across the ice for approximately 900 feet, gouging into the ice as the plane slid along.
Factor 4: Thin Ice
As the plane slowed, it smashed through the ice, plunging nose-first into the frigid water. A large chunk of ice smashed through the windshield and struck the pilot, deeply lacerating his forehead, which bled profusely. The cockpit dropped completely under water and freezing water gushed inside.
Factor 5: Damaged ELT
Mike smashed the rear window and climbed onto the top of the plane, where the tail section and one wing had come to rest just above the water’s surface. The area of Utah Lake south of Provo Airport is a shallow marsh known as Mud Lake. The broken landing gear touched bottom and saved the plane from complete submersion.
Mike dragged the pilot, who could not move on his own, from the cockpit. The pilot slipped as he made his way out, reached out for something to hold onto, and found the Emergency Locator Transmitter antennae. When he pulled, the antennae broke.
The ELT repeater requires a downed-aircraft signal for ten minutes before it sets off the alarm. This delay serves to weed out ELT radio checks and some spurious false alarms. The broken antennae, along with the plane being mostly submerged, made the signal intermittent and prevented the alert from sounding. No one even knew a plane had crashed.
Factor 6: Distance
The plane crashed 1.7 miles south of the airport. Now below the thickest fog, Mike saw a light and decided to go for help. He swam through the frigid water surrounding the plane, clambered onto the ice, and struck out toward the distant light, hoping to keep himself warm by moving steadily.
The light turned out to be a beacon on an old ski jump in the area. By the time he reached it, however, the Provo Airport lights came into view and he turned toward them and continued on. The ice sometimes gave way and he fell through several times.
After walking for over an hour, Mike reached the road embankment surrounding the airport and scrambled up the rocky dike. He forced his icy limbs to climb a chain link fence, now covered with frosted ice crystals nearly half an inch long. He traversed the wide, frozen ditch on the other side and reached the runway. After another hundred yards, he found an open hanger door and met airport technicians who immediately dialed 9-11.
Factor 7: Technical Difficulties
Life Flight was called, but wisely declined to fly in near-zero visibility. The Sheriff Department’s Hoverstar hovercraft was in the shop with a blown piston. Chris Reed, still on his way south from the Olympics training scenario, called and asked Lieutenant Dave Bennett to pilot his Scat II, but arrived in time to don his dry suit and flight helmet and pilot the craft himself. Six SAR members hefted the hovercraft off the trailer and carried it to the lake’s edge. With a bit of teasing and battery-jumping, the engine started, but the throttle cable had taken in water, which froze during highway transport to the lake, making the throttle impossible to control.
Chris finally sliced through the cable with his dive knife, then cut away enough sheath to tie a loop in the cable’s end. A short length of webbing was tied through this loop and Dave used it to run the throttle as he sat behind Chris inside the craft. SAR members were innovative and helpful, tying down the cable to prevent it from inadvertently being sucked into the fans, which could render the craft useless or worse, possibly spraying a shattered blade in many directions.
The craft and its two passengers finally rose above the ice, spun in a slow circle, and shot quickly away into the darkness. The smooth surface of the ice supported the craft easily and speed built up fast. Chris occasionally spun around backward to slow down, wary of running into remnants of barbed-wire fences, driftwood, or other objects that could rip through the rubber skirts.
Chris and Dave stopped to take their first ELT reading when they caught up with teams 1 and 2 already on the ice. The signal was strong enough, but would occasionally stop for a second or two, probably because the ELT transmitter in the airplane was under water or the antenna was making poor contact.
Factor 8: Misinformation
While Chris and others worked on his hovercraft, three teams in wet or dry suits were already searching across the ice. A pair of two-man teams traveled quickly with ice sledges which enabled them to run across the ice and transfer their weight to the wide pontoons when the ice grew thin. With a maximum thickness of about two inches, the ice shot frequent cracks snapping out in many directions, but for the most part, it held. A third team of six rescuers removed the outboard motor from the Achilles inflatable raft and dragged it more slowly over the ice.
Somewhere between hasty assumptions and quickly communicated information, ambulance, airport and law enforcement personnel directed these teams toward the lighted ski jump buoy that Mike had first reached, around 60 degrees in the wrong direction. Shay Lelegren and team one reached the jump first and reported the error. The RP (reporting party) was eventually contacted in the hospital where the story was straightened out and ICS then redirected the teams east, in the general direction of the weak ELT signals already DFed.
Factors 9 & 10: Time and Temperature
By this time, the pilot had been laying on the wing for nearly three hours, soaked and cold. His clothes had frozen solid. He spend most of his time huddled up, lying on his side, with his coat pulled up around his ears. He had given up hope and was only waiting for death. He had no way of knowing whether Mike had even reached the shore. He was aware of the broken ELT antenna and did not expect it to work.
He removed his wet boots and pulled thin gloves over his toes. He was in severe pain from his broken ankles, the gash across his forehead, the wet and extreme cold. After suffering so long without rescue and recognizing the bad shape he was in, he contemplated igniting the fuel tanks to commit suicide and end the pointless suffering, but had no matches or lighter.
Temperatures had dropped well below freezing. Even with his remaining blood shunting to his core, the odds clearly predicted imminent death. Rescuers were now pointed in the right general direction, but Mud Lake spans several miles, travel over ice was slow, particularly for the team dragging the Achilles raft for possible transport or open water travel, and visibility remained only around 1/8 to ½ a mile.
