Sunday, March 21, 2021

The dangers of mountain flight

(Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories dedicated to the history of flying in Western North Carolina.)

Flying over the Smoky Mountains is an exhilarating experience, and a dangerous one. The temperamental winds, changing weather and high elevations have claimed many a plane and many a life.

From its creation after World War II until it combined with the Asheville Squadron in the early 2000s, the Haywood County Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol was kept busy looking for missing planes, mostly in the mountains, though its members participated in searches in other parts of the state. Most of the long-term pioneers of the Haywood CAP are gone now – including M.T. “Buster” Bridges, Charles Balentine and Raymond Caldwell. Their adventures are preserved, however, thanks to interviews and news stories from the past 80 years.

The Haywood County pilots who loved flying and who invested their time, equipment and money in search and rescue missions became almost legendary in the years they served. Charles Balentine, who owned a service station in Waynesville, lost a brother and a son in separate airplane crashes but continued to fly. Raymond Caldwell was assigned to a squadron of Navy fighter planes in World War II, took his own flying lessons, and returned to Haywood County, joining the Civil Air Patrol. He would serve many years as squadron leader, retiring from the CAP at age 75, continuing to fly for years after. Bridges, for many years a co-owner of The Mountaineer, was also an active CAP leader; based on news reports from the 1960s and 1970s, Bridges had a gift for spotting downed planes.

Steve Siske

When Steve Siske was 5 years old, Balentine took him for an airplane ride on a Christmas morning. That flight ignited a passion in Siske, who used money earned by mowing yards to pay for flying lessons, starting at age 14. Siske took his solo flight around his 16th birthday — before he had a driver’s license. He was only a few years out of high school when he purchased his first airplane. He worked in law enforcement in Haywood County and later Asheville, and served as Haywood CAP squadron commander before the unit and other local squadrons consolidated into the Asheville Composite Squadron. Today, he no longer volunteers for the Civil Air Patrol, though he is a member of the Lake Hartwell Coast Guard Auxiliary. He is a licensed and active flight instructor who vividly remembers many of the search and rescue or retrieval operations that the older CAP members often recalled.

The search for Jack Kopper

Kopper was a salesman who flew out of Columbus, Ohio, in February 1969 and never reached his destination. The search for Kopper centered on Haywood County, because residents in the Crabtree and Fines Creek communities had seen a plane flying unusually low. Caldwell recalled how the CAP scoured the mountains from the Crabtree Bald to the state line. “I guess I flew as many as 50 hours,” he said. The CAP searched for a month. The Kopper family stayed in Haywood County for three weeks. When the Air Force called off the search, volunteers continued to look when they could.

Another search for Kopper, this one in May, had a tragic twist. The middle of that month, three Ohio fliers arrived in Haywood County to look for Kopper’s plane. They checked in with Haywood CAP leader Paul McElroy, who told them he was preparing to go on a search for four other men whose plane was missing. Those missing fliers were also from Ohio — and were friends of the searchers. So the Ohio volunteers ended up looking for friends they had not known were missing. The four men were found, dead, in the wreckage of their craft.

By Thanksgiving, the Kopper family had given up hope of finding Jack alive but desperately wanted a decent burial for his remains. Jean Kopper, his widow, addressed the searchers in The Mountaineer. “To all the Zeb Clarks, Jack Messers, Paul McElroys, Bus Bridges and others in Western North Carolina, we say ‘thank the good Lord for you and people like you,” she said.

In May 1970, a flight instructor and manager of the Morristown, Tennessee, airport, spotted a flash of what turned out to be sunlight reflecting off the plexiglass of a downed plane. Using her directions, volunteers found Kopper’s body, still in the plane 15 months after the crash. Kopper’s tragedy illustrates the challenges of searching for downed aircraft in the mountains — the rough terrain, heavy undergrowth, particularly laurel and rhododendron thickets, can swallow up a wrecked aircraft. “There are still a lot of planes lying around these mountains that ain’t been found,” Caldwell said in a 1999 interview.

