Husky pilot helps rescue man dying in desert

July 31, 2008

[ AOPA has learned that the man is recovering. Read “ Man rescued in desert is AOPA member’s son.”—Ed.]

John Morgan and his wife Jan were flying their 2005 Husky A1-B low over the Black Rock Desert in Nevada on July 23 when they stumbled across what could have been a scene straight from the TV show CSI—a person lying face down in the sand with tire tracks all around.

“I told my wife, ‘That’s a body.’” Morgan ought to know. He’s a former police officer. “People die out there every year,” he said.

Although he was initially hesitant to approach the person in case it was someone pulling a prank, Morgan circled and marked the spot as a waypoint on his Garmin 396. Jan thought someone had just stuffed some clothes with straw.

Morgan had noticed a car about a mile and a half from the body and thought perhaps the person had broken down and tried to walk for help. Upon flying over the vehicle, he noticed two people and landed to see if a member of their party was missing. The two had no knowledge of the body.

Because there were no features in the desert, only tire tracks running in different directions, Morgan pulled up the course line on his GPS to head back to the person. This time, while they were maneuvering over the body, Jan saw a hand move.

Realizing the person was alive, they circled and landed about 40 feet away and then taxied up the Husky to put the man in the shade of its high wing.

“It was very hot out there,” Morgan said, explaining that the man was breathing short breaths, had cuts and blood on him, and sand in his nose. His sunglasses were about 30 feet away.

Morgan quickly tuned his aircraft’s radio to 121.5 MHz to call for help. An airliner flying overhead picked up his distress call and was able to facilitate communications to get a medical helicopter dispatched to the scene. Morgan later learned that his radio call reached farther than he ever anticipated because of the flat terrain.

The couple gave the man some water while waiting for the helicopter to arrive (it was coming from Reno nearly 100 miles to the south of their location).

“When we saw them coming, it looked like something from Vietnam,” Morgan said, explaining that because of the reduced visibility from the smoke of the California wildfires and sand kicked up by the rotors, they heard the helicopter before its light, and later the airframe, came into view.

Morgan helped the paramedics roll the man onto a backboard.

“The guy couldn’t move when we all tried to roll [him onto the board],” Morgan said, adding that the man seemed to be in a great deal of pain.

Morgan and his wife then took off, climbed to 8,000 to 9,000 feet, and headed to their home base, Minden-Tahoe, about 135 miles away. When they had spotted the man, they were actually returning from a vacation in Oregon.

At home, Morgan checked out BackcountryPilot.org, a forum he frequents, and found a posting from another pilot who had picked up his distress call, albeit broken, while flying over the Nevada-Oregon-Idaho border.

Turns out, many pilots had heard Morgan’s call for help and tried to respond.

While Jan thinks they were meant to find the man, Morgan said he’s a little more pragmatic. Even so, he admitted that if they had been 100 yards off course or even flying directly over the man, they wouldn’t have spotted him: “He was just off to the right far enough.”

And if they had been flying their Mooney 201 instead of the Husky for vacation, they likely wouldn’t have been flying low over the desert or been able to land and offer help.

“If it weren’t for small GA,” Morgan said, “people like that wouldn’t have a chance.”

Because of privacy laws, AOPA Online was unable to track down which hospital admitted the man or learn of his current condition.