FEATURE: High altitude sickness

By on October 13, 2015

When flying becomes crashing in Wyoming.

CoverFeat-5Jackson, WY – Plane crashes are often shrouded in mystery, especially when there are no survivors to tell the story. In days of yore – going back to the infancy of regular flight in the 1940s and 50s – planes crashed more often. Pilots simply weren’t as good, aircraft components and instruments failed, and air support technology was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today.

Plane wrecks in remote areas of Wyoming were often not found until decades later, and then, often by chance. Even today, with modern global positioning satellites and radio communication, it might sometimes take a wayward hiker or hunter to stumble upon a skeleton belted into a crushed and rusting hulk of a cockpit.

WWII bombers lost in Wyoming

Perhaps the state’s most mysterious crash occurred during WWII. In one summer, Wyoming killed more soldiers than most Nazis ever would.

On Aug. 14, 1943, ranchers in the Shoshone National Forest area called to report a forest fire had started up near Trail Lake on the upper South Fork of Torrey Creek. When forest fighters arrived they found the smoldering wreckage of a B24 bomber. According to newspaper reports, the bodies of 11 crewmembers were badly mangled and burned to a crisp. U.S. Military personnel were called in from the airbase in Pocatello. Horses were secured from Trail Lake and CM ranches, and the mess was cleaned up.

Two months prior, a B17 had disappeared somewhere over Wyoming in late June. The last radio contact from the plane nicknamed “Scharazad” indicated it was somewhere over Powder River, Wyo., on its way to Grand Island, Neb. from Pendleton, Ore. where it was then to join a bombing campaign against the Germans. After the midnight radio communication on June 28, 1943, the plane was never heard from again.

The Army consulted with local forestry officials and it was agreed the most likely search areas included three ranges: the Wind River Mountains, Absaroka Mountains and the Bighorn Mountains. An intensive search was launched. The plane was never found. A month later, family members were notified their loved ones were missing in action and lost in Wyoming.

Then, on Aug. 12, 1945, cowboys Berl Bader and Albert Kirkpatrick spotted something shiny on an unnamed mountain ridge southeast of Lake Louise in the northern Wind River Mountains. It had taken two years for the bomber’s camouflage paint to wear off and the underlying bare aluminum to cast a glint from the sun, allowing the tail section to be seen. The men climbed up to the spot. What they found was chilling.

The B17 had pummeled its way into the mountainside less than 100 feet from clearing the ridgeline. Among the typical debris of twisted landing gear, gun turrets and the fuselage were the mummified remains of one crewmember, fully clothed and propped against a rock. Beside him, reportedly, were an open bible and a billfold with pictures of family members taken out for viewing.

Massive forest fires in 1988 cleared the crash area significantly. In the fall of 1989, more than four decades after the wreck, bighorn sheep hunters Jane and Scott Maller found a dog tag that had belonged to one of the crew.

The previously unnamed 12,887-ft. mountain in the Big Horns where the B24 bomber and its 11 souls came to rest was named Bomber Mountain the following year. Locals in the Wind Rivers have taken to calling what was once known as Henton Valley, Bomber Basin, for the B17 that crashed there.

NTSB safety inspector inspects wreckage of an RV-7 aircraft that crashed in GTNP in September 2013.

NTSB safety inspector inspects wreckage of an RV-7 aircraft that crashed in GTNP in September 2013.

Other historic incidents

Towering Elk Mountain outside of Laramie has claimed its share of wayward pilots. In 1942, an A-20 piloted by Lt. Robert F. Gleghorn slammed into the side of Elk Mountain. It was on its way to deliver aircraft parts to England.

Four years later, on Jan. 31, 1946, as war efforts were coming to an end and soldiers were being shipped back home, a DC-3 smashed into Elk Mountain in virtually the same spot as the A-20. United Airlines Flight 14 was en route from Boise to Denver when the pilot, Captain Walter Briggs, requested and received a change in flight plan as he flew over Rock Springs. He presumably was looking for a shortcut between radio range navigational aids in Sinclair and Laramie, according to an NTSB investigation. The amended flight plan kept the cruising altitude at 11,000 feet instead of the flight plan’s original 13,000 feet. Elk Mountain is 11,152 feet. Twenty-one frozen bodies were packed out via dogsled the following week.

It was the deadliest airline crash in history at the time when United Flight 409 crashed into Medicine Bow Peak on Oct. 6, 1955. The Denver-to-Salt Lake flight was assigned a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet but was off-course and attempting to pull up when it clipped the 12,005-foot peak just below the summit. All 66 on board perished. The recovery mission was so challenging due to snow and wind, United eventually requested military jets bomb the mountain to bury the bodies. The cliff face was rigged with explosives the following spring and detonated.

Clinton crash

The highest profile incident in Jackson Hole to date took place Aug. 17, 1996, when a Lockhead C-130, carrying President Clinton’s SUV, camping gear and nine total passengers, collided with Sheep Mountain just minutes after takeoff from the local airport. The 20-year anniversary of the crash was recently marked by locals who climbed to the spot to remove the last of the few fragments left on the belly of Sleeping Indian.

According to an exhaustive military and federal investigation, the accident was blamed on the crew’s complacency and failure to adhere to recommended takeoff procedure for a Jackson Hole departure. Basically, they banked hard left for Washington, D.C. when they were instructed to ease out to the west and gain elevation first.

“A short runway at high altitude presented too great a challenge to crewmembers accustomed to flying in the flatlands of Texas,” stated an official Air Force report.

A transcript of the flight’s final minutes obtained by The Planet show the pilot, Capt. Kevin N. Earnest, turned controls over to copilot Capt. Kimberly Jo Wielhouwer just minutes after “wheels up.” On the tarmac, Earnest is heard confirming with flight navigator Benjamin Hall, “All right, now if I need to turn, I need to turn right, correct? Or, excuse me, left.”

