A “Non-Survivable” Crash

Written by Harold McNeill on August 18th, 2010. Posted in Flying Log Book


A “Non-Survivable” Crash

In a moment of absolute clarity Dwayne realized what was going to happen – his airplane was going to crash into the mountainside and there was not one thing he could do to stop the impending disaster.

In a final act of defiance the plane would stall, drop one wing, enter a spin and spiral down into the ground at well over two hundred k/hr. To survive such a crash would be impossible. After a lifetime of safe flying how did Dwayne suddenly find himself facing this catastrophic situation? In these last few moments he shuddered to think how chance controls every move in our lives.

He was an experienced bush pilot with thousands of hours of flying time and an impeccable record of safety. However, in the annals of bush flying, even the most experienced pilot can make little mistakes and sometimes even those little mistakes can lead to disaster. Today, all alone with his airplane in a remote area of the British Columbia, Dwayne made a few of those mistakes and in the next few seconds it would cost him dearly.

A friend of the family, Dwayne, lives in Cold Lake, Alberta, a community 200 miles northeast of Edmonton. Cold Lake is known internationally for its giant airbase (CFB Cold Lake) as well as for the trillions of barrels of wet sticky tar sands that exist far below the ground. Dwayne, from his home base in Cold Lake, has spent much of his life flying bush planes over the Western Canadian and Alaskan hinterland. He has experienced flying conditions that range from 30F below in blinding snowstorms to well over 100F above dodging thunderstorms. Dwayne knows all to well the dangers of bush flying as he and other family members of his family have been in the business since the 1940s.

Following is Dwayne’s story of a crash for which he unabashedly holds himself fully responsible, a story that involves a tired battery, a shoelace and, in a frustrating moment when he was angry with himself, failing to follow a few simple safety procedures. The outcome, a crash that instantly and completely destroyed his nearly new Cessna 206 after it stalled and spiraled 3000 feet down into a heavily wooded mountainside. That he survived a crash that Search and Rescue (SAR) reported as “non-survivable” makes his story one for the record books.

In late August 2006, Dwayne and a number of other pilots had just completed an exhaustive search for another bush plane that had gone missing in a remote area north-central of British Columbia. After several days searching the missing plane had been found. Tragically, no one had survived.

After returning to search HQ Dwayne was asked to do a quick check of a fuel cache at a grass strip on the banks of the Gataga River (south of Watson Lake) in order to insure sufficient fuel available for emergency use. The round trip would take just over an hour giving Dwayne plenty of time to return to base before dark.  At first Dwayne considered taking a pass as the battery in his plane had been acting up; however, on the spur of the moment, decided to take the flight.

When Dwayne had not returned after three hours and did not respond to radio calls, a SAR chopper from the earlier search was dispatched to check the Gataga strip. The chopper arrived late in the evening and on circling could see no airplane on the strip. The chopper crew noted an old trapper sitting on an oil drum at the far end of the runway but just as they about to set downthey spotted smoke rising from a nearby mountainside. As they peeled away they briefly exchanged waves with the trapper and headed over to the mountain. On circling the site the crew observed what appeared to be signs of a recent crash. They immediately assumed the worst.

A technician was lowered to the scene and found it was indeed a recent crash with airplane pieces strew around over a small area. The wreckage was still hot but, luckily, the fire had not spread to the surrounding forest. The crash scene suggested the plane had hit the ground from an almost vertical dive. Sufficient identifiable pieces indicated it was Dwayne’s Cessna. The crew reported having found the aircraft and reported it as “non-survivable” crash. Due to the massive destruction a search for the body of pilot would have to wait until the site cooled. As it was getting late, the SAR crew was advised to return directly to home base.

Early the next morning the chopper and another aircraft carrying crash investigators and emergency crew returned to set up base camp at the Gataga strip. The crew of the previous evening noticed the trapper had returned to the strip. He was probably wondering what all the activity was at the little used grass strip. When they approached to ask him some questions the man was obviously cold and agitated. After he settled down they asked if he had observed the plane crash on the nearby mountain the previous day to which he replied “yes” and then he added: “…it was my airplane and I was the pilot!”

This statement was greeted with skepticism on part of the SAR crew and crash investigators. One of the SAR crew who had dropped down to view the scene the previous evening stated: “I was at the crash site last night and it is impossible that anyone could have survived!” to which Dwayne quietly replied: “Well you are mistaken sir, that ‘was’ my airplane and I did survive, not only that, you then left me here to freeze overnight after you saw me waving at you.”