Deadly terrain

The mountains create hazardous conditions for fliers, particularly those from out of state unfamiliar with piloting over the terrain. Winds can be tricky around mountain slopes, particularly an odd but extremely dangerous phenomenon known as a “mountain wave” that can pull a plane down. Fog can move in quickly, destroying visibility and leaving pilots unaware of how close they are to mountainsides — many a plane has flown full speed into the side of a mountain.

“Weather is the No. 1 killer when flying in the mountains,” Siske said. “You don’t know where you are, and you strike the side of a mountain.” The CAP requires its pilots to be certified for mountain flying before they are allowed to pilot planes during searches, he added.

Bad weather, bad timing

Terrible weather and a terrible coincidence claimed the lives of two pilots near Water Rock Knob in a tragedy that Siske remembers vividly.

P.S. Ferguson, who owned a dairy and a landing strip near Bryson City, took off from Charlotte with 19-year-old fellow pilot Samuel English on Christmas Eve, 1977. Ferguson had filed an instrument flight plan to Asheville, then stated he would fly on to Bryson City by following the highway. But at Balsam, in intense fog, Ferguson slammed his plane into Rocky Face Mountain, close to Water Rock. The deaths of Ferguson and English hit the Civil Air Patrol hard. Both men were CAP members and experienced fliers. How could such a thing have happened?

The Federal Aviation Administration report revealed a heart-breaking answer, Siske said. Despite the bad weather, Ferguson had decided to fly on to Bryson City, using instrument navigation. The Bryson City strip had no beacon, but Ferguson was confident he could use the transmitter signal from the Sylva radio station to set his course — something he had done many times before. Ferguson didn’t know that the Sylva station’s transmitter had just been moved. Shrouded in fog and sleet, setting his headings on a relocated transmitter, he flew into the mountain. It’s a good example, Siske added, of the reason pilots are prohibited from using radio station transmissions to set their course.

Not all crashes had such tragic endings. Caldwell, who died in 2019 at the age of 95, could remember at least three times when an aircraft came down in trees, and the pilots and passengers escaped without serious injury.

One pilot crash-landed his plane in trees in the Walnut Bottoms section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He climbed down the tree, faced down a bear, then walked out. On another occasion, a group had purchased a lightweight plane that stalled out as they tried to fly over Soco Gap. It fell into a tree. The passengers climbed down and walked out. Another “tree landing” also occurred near Soco Gap when a plane stalled but “landed right on top of a locust tree 16 or 18 inches in diameter,” Caldwell said. “Their weight bent the tree over to the ground. They walked away.”

Fewer disasters

Though airplane tragedies still happen, they don’t happen as often as they did in the 1960s and 1970s. CAP veterans credit better technology and instrumentation.

“We used to have them (searches) all winter long, sometimes be working on two at the same time,” Caldwell said in 1999. “I guess we have more reliable airplanes, better navigational equipment and probably education — that would be the main thing.”

In an interview last week, Siske agreed with Caldwell’s decade-old statement.

“The No. 1 thing is the training,” Siske said. “The FAA has increased the practical test standards. Flight instructors are held to much higher standards than many years ago.

“As instructors, we have to do our dangdest to teach pilot judgment,” he said. “If the weather’s not good, don’t go. If you feel bad, don’t go. Teach them not to take risks. If something’s not right or doesn’t look right, don’t do it. It’s not usually one little thing that is going to bring an airplane down. You keep adding to a situation until it’s out of control.”

Brad Corpening, who lives in Haywood County, is a member of the Asheville Squadron of the CAP who gives a lot of credit to technology in improving the safety of mountain flights.

“The GPS navigation systems we have now are phenomenal,” he said. “Used to, you would see pilots with large satchels with maps and charts — now that’s all on an I-Pad.” Devices that describe local terrain and give terrain warnings are common in small aircrafts. “I think the technology is better and the instructors are better,” he said.

The military has had its share of aircraft tragedies in and around Haywood County, the most famous being the “Cold Mountain Bomber.”

(Next week, we take a look at the aircraft tragedies that had ties to the military and federal government.)

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