“Left turns,” Hall said. “We would like a pretty sharp left turn and a pretty rapid climb rate.”

“The climb rate we’ll have to work on; the left turn I think we can do,” Earnest responded.

Minutes later, at 10:50 p.m. local time, Earnest is recorded telling Wielhouwer she has the controls.

Wielhouwer responds with the last statement recorded by the flight’s black box: “Roger… my radar altimeter just died,” she said.

The fireball was visible as far as Wilson. Calls poured into dispatch. Sheriff Roger Millward scrambled Search and Rescue. At 10,392 feet, the site was accessible only on foot or horseback. SAR volunteer Keith Benefiel was one of the first on the scene.

“It was pretty bizarre,” Benefiel remembered. “We were still about a mile away when we started smelling the kerosene and burning flesh. Then we saw it. Pieces of aircraft, tires on fire, papers still fluttering down. And bodies like I’d never seen them. It looked like they were crawling away from the wreckage. We were told later by medical personnel that the biggest muscles, in the back, will curl up like a piece of bacon, making it look like they were on all-fours trying to crawl away.”

Benefiel said he arrived about 4:30 in the morning. It was a dark, moonless light but he thought the stars were as bright as he has ever seen them. “I remember vividly. It was the kind of night you could distinctly tell the mountain silhouettes [from the sky],” he said. “I don’t get it. She tried to do a visual take off. She hit at an angle where you wouldn’t bounce at all. She was on full power and full tanks. There was no chance there.”

Modern day fatalities and near misses

Actress Sandra Bullock, who maintains a family home in Jackson Hole, was involved in a potentially disastrous botched landing at Jackson Hole Airport in 2000. On Dec. 20, Bullock’s corporate jet, a Hawker Siddely HS-125-700 skidded off the runway and was damaged beyond repair. No one aboard was hurt. An NTSB report said a copilot turned on the wrong runway lights, and in near whiteout ground conditions, the pilot believed the lights bordering the runway were centerline. The plane touched down 195 feet too far left of runway 18 and plowed into deep snow.

Well-known Jackson pilot Sparky Imeson cheated death more than once in his 20,000 hours of logged flight time. The expert mountain pilot authored 19 books on flying including the popular “Mountain Flying Bible.” Imeson walked away from a wreck in Montana in 2007. With four broken ribs, a broken back and broken toe, Imeson limped out of the woods with a student pilot 18 hours after rescuers had started a frantic search for him.

Two years later, he was not so lucky. In March 2009, Imeson’s Cessna 180 was found two miles southwest of the Canyon Ferry airstrip between Bozeman and Helena. Brent Blue, a physician, and a pilot himself, said hypoxia, a condition that occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen, likely played a role in both accidents.

If Imeson’s resurrection from the 2007 crash was surprising, Jackson Hole’s Matthew Ramige and Jodee Hogg pulled off nothing short of a miracle. The two Forest Service employees were given up for dead when their crash site was found near Glacier National Park. Authorities found nothing but melted metal and burned body parts. Meanwhile, Ramige and Hogg had opted to hike out despite being burned and broken. They were picked up by a passing motorist two days later.

Four beloved locals were killed in April when pilot John Short’s Cessna T210M ended up upside-down in a creek bed a quarter mile from the remote ranch airstrip in Idaho where the plane took off. Gusty winds were blamed. Found still belted to their seats in the cabin were AJ Linnell, Andy Tyson and Russell “Rusty” Cheney.

The site where a single-engine plane crashed in the Wind River range.

The site where a single-engine plane crashed in the Wind River range.

Other notable crashes

A 2010 plane wreck in the Wind River Range resulted in a lawsuit settlement after Luke Bucklin and his three sons all perished in poor weather trying to get home to Minnesota.

“Descending rapidly,” was one of the last things Bucklin radioed before disappearing from radar on Oct. 25, 2010. Air traffic control was partially faulted for issuing improper flight clearance but most expert testimony at the trial questioned Bucklin’s stubbornness on flying in bad weather.

Walmart heir John Walton died when he crashed his ultralight aircraft shortly after takeoff from Jackson Hole Airport in 2005. Another ultralight plane fell out of the sky in similar fashion on Sept. 11, 2013. Russell and Carol Kamtz had mechanical problems immediately after takeoff. The plane, an RV-7, went into a nosedive and corkscrewed into the open sage south of the airport.

Champion bull rider George Paul died on his way to a rodeo in 1970. A rancher near Kemmerer discovered the wreckage on Commissary Ridge. Pilot fatigue was blamed.

Numerous locals were onboard American Airlines flight 2253 when the Boeing 757 overran the runway at Jackson Hole Airport on December 29, 2010. A video shot by a passenger clearly showed the plane’s reverse thrusters failing to deploy. While concerned with that, both the pilot and copilot didn’t notice that the jet’s speedbrakes also failed. The plane came to rest 730 feet past the end of runway 19, bogged in deep snow. No one was injured.

Dave Rhyti crashed his glider plane into the Grand Teton on July 1, 2002. His Schreder RS-15 impacted the Grand just 200 feet below the summit. A definitive cause was never determined.

Longtime Jackson pilot Fletcher Anderson flipped his Cessna 182R into the Snake River in 2005. The plane hit a cable across the river and landed upside-down in the water. Authorities did not know why Anderson was flying so low over the river. Another plane landed in the Snake this past summer on Aug. 27. The two men aboard were unhurt after swimming from the aircraft just below the Palisades Dam near Irwin, Idaho. That plane also clipped a cable over the river.

Nicole Ludwig has flown hundreds of missions for Teton County Search and Rescue.

Nicole Ludwig has flown hundreds of missions for Teton County Search and Rescue.

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