Factor 11: Open Water
Chris continued steering across the ice while Dave held a spotlight. Dave suddenly observed a deep scratch in the ice. They turned and followed the scratch until it led them to where the tail of the airplane jutted at an awkward 30-degree angle from the ice.
The pilot’s first indication that help was on the way came when Dave’s spotlight passed over him in the thick fog. He turned toward the light and sat up on the wing. “That’s when I knew my angels had arrived,” he later said, but the difficult questions of the rescue began where the search ended.
Chris set the craft down about 75 feet from the plane. He could see a man sitting on the wing with some kind of small penlight. The wings were still intact and the leading edge of the wings just touched the water’s surface. Dave hopped off the hovercraft and walked close enough to the plane to talk with the pilot, but open water surrounding the plane created a significant problem.
The hovercraft supports a 400-pound payload. Chris is 6’2″ and weighs 220 pounds, and the victim was clearly at least 250. The ice’s smooth, hard surface would provide a bit more lift, but once the craft settled into the water to load the passenger, it would become difficult or impossible to rise high enough to regain the ice.
Dave radioed the command post in an attempt to hustle other SAR members with ice rescue sledges while Chris drove to the plane. After a couple of trial approaches, he piloted his hovercraft straight towards the nose of the plane. As he rose onto the plane, he let off the throttle and settled down with the wing centered below the craft. The rear skirts just touched the water and the front skirts hung nearly a foot above the surface over the wing’s trailing edge. As the craft’s weight settled, the wing dipped closer to the water but did not sink.
The pilot was conscious and alert but had suffered serious injuries. A quick assessment revealed major trauma, significant blood loss, shock and hypothermia. His head laceration started above his left eye and continued across the top of his head. The cut was open to the skull and Chris feared an accompanying open skull fracture as well. Blood covered the wing and his clothing. Chris shouted over the engine roar for the pilot to sit on the seat in the middle of the hovercraft, but he yelled back that both of his legs were broken and he could not move.
Chris could be of only limited assistance. If he released the loop of webbing controlling the throttle, the craft would slide backward into the water. Despite his injuries and obvious pain, the pilot crawled forward to the edge of the hovercraft. Chris grabbed his belt on the back of his pants and pulled him across the seat behind him.
At this precise moment, the nature of the pilot’s blackjack game changed. Fate did an abrupt 180º. Just as everything had previously gone wrong, everything now went just right. The pilot ’s added weight on the craft dropped the left wing enough to allow Chris to drive forward off the wing. They passed alongside the plane and regained solid ice.
Factor 12: Hovercraft Difficulties
Out on the ice, Chris and Dave centered the pilot as well as possible, but could do little for his injuries, which they told him. “I don’t care!” he responded, “just get me the #@&* out of here!” Chris quickly complied, leaving Dave with a radio and a GPS, with the first ice rescue sledge now only a few hundred yards away.
Chris was now left to pilot the craft on his own. He followed his tracks back the way he came, making good time and nearing the shoreline in a matter of minutes. The hovercraft’s fans sucked freezing air past its passengers, and the wind chill dropped the temperatures another ten or twenty degrees. The pilot’s exposed head and feet made the ride a miserable experience, but he wasn’t about to complain.
When within a minute of reaching shore, with Chris working the awkward webbing-throttle and steering to control his speed, he got too close to some reeds and dropped through the quarter-inch ice surrounding them. Now he experienced the trouble he had anticipated in the open water surrounding the plane, and was unable to rise high enough to regain the frozen surface. Instead, the ice shattered and broke as the giant fan blades pushed the hovercraft slowly forward.
But the pilot was on a roll and his new luck held out. The second ice sledge team, concerned about not finding their own way back through the impossible conditions, had turned around. They met up with team 3 and the Achilles, and were now only fifty feet away. Chris plowed through the breaking ice toward them and they loaded the pilot onto a backboard and from there, into the raft.
The race against time continued as Chris radioed for more manpower and eight SAR members dragged the raft along as quickly as their slippery feet could carry them. Team members on shore hefted Gary from the raft and into the waiting ambulance while some members of the ice rescue team fell panting to their knees. The pilot’s frozen clothing was cut away as the ambulance sped off over the pot hole ridden dirt road.
The following Monday morning, Rocky Mountain Helicopter, with support from SAR and other local agencies, picked the plane from the ice. Water drained dramatically from the tail section as the plane rose high above the surrounding fields of ice, looking like a rocket heading for outer space.
Three months later, the pilot entered our monthly meeting, rolling himself through the door in a wheelchair. The remaining pins in his ankles would be removed soon and he would learn to walk again. The scar running across his forehead was healing well. Tears brimmed in his eyes as he thanked us for our efforts. “You are the only reason I’m alive today,” he said, and reported that his doctor said he would not have survived another twenty minutes of exposure.
While everything eventually worked out for the best, we learned several important lessons from the call. We should have more quickly established contact with the RP and been more cautious about accepting second-hand reports. We were reminded of the importance of keeping all vehicles ready for immediate use, and have now installed battery-minders on our entire fleet of snowmobiles, four-wheelers, watercraft and hovercraft. Other than those few details, meticulous training and quick response by team members, along with the miracle that kept the pilot alive for nearly four hours in the cold, saved his life when seconds and minutes made all the difference in the world.