As Dwayne opened his flight jacket to get his wallet, the crew noticed the arm of his jacket and shirt had been cut wide open.  Adhering to the shirt they could see a patch of dried blood. When asked what had happened, Dwayne pointed toward the crash site and stated: “I was struck by the propeller.” When they looked at the documents he handed over the rescuers were stunned – Dwayne was alive and well. He then told them the full story of the crash and how he had survived.

He explained that during the recent search, the battery on his airplane was acting up. He intended to have it replaced as soon as he returned home to Cold Lake and explained the reason for his quick trip to the Gataga strip. He told them how, when having coffee before he took off from base camp early the previous evening, he had slipped off his boots to relax his feet for a few minutes. When ready to take off, he slipped the boots on and left without bothering to tie his laces. This was his second mistake and although it was minor it was one that would play a key role in the subsequent crash.

After landing at the strip and shutting down, he quickly checked out the fuel dump. He noted the amount of fuel left and returned to his plane to make the short hop back to base camp. His luck did not hold – the battery was completely dead.  Irritated at himself for not attending to the problem earlier, he set about starting the engine by hand. As this is normally a two man procedure, Dwayne set the engine controls for start, got out of the cockpit and pulled the propeller through. On his second try, the engine sprang to life. He turned to jump back in and adjust the throttle but tripped on his shoelace and fell. By the time he got up the wash from the prop had blown the door shut. Before he could he could get it open and adjust the throttle, the engine quit.  Dwayne was now even more frustrated with himself.

Over the next hour he made several attempts to start the engine without success. He was resigned to waiting for someone to check on him that evening or the next morning. After giving the engine time to rest he decided to give it one more try. This time on pulling it through it roared to life and in an instant Dwayne realized his third mistake. Instead of setting the throttle in the “start” position, he had left it wide open. When the engine roared to life it immediately revved up to full RPM. Startled, he started to turn and again tripped on the same shoelace. He fell and just barely avoided impact with the propeller as he went down. At the same moment he noted the plane start to move and realized his fourth mistake. He had not applied the parking brake.

By the time he got up the plane was moving away and again, the cockpit door had blow shut. The empty plane rapidly gained speed and Dwayne knew there was no hope of catching it. All he could do was stand there in stunned silence and watch as his airplane gained speed. It angled down the strip and he felt sure it would run out of room and crash in the bush the side. Instead, it continued to slowly angle toward several small sand dunes that bordered the river. As it topped the second dune the plane gracefully climbed into the air.

Airplanes are inherently stable machines and if properly trimmed to a certain flight attitude can virtually fly themselves. Dwayne knew the controls were not locked and he had already set the flaps for takeoff. Once airborne the plane continued to ascend but was doing so at an angle that could not be sustained for long. At about 6000 feet Dwayne watched as his plane gently stalled and as the nose dropped it slowly circled and began descending back toward the strip. For a fleeting moment Dwayne thought his bloody airplane might just crash right on top of him.

As it continued to gain speed the nose began to gradually rise and as it passed over the strip at about 200 feet it again began to climb but this time at a much steeper angle of attack. This time when it reached about 3000 feet it stalled very hard and instead of recovering as it had the first time, it began to spiral straight toward the ground. It went into the forested mountainside from an almost vertical dive and exploded in a ball of flame. Even though he knew what the outcome would be from the moment the plane left the ground, Dwayne was dumbfounded.

It was only after the crash that Dwayne felt a pain in his arm. On checking closer he realized that when he fell the propeller had cut his coat, shirt and arm. He also realized that if he had fallen an inch or two further his arm could have been severed. That he came so close to death left him shaken. As much as he was hurt by the loss of his airplane, he was also thankful there had not been a passenger sitting in the airplane when it took off. The tragedy of such a situation would have been unimaginable.

The flight crews listened intently as Dwayne related the story of how he had survived a “not survivable” crash. Flying bush planes in the Canadian Northland is not for the faint of heart. It is way of life were small mistakes can easily lead to disaster.

Harold McNeill
Yellowhead Highway, August 2009

Post Script

Dwayne advised that he later learned that in North America at least one or two airplanes a year take off without anyone aboard.  While it is a very rare form of aircraft accident, they do periodically occur, probably under circumstances not unlike that which Dwayne experienced. You will notice that in many of the stories posted on this blog, chance happenings and events play a large role in our determining our lives. That we have survived some very dangerous situations in our own family often seems to turn on the toss of a coin.

 

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  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.