He wasn't sure his daughter was up to handling a crisis, but she came through.
- Posted on Jan 9, 2014
Storm clouds hugged the sky, the rain continuing to fall. I slumped in the seat of my plane, on a deserted gravel landing strip in southeast Oregon. I looked at my watch. Six-thirty P.M. Saturday evening. This weather delay had stretched to three hours now. We’d left California that morning.
Behind me I could hear Heather, my 26-year-old daughter, talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone, her tone a combination of boredom and irritation. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Probably going to have to spend the night on the plane.... Unbelievable, right?”
I let out a sigh. Heather hated flying, especially in my 1966 Cessna 172, a fourseater, loud and bumpy. Perfect for me. A deputy fire chief, I pride myself on being ready for anything. Nothing like Heather. She’s strong-willed. Emotional. I loved her to pieces, but I wasn’t sure she was really up for this trip.
“Listen, I’ve gotta go,” she said. “My battery’s almost dead.”
I glanced over at my wife, Jayann, in the seat next to me, her head bowed in prayer. Okay. None of us wanted to be here. I was a veteran pilot but not instrument rated. I’m not allowed to fly unless I have clear visibility.
That’s why we were stuck, an hour away from our destination, our oldest daughter, Tabitha’s, place in southern Idaho. We’d run into this storm just west of the Owyhee Mountains.
I’d spent the last year planning this trip–our itinerary, where we’d stop to refuel, the exact amount of weight we could carry in order to safely fly over the mountains. Even downloaded special travel apps on my phone.
I had it all figured out, a leisurely four-hour flight from our home south of Sacramento. Just Jayann and me. A perfect Memorial Day weekend. Then, at the last minute, Heather demanded to come. I’d had to redo everything. Luckily we hadn’t needed to pack much, just shorts and T-shirts.
Suddenly the weather started to clear; a patch here and there. Enough for us to get over the mountains while it was still light. “All right! Let’s do this,” I said. Jayann texted Tabitha with the news. “I’m telling her to pray,” she said. But I thought we’d be just fine.
We took off like a shot. Just as we began to cross over the Owyhees, the skies turned dark again, a huge cloud formation directly ahead. I turned south. Another enormous black cloud cluster. Seconds later, as if it had swallowed us, we were inside of it.
Then the plane stalled. We were going to hit the mountain head-on. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’re going to make it,” I cried. “I love you both.” We were falling. I pitched the nose down, desperate to get lift. I pulled back hard on the yoke, pulling with every muscle in my body.
The plane crashed through the canopy. Branches. Where was the mountain?
Everything went dark.
Slowly I opened my eyes. My mind was fuzzy. I felt something pouring down my cheek. I was bleeding. I’m alive!
“Help me! Mom’s falling!” A voice. Far away. Slowly, I looked over to where...Jayann! She was hanging limp, her seat belt barely keeping her from falling through a gaping hole in the fuselage. The door was gone. Heather held tight to Jayann’s back, her arms trembling. “Dad! Help!”
I grabbed hold of my wife and helped Heather pull her safely inside. Jayann’s eyes were rolled back. She was gasping for air. A head injury. I’d seen the same signs on emergency calls I’d been on. I repositioned her head and cleared her airway. No response. Twenty seconds. A minute.
I kissed her. “Don’t die,” I said.
A gasp. Then Jayann moaned. I squeezed her hand. “I’m okay,” she said, but her words were garbled, her eyes glassy. She was in shock. I moved her into the pilot’s seat.
We’re in trouble. Stranded in the mountains in our summer clothes. If I didn’t get help soon we’d be at risk of hypothermia. I had to save them. It wasn’t going to be easy. Dear God, I prayed, please, please keep Heather calm.
I turned to my daughter, slumped in the backseat. “Do you hurt anywhere?” I asked.
“My leg,” she said. “It’s killing me. And my hip. I hit my head when we crashed, but I never blacked out.”
I nodded. Possible pelvic fracture. Still, she had been quick to grab Jayann. “That was good work,” I said. “How you kept hold of Mom.”
“Thanks,” Heather said. Her voice was clear, coherent, but I worried she might be bleeding internally. I had to reach a flight controller. Fast.
“I need my portable radio,” I said. “In my flight bag.”
Heather reached behind her and got it. I flipped the switch. Yes! It was working. “I’m going to try to find an open area where I can get a signal out,” I said.
“No,” Heather said, her voice calm, but determined. “You’re not going anywhere. Dad, your head’s bleeding bad. You’re hurt. Worse than you think.”
“Honey, please don’t get upset,” I said. “I’ve gotta do this. Do you think you can watch Mom? It’ll just be a few minutes.”
“I’m not upset,” she said. “You have a head injury. Be real careful walking. Sit down if you get dizzy.” She handed me a shirt she’d grabbed from the back. I wrapped it around my head and pushed my way out of the passenger side of the cockpit.
