Sunday, December 28, 2014

Surviving a plane crash along the Iditarod Trail

By Jeff Schultz 
 December 28, 2014

Excerpt from the chapter "My Life-and-Death Plane Crash" in the recently published book “Chasing Dogs-My Adventures as the Official Photographer of Alaska’s Iditarod,” by Jeff Schultz, the Iditarod’s photographer since 1982. This account includes a major contribution from Alaska author Bill Sherwonit, who, at Jeff’s request, interviewed the rescuers and others involved and wrote a previously unpublished story. Schultz said he used that story “to fill in the behind-the-scenes rescue aspect that I was not privy to.” Books are available in local book stores and at www.schultzphoto.com 


“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Piper Super Cub 7685Delta. We’ve crash landed on Golovin Bay, 5 miles from Golovin toward White Mountain. Pilot Chris McDonnell, passenger Jeff Schultz. We have injuries. We need snowmachines to come from Golovin to rescue us.”

This is, verbatim, a message I can recite to this day, because I radioed those words over and over again on the afternoon and early evening of Sunday, March 9, 1992, using a handheld air-to-ground radio. I transmitted the message for what seemed like an eternity on both the emergency channel 121.5 and repeated on the Iditarod Air Force frequency 120.6. The radio was borrowed from my long-time pilot Sam Maxwell. He had loaned it in case I wanted to talk to pilots while on the ground photographing. Thank God for that loan.

Chris and I had taken off from the sea ice at Koyuk shortly after I finished photographing the leader and eventual winner of the 1992 Iditarod, Martin Buser of Big Lake. This was Chris’s first time flying the race this far north. We had covered 65 miles on our way to the White Mountain checkpoint just 18 miles ahead. Low clouds over the mountains prompted Chris to take a safer route along the coastline, over the sea ice and then across Golovin Bay rather than follow the trail over the cloud-shrouded mountains. We had just turned the corner from the Bering Sea coast and were making a beeline toward Golovin when we spotted a couple seals on the ice pack. I remember talking about them -- the only life form we’d seen since leaving Koyuk.

The forward visibility looked fine as the village of Golovin crept closer, but the ceiling was fairly low and we flew at about 150 feet. We could see only a few hundred feet up the sides of the mountains near us. Our course took us directly over Golovin, and we could see the dark outline of White Mountain, our destination, some 18 miles ahead. Instead of taking the chance of following the marked trail directly across the ice to White Mountain, Chris felt it was a safer bet to follow the shore of the bay, where we could see willows and a few fish camp shacks along the shoreline. After a few minutes, suddenly those willows and shacks were no longer there. Or were no longer visible. I don’t know which.

I felt the left side of my body pressing against the side of the plane. I knew the feeling from earlier flights, when a pilot steered the plane in a sideways attitude to either lose altitude or fly into the wind. Pilots call it “crabbing.” But I also knew we shouldn’t be doing that right now. Instinctively I called out, “Hang onto it! Hang onto it!” into the intercom. 
 
Read more here:   http://www.adn.com


NTSB Identification: ANC92LA046
The docket is stored on NTSB microfiche number 47941.
Accident occurred Monday, March 09, 1992 in GOLOVIN, AK
Probable Cause Approval Date: 07/29/1993
Aircraft: PIPER PA-18A-150, registration: N7685D
Injuries: 2 Serious.

NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

WHILE MANEUVERING ALONG THE COAST LINE AT A LOW ALTITUDE, THE FLIGHT INADVERTENTLY ENCOUNTERED IMC AND THE PILOT LOST GROUND REFERENCE. THE PILOT DECIDED TO TURN AROUND AND DURING THE TURN, THE AIRPLANE COLLIDED WITH THE SEA ICE.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
PROPER ALTITUDE WAS NOT MAINTAINED. FACTORS TO THE ACCIDENT WERE: INADVERTENT VFR FLIGHT INTO IMC, FOG, SNOW, AND NIGHT.

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