Surviving a plane crash in the Black Range (Part 3)

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My official statement about the crash of Forest Service Aircraft #N145Z is dated June 2, 1962, exactly a month after the accident and only three weeks after my release from hospital. It doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

Plane crashes, even those of very small aircraft, are complex phenomena. They rarely result from pilot error alone, or mechanical failure, or weather. Usually, a cascade of circumstances leads to disaster. And, always, many more people than just the crew and passengers are affected, not only in the days immediately following the an accident, but often for months, years, and even entire lifetimes. The cause of “my” T-34 Tutor accident was never determined with any degree of certainty, but one thing is certain: the accident changed the future in myriad ways large and small.

Reacting to imminent death:

It took just seconds for the T-34 to die. In dying, it was transformed from a graceful flying machine to a jumble of scrap metal. During the aircraft’s brief descent through the trees to the forest floor, I understood that my life would end few seconds at best. I also had a brief thought — a very brief thought! — that my mother didn’t know that I was an airplane. I wasn’t frightened. There was not, apparently, enough time to be frightened. There was only enough time to be aware of huge forces pummelling my body and of indescribable sound.

Final Score: Forest 1, Aircraft 0

When an aircraft plunges into a mature forest at an estimated 145 kilometres per hour (90 miles per hour), it’s game over. The trees probably lost some bark and a few branches, but the airplane, made of weaker sinews, simply came apart. Final score: Forest 1, Aircraft 0.

Language cannot convey the sound of the aluminum-alloy skin of a T-34 being shredded, of its airframe being ripped apart. No amusement park could replicate that thunderous, bucketing ride through the trees. The noise seemed like all of the noises of all time compressed into an awful chorus of shrieking metal and hammer-like blows. The aircraft, Wendell, and I became nearly irresistable objects encountering almost immovable objects. It seemed like we were pulled and pushed and shoved and yanked and jerked and bounced and stretched and squeezed in all directions at once. I don’t know if we screamed. If we did, we could not have heard ourselves or each other. I don’t recall seeing anything during our meteoric fall to earth; I must have squeezed my eyes shut out of pure instinct.

The aircraft, after it hit the ground, apparently went sliding across the forest floor and slammed sideways into a large ponderosa pine, between Wendell’s seat and mine. The forward part of the fuselage tumbled on, launching both Wendell and his seat into space. He landed several yards down the hill right on the engine, which had been torn loose from its mounts. The aft part of the fuselage slid beyond the tree and finally came to rest; my seat, with me still in it, was left dangling free except for one metal strap still riveted to the wreckage. When I came to — I must have been knocked unconscious well before the plane came to a stop — my eyes snapped open to see the ground only inches away from my face, with blood — my blood! — drip, drip, dripping into the dust. It was absolutely quiet.

This U.S. Forest Service photo shows the wreckage of Forest Service Aircraft #N145Z. The yellow oval indicates the location of the T-34’s rear seat — my seat — in the same location and position it was in when I regained consciousness following the crash. A larger version of the photo shows more detail. — U.S. Forest Service Photo

Lacerated, contused, abraded & strained from head to toe

Remarkably, although our aircraft had become a pile of junk, Wendell and I were largely intact. I was lacerated, contused, abraded, and strained from head to toe. A deep, triangular cut on the tip my left ring finger hurt like hell. My trousers were ripped; blood ran slowly down my left leg from ragged gash below my left knee.

Just before the crash, I had asked Wendell if I could release my harness so I could turn in my seat to take pictures. He cautioned against releasing it completely, but told me to move a lever by the seat that would loosen the harness and allow me to lean forward slightly. I had just done that when we hit the trees, so my body was free to be buffeted more than might otherwise have been the case. After the crash, a bruise in the shape of an almost perfect, black V formed on my chest, and for days I could not breathe without pain.

Although I didn’t have any obvious head injuries, other than a cut on the back of my head, I did have a concussion which resulted in addled thinking for weeks (and perhaps the rest of my life!). The human brain, a gelatinous structure lightly cushioned by a thin layer of cerebrospinal fluid, was not designed to withstand the violent forces encountered in a plane crash. Wendell and I were in the same room at Hillcrest General Hospital. For days, I kept trying to call Wendell “Weldon”; only with the greatest conscious effort could I dredge “Wendell” from the depths of addled brain.

Wendell’s injuries, recovery, and then an unfortunate accident at home

Wendell faced a long recovery from multiple injuries. He had suffered a serious concussion, and had no memory of the accident. The U.S. Air Force helmet he was wearing probably saved his life: one side of was crushed in the accident. One of his arms was broken at the elbow, and he had third-degree burns on his thigh from lying on the hot engine.

Why did the plane crash?

Mountains in the Gila National Forest during a summer storm. The descending columns of heavy rain are characteristic of microbursts. — Bob Ingraham Photo

No one will ever know the cause of the crash, but it was probably a microburst — a sudden, strong downdraft generated by the thunderstorms in the area — that brought us to grief.

It is common for cumulonimbus clouds to build over the mountains of the Gila National Forest in spring and summer months and grow into monstrous, flat-topped cumulonimbus incus storm cells — “anvils of the gods”. They commonly produce heavy rainfall, powerful and unpredictable winds, hail, lightning, and even tornadoes. Even to fly near them, much less into them, is to invite disaster. Large airliners have been torn apart in flying conditions like those Wendell and I crashed in. If bravery is defined by flying a small aircraft into one of those New Mexico storms, then Wendell was a very brave man. Me? I was too ignorant to know better.

Less litigious times

Once our rescue was complete, the Forest Service made sure I was comfortable and paid all my hospital bills. Family friends told my parents that they should sue, but they were all content that I was alive and would fully recover. I had willingly put myself in harm’s way, through no fault of the Forest Service. Besides, those were less litigious times….

The Forest Service probably heaved a bureaucratic sigh of relief when it was clear that lawyers would not become involved, and soon promulgated a new regulation: “Civilians” would henceforth be allowed to ride in Forest Service aircraft only if they were “essential to the mission” or if the flight has been “approved by the Line Officer responsible for the flight.” Today, I doubt a starry-eyed cub reporter could get on a bird-dog flight as easily as I did.

Next, in Part 4: How my Yashicamat camera was destroyed then born again; my newspaper story is published at last; smokejumpers Dick Tracy and Kirk Samsel win awards; five decades later, I alone survive.

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