‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’ – Jack Swigert
Leaving Denver the plane was running fine and the skies were beautiful. Destination, Leadville.
First we’re going to head toward Rollinsville. This town is barely a town. It’s really more of a cluster of houses at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. It’s early in the morning, so conditions are favorable. Light winds from the west, but nothing that our trusty Cessna can’t overcome. Turning right at Rollinsville the transition from foothills to the fourteeners quickly takes place. The Rockies are a majestic stretch of mountains, itself part of a much larger mountain range that extends from Alaska down to the tip of South America in Chilé.
Heading uphill for a while, the scenery is simply spectacular. The rocks rise from the ground like spires from a cathedral. Many of these mountains have snow year around, but since it’s early in May nearly everything above 10,000 feet still has abundant snow. Pointing toward Rollins Pass it’s time to start looking for a 12,000 foot peak on the left and a series of small lakes and steep mountains on the right.
Positively identifying Corona and Pumphouse lakes, a turn is made to the northwest when a sputtering noise is heard. This being a training flight it seems likely the CFI, Tim, is doing an engine failure test, but the look on his face and command “I have the controls” quickly dispels that possibility.
Tim works through the checklist (ABCDs):
A: Airspeed. Adjust the airspeed for the best speed. This is the speed that will get you furthest from where your engine (which just failed completely) failed.
B: Best Field. No option. The terrain here is a mix of rocks and the Roosevelt National Forest. If this thing is going down, it’s not going to be pretty.
C: Engine restart checklist. Gas to both. Mix full rich. Carb heat on. Primer in and locked. Cycle magnetos.
D: Declare an emergency. Squawk 7700. Talk on the active frequency. Switch to 121.5 if no response.
It’s deep in the mountains here and these radios are strictly line of sight, no response.
s: Secure the airplane. Fuel off. Magnetos off. Master switch off. Seatbelts on. Open door just before touchdown.
The highest of the trees scraping the bottom of the plane Tim banks to the right to hit a gap between two stands and try and let the wings take the bulk of the hit as the plane goes down. It’s still bright and sunny and the forest looks beautiful.
On the ground. Some time has past. The smell of avgas is rich in the air, but no heat is felt. Tim is badly injured, but alert. Both his legs are broken and bit of shattered bone a poking through his jeans on his right leg. He’s bloody, but there doesn’t seem to be tons of blood still flowing.
This is a tough situation. No one knows where the plane went down and it won’t be reported missing for another 2 hours when the flight plan expires and the plane hasn’t shown up in Leadville yet. Many search and rescue missions in the mountains never find the plane. That’s a chilling thought. Tim is alive, but no way is he walking out of here. Unless a search plane can be alerted, he’s toast. And that’s provided that he lives long enough, perhaps hours, perhaps days, for the search plane to come by this location.
This is the kind of situation that keeps pilots up nights. This is also why I just ordered a PLB. In a situation like that described above, you hit a button on the PLB and help is on the way. The PLB immediately begins broadcasting a signal that search and rescue can identify and hone in on using doppler signal locating. Within a couple minutes, the PLB will have acquired a GPS signal and start broadcasting your location, within a hundred meters or so, to satellites that forward it to search and rescue. The search narrowed to something the size of a football field, our friend Tim has a good shot of getting to a hospital in time to save his life and his legs.
I hope I never have to deploy it. But it seems like something worth having as an insurance policy.