We’d gone down in a canyon. Incredibly, the plane was still largely intact. We’d belly flopped after shearing through dozens of trees, slowing the plane enough for us not to be obliterated on impact.
I hiked about 200 yards up the mountain. Daylight was fading fast and it was snowing now, hard. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” I said into the mike. “This is November 4640 LIMA. Do you copy?” No answer. I tried again. Dead silence.
It was nearly dark. And getting colder by the minute. I needed to build a fire. I hiked back, breaking off tree branches as I walked. I found a good spot near the plane. But the wood was already soaking wet. Aviation fuel. That’d burn. I could get it from the plane’s wings.
Inside, Heather had gathered snacks and a few water bottles from the tail. Huh. Good thinking. I got a cup and managed to get a bit of fuel into it, then poured it over the wood. But the fire burned out in seconds.
Heather was staring out at me. She looked concerned. How much longer could she hold it together?
We were going to have to shelter in place for the night. I searched for the passenger-side door and saw it in some bushes. Got it back on and used the lock-latch to hold it in place. I settled into the passenger seat.
That’s when I saw that Heather had patched a hole in the pilot’s-side door, using the plastic cargo divider. Wow! How had she managed that with an injured leg?
“Dad, I’m worried about Mom. She’s been praying ever since you left. She keeps saying she’s ready to die.” Heather handed me our only blanket. I arranged it over Jayann and me the best I could. Jayann’s hands were as cold as ice.
Even if Tabitha called the rescue squad, how would they ever find us? I was exhausted. But we couldn’t go to sleep, not with head injuries. I hated to ask, but there was no one else.
“Heather, you can’t let Mom or me fall asleep. Every fifteen minutes I need you to make sure we’re awake.”
“Okay. I’m pretty sleepy myself, but I’ll do it. No problem.”
The night wore on, the quiet unnerving. I stared into the darkness. Worrying. Praying. I could hear Heather shivering behind me. Jayann’s hands were so cold it hurt to hold them.
“You are the dancing queen...”
What on earth? Jayann jerked upright. “My phone! Get it! It’s Tabitha! That’s her ringtone.”
“I’m trying,” Heather shouted. I could hear her fumbling around in the dark. “No, that’s Dad’s phone. Okay, got it. Shoot. It went to voice mail.”
But if her phone has a connection... Jayann was already ahead of me. “Call her back,” she said. “Tell her to call 911.”
“No, Mom,” Heather said. “I’ll do it.”
Waving the phone around, she searched for a signal. Punched in the number. Then came a voice. “Owyhee County 911. What is your emergency?” Calmly, Heather told the operator how we’d crashed, that Jayann and I had head injuries. And that there was no way to get our GPS coordinates.
“Okay,” the operator said. “Give me your phone carrier. We’ll have them ping your phone.”
“Hurry,” Heather said. “Please hurry.”
Silence. I could barely breathe. Ribs ached. The cold. The dark. At last the phone rang. “We have your position,” said the operator. “We’re on the way.”
“One more thing,” Heather said. “Can you call my sister? Tell her we’re okay.”
Heather handed me my phone. I looked at the screen: 12:31 A.M. It had to have been about 9:00 P.M. when we crashed. We held hands and thanked God as a family.
Only he could have kept us from smashing into the mountainside. Only he could have made a cell phone connection when there was no signal. And Heather. Cool. Confident. Amazing. She’d kept her head through this whole ordeal.
We huddled together in the freezing plane. At last, in the distance, I heard it...whup... whup...whup...our rescuers. I grabbed my phone, pushed the door open.
Just as the chopper flew overhead I hit one of the new travel apps. The phone flashed like a strobe. The helicopter banked and hovered right above me.
It was an hour before the first rescuer, the helicopter pilot who had spotted us, was able to hike through whiteout conditions to get to us. He looked at the plane, then stared at us like he was seeing ghosts.
“I’ve been doing search and rescue for a long time, but I’ve never brought a live pilot out of the mountains,” he said. “Certainly not a plane full of people. You’re a hero.”
“How much longer is this going to take?” Heather yelled.
That’s my girl. I looked back at my strong-willed daughter, the one who hated flying, thought of how she’d demanded to come only at the last minute. Everything she’d done. Saving her mom, jolting me awake, patching the door, that call to 911. Jayann and I, we wouldn’t have been alive...
“No, my daughter, she’s the hero,” I said.
A National Guard helicopter with a hoist lifted Heather and Jayann out of the canyon one by one and flew them to an open area where a medevac chopper waited. It was after 1:00 P.M. when I was finally hoisted out.
Jayann’s core body temperature was 94 degrees. She’d suffered a head injury and broken ribs. I had a broken arm, nose and ribs, and a few deep lacerations. Heather was badly bruised and cold, but there was nothing broken. None of us needed surgery.
All we had needed that day was each other, and the One who held us together.
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