Following my survival of the crash of a U.S. Forest Service T-34 Mentor “bird-dog” plane in the Gila National Forest, the Forest Service asked me to write a statement about my experiences:
June 2, 1962
As a correspondent of the El Paso Times of El Paso, Texas, I was working on a feature story concerned with forest fire-fighting tactics in the Gila National Forest. On May 2, there appeared to be considerable air activity of Forest Service planes, so I decided to drive to the Grant country Airport where the Gila Forest air support facilities are located. I arrived there about 1:00 p.m. and soon after contacted Fire Control Staff Officer Jack Foster. He gave me permission to talk with any persons concerned with the operation and to take any pictures I wished. In regard to my request for a flight on the Forest Service aircraft, Mr. Foster said it was not possible at the time but suggested I keep in touch with him. I spent the early part of the afternoon gathering information and taking pictures.
About 3:15 p.m., I was talking with Foster and Jumper foreman Dick Tracy. A yellow F.S. T-34 pulled up on the apron near us and Mr. Foster said he might be able to arrange a flight in this aircraft later in the day if fire conditions would permit. After our conversation, I went to meet the pilot, Wendell Schroll, of Redding, California.
About — 4:00 p.m., Schroll told me we were to take off immediately on an observation mission for a TBM borate plane that was to douse a small fire in the Black Range. I estimate our take-off time as about 4:05 p.m.
The flight, contrary to the weather conditions, seemed to be smooth with only occasional turbulence. I conversed with the pilot at intervals via the plane’s intercom. Most of my questions were concerned with the relative positions of us, the fire, and the TBM. On arrival at the fire, a small one confined to one pine and some ground area, we made two passes over the fire.
I saw nothing but trees
On our third pass we flew in “formation” with the TBM so I could get a picture of the drop. Through an error of mine, I was unable to get a picture of the drop. Then we started to turn for another pass over the fire to check the effectiveness of the borate. I was occupied with something to do with my camera when I sensed that the plane had gone into a steep bank. We were, in fact, upside down. I looked “up” and saw nothing but trees — and then we hit the trees.
I believe I was conscious for most of the time during our sudden arrival, for I remember what seemed to be a long period of violent bucking and interminable noise. I also remember thinking that I was not going to die in that way. The next thing I remember was not knowing whether I was dead or alive. Then my eyes popped open and I saw my own blood dripping from some place onto the dust. There was no sound, no dust in the air. I was hanging upside down in my seat, and when I realized this I started kicking and pawing at the restraining harness. Then I remembered the buckle assembly and released it. Out I tumbled and up the hill I scrambled, not really knowing what I was doing. I had only one shoe on, and that was half torn off. When I reached the ridge top, I stopped to try to think. Although I was a bloody mess, I thought I had only four wounds — one on my head, two minor ones on my left hand, and a bad one on my left knee.
I soon decided I was not having a bad dream. Nevertheless, I knew, or thought I knew, that the pilot was dead. But swiftly the thought that if I were alive, he could be too, came to me. Back down the ridge I went and halfway down I heard him moan. I found him against the engine, out of his seat and helmet, with his left arm quite out of position. He opened his eyes and asked me who I was. I told him as much as I knew, but he couldn’t remember. I did as much as I could to make him comfortable, but I was unable to move him from the engine, which was burning him. He weighs 220 pounds.
A potential inferno
Shortly we heard a plane and back up the ridge I went. It was clearer up there, and I also had a red shirt which I thought the pilot might see. I saw the plane, but it must have been a good two miles distant. It soon disappeared, and I went back down to Wendell. He was complaining of the cold when I got back. At his instruction, I found his flying suit and jacket in the wreck. (Sometime in this period, more planes started flying much nearer to us.) I covered him and started searching for matches to build a fire. I knew full well the ground and trees were soaked with about 300 gallons of fuel and oil, but I didn’t connect my hoped-for small fire with that potential inferno. As you can see, I still wasn’t thinking too clearly.
Planes were still flying all around; they would fly close, then zoom far away. Actually, the Silver City based T-34 had spotted us on his first pass over the wreck, but no one bothered to signal us in some manner. We did not know we’d been spotted until Smokejumper Dick Tracy yelled at us. He and another jumper had jumped from a Twin Beechcraft.
Tracy arrived on the scene first. I told him I was not seriously hurt, but that Wendell was. He made Wendell more comfortable and gave us both a shot of Demerol. Then, more supplies, including first-aid equipment, water and paper sleeping bags, were dropped from a Twin Beech. I drank quite a bit of water. Kirk Samsel, the other jumper, arrived at this time. I soon became sick, probably from the Demerol. I believe Dick and Kirk were patching Wendell at this time. I was getting quite sleepy when Dick gave me his radio. He said he wanted me to tell him if anyone called. He didn’t tell me that we couldn’t receive any transmission in our canyon. Anyhow, I was happy knowing I was helping in some small way.
Through the night I woke about every half hour. Early in the evening one of the boys told me the rescue party, including Dr. Claran C. Cobb, was on its way in overland. I occupied my time when I was awake by listening to the night birds and watching for shooting stars.
At about 2:30 A.M., May 3, we first saw the lights of the rescuers. A little later we could hear them talking, but it was a good hour and a half before they reached us.
They finally did arrive with more blankets. I was glad for that, because it is cold at night any time of year at 8,000 feet elevation. Dr. Cobb was among the first to arrive. He worked with Wendell for about an hour, and then did a little work on me. Jack Foster arrived shortly after Dr. Cobb, and I don’t believe that ever before was anyone so glad to see me. He asked if I thought the crash was due to engine failure. I told him I was sure it was not that.
I did little, if any, sleeping from then on. The men started clearing the helipad in earnest, and it soon started growing light. Awhile before sun-up, I was carried piggy-back fashion to the helispot by Dick Tracy. There we waited for the helicopter to come. The Alouette was the first to come. Wendell was loaded into it. I was protected from the rotor blast by a smokejumper. After a short wait, the Hiller came to get me. I got in with assistance and sat in a normal position. My first helicopter ride took only about 10 minutes. We landed in front of Hillcrest General Hospital and I was carried into emergency by several men.
Robert Ingraham Jr.
Next, in Part 3: More details about the crash and our rescue, and speculation about the cause or causes of the crash.