Ten years ago today was a day I will never forget.
At the time I was 20 years old, a Junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ, working on obtaining my Commercial Pilot’s License. I had been flying since I was 16 and advancing rapidly through my studies and ratings.
November 29th was a beautiful clear, crisp fall day in Northern AZ. I took off from Prescott to do a cross-country solo flight to Laughlin, NV, then Boulder City, NV and back. I had to build cross-country time for my rating and found myself ahead of schedule, so I decided to do a little sightseeing along the way. Northwest Arizona is breathtaking jagged wilderness full of mountains and interesting rock formations. Over the desert I lost some altitude to check out an old abandoned airfield and some interesting topography. It was peaceful and beautiful out there and I loved the quiet peace of flying by myself away from civilization. After wandering around the sights for awhile I decided it was time to head home, and punched in Prescott on my GPS to give me a direct route.
Between my destination and my current location lay the jagged, rugged, Aquarius Mountains. I pushed in the throttle of the Cessna as I turned towards them and initiated a cruise/climb. The mountains rose in front of me as I paralleled a ridgeline to my left. I noticed my vertical rate of speed slowing, and then reversed as I began to lose performance in my climb. I checked my airspeed. It looked good. I checked my engine instruments. Everything was in the green. With full throttle, there was no reason I should have been descending… but I was. My curiosity quickly turned to concern as lost more altitude and sunk below the ridge to my left. In front of me the mountains only got higher, so I knew I needed to turn around and get back to the lower terrain, perhaps go do an emergency landing on that old airstrip so I could figure out what was wrong on the ground. I initiated a turn around a hill that looked like it would lead me back. As I descended around the corner, I realized every pilot’s worst nightmare, I had turned into a dead-end box canyon. I was now in a narrow canyon that dead ended into a mountain face, and still losing performance. Doing a 180 was too risky. I pointed at the lowest saddle of the canyon holding full throttle and best angle of climb on my airspeed… and kept sinking. My engine was running and I was praying I’d regain climb performance to clear the ridge. I kept the low point in front of me on the windscreen, and as I focused on it… I heard the unmistakable sound of my stall warning horn. I knew at that moment I wasn’t going to be flying out of the canyon. I lowered the nose to keep control of the aircraft and picked a spot to crash.
The canyon was getting narrower as I approached the dead end. I decided my best chance of survival was to turn into the left wall which had about a 50 degree upslope and try to avoid hitting the largest boulders if I could. I made a mayday call even though I didn’t think anyone would hear and continued to pray. The next few seconds seem to have all been in slow motion. I could not believe this was happening. I could not believe I was about to die. I never had the slightest clue that this would be my time. I did not feel ready. So I kept flying and kept praying.
I made my left turn and aimed at a small clearing, keeping my hand forward on the throttle and nose low so I wouldn’t stall. As the rocky surface approached, I yanked back on the yoke, bleeding off the last of my airspeed and getting the nose at as high an angle as I could muster on impact. I remember seeing the rocks in front of me. I remember hearing a loud BOOM as I impacted. But the next thing I remembered I was laying on the mountain about 15 feet from the plane. I had no idea how I got there. I don’t remember unbuckling myself or climbing from the wreckage. I know almost no time had passed since impact as I could hear the gyroscopic instruments winding down and saw a waterfall of fuel coming from the broken left wing.
It was so steep I thought the plane might fall down the mountain after impact. It didn’t. It just hit and stuck to the hillside. I also thought the plane would explode or catch on fire since I went in full power with a lot of fuel on board. but there was no fire. I knew there was a survival kit in the tail so I quickly ran and grabbed it before the plane could catch fire, then got a safe distance between me and the wreckage.
As soon as I was a safe distance I stopped to look myself over for injuries. I had none! I didn’t even have the smallest scrape or bruise ANYWHERE on my body. No bruises where my seatbelts were. No pain in my back which should have broken from the G-forces of the impact. My legs were fine despite a rock penetrating the floor and destroying the rudder pedals where my legs should have been when I hit. No cuts on my face despite the windshield being destroyed and many of the instruments on the panel inches from my face shattering upon impact. Nothing.
It was a surreal experience standing there on that mountain; this other-worldly setting of rocks and mountains with no signs of human life in any direction except for me and what used to be my airplane. Now I needed to get found.
I pulled out my sectional chart of the area and figured out exactly where I was. Not good. There were no roads, buildings, or water sources for many miles any direction. There were a few small patches of snow but I had minimal water, clothing, and shelter items. It was afternoon and I knew my best odds of survival were getting found TODAY. I climbed the nearest peak and built a signal on top out of a small reflective solar blanket, sticks and rope. I then hiked a ridge to another peak and built a windsock from the flimsy orange tube tent in the survival kit. It was a clear day and I could see probably 80 miles every direction and couldn’t see a single aircraft or sign of civilization anywhere. The silence was eerie, and I still felt like close to death, like I was still going to die. I thanked the Lord I survived the crash and proceeded to pass the time waiting for aircraft by writing letters to my family and friends. Even if I died, I was grateful I had a chance to express myself one last time. After I wrote letters, and read some Psalms from the pocket Bible I had with me, the sun continued its downward path towards the horizon as I scanned for aircraft. Nothing. I hiked back down to the plane to see if I could make sure the Emergency Locator was working and check the radios. The radios were destroyed but a small red light on the ELT in the tail gave me hope my position was being broadcast.
Sure enough about 3 hours after impact I spotted a small twin-engine plane. I used a signal mirror to try to get its attention turned towards me and my makeshift signals. My heart leaped when I saw him blink his lights and rock his wings. I knew I was found. They circled for a few minutes as I waved and gave thumbs up. They flew off and about 45 minutes later a DPS helicopter arrived and picked me off the mountain right as the sun dipped under the horizon and took me to Kingman, where I got on a ride on the same twin engine plane that found me (they were dispatched from my school to look for me when I didn’t show up to close my flight plan).
Dealing with the aftermath was a battle all on its own. Figuring out what happened, dealing with my school, the FAA, the NTSB, my own doubts, my future in Aviation, and all that took time and I went through many trials. Eventually I did piece together what happened and chalk the accident up to lack of experience in mountain flying. I was too close to the lee side of a ridgeline and had accidentally positioned my plane in a wave of downward-moving air called a mountain wave. And by the time I realized it, it was too late and I had made the fateful wrong turn. I got kicked out of the flight program at my school in a bogus way via a split decision where a 5-person panel (2 of which I got to choose) decided 3-2 I couldn’t stay in the program. I also got a slap on the 60 day suspension of my license from the FAA, later reduced to 45 days, who felt compelled to do ‘something’ even though the inspector liked me and understood it was purely an accident. I graduated from Embry-Riddle Magna Cum Laude and finished up my flight ratings at another flight school and am now a Commercial, Multi-Engine, Instrument Pilot and Flight Instructor. I learned a lot more about mountain flying after the accident and ended up instructing in Colorado for several years after school and have a stellar record.
I’ve since got married, started a family and have three beautiful daughters, worked at rewarding careers, and started multiple businesses. The last 10 years have been truly the best years of my life.
I can’t help but feel like every day I have on this earth is a gift, and this last decade has been the best gift I’ve ever received. I’ve lost several friends in plane crashes that were better, more experienced pilots. I know it’s not fair I’m alive and they’re not. But I know my God is good, that they’re with Him, and that I’m going to make the most of my gift of life.
One thing that the plane crash did for me… looking right into death… it cemented in my heart what is really important. In those last moments I thought I had, everything else fell away. Nothing really mattered except two things: God and People. My relationship with God and my relationships with people were the only thing I cared about at that moment. I always try to keep that in perspective as I deal with all the cares and troubles of this life.
God and People.