Medical volunteer flight turns tragic

June 7, 2012

Photos by Chris Rose.

The dangers in El Fuerte, this troubled area of northwest Mexico, are well known to the volunteer doctors, nurses, and technicians who come here to provide desperately needed medical care, as well as the U.S. pilots who use their own general aviation aircraft to bring them.

AOPA Pilot recently accompanied about 65 volunteers traveling in 16 general aviation airplanes on a three-day trip to Liga International’s main clinic in the historic city of El Fuerte, Sinaloa, one of nine monthly working trips the group makes here annually. But their visit turned tragic when a fatal aircraft accident took the life of a Liga volunteer, injured three passengers, and dealt the organization a crushing blow.

Liga (also known as Flying Doctors of Mercy) volunteers perform much of their work in this historic city of 40,000 near the epicenter of the country’s worst drug violence, and local, state, and federal police cover their faces with balaclavas as they patrol the area with automatic weapons. Airplanes are guarded from drug cartels by heavily armed soldiers. Nonetheless, Liga volunteers have been returning here since 1934 because the tangible benefits they provide outweigh the risks. Medical specialists—audiologists, ophthalmologists, orthopedic surgeons, and more—get results that the local population (and sometimes the medical teams themselves) regards as miraculous.

Rescue FlightOn June 2, a Cessna 182 owned and flown by Liga volunteer John Frederic Slater, a 50-year-old Arizona business owner, was transporting three teenaged family members and friends of other volunteers to an outlying clinic when the airplane struck power lines and crashed into the El Fuerte River a few miles from the airport. Slater, a divorced father of two, died at the scene.

Passengers Liam Guzman, 15, of Redondo Beach, California; Julia Tower, 17, and Hayley Brown, 18, both of San Diego, survived with broken bones, lacerations, and internal injuries. Guzman is the son of a Liga volunteer pediatrician Ernie Guzman, and Brown is the granddaughter of Liga President Lapp.

Brown was the most seriously hurt with a head injury that required being put into a medically induced coma to reduce brain swelling. (Guzman and Tower returned to the United States four days after the accident while Brown remained hospitalized in Mexico.)

Rescue Flight

“We make contingency plans because we know that the work we do, and the places we go, can be hazardous,” said Erik Knudson, a Liga pilot and 10-year volunteer in Arizona, who made the June trip to El Fuerte with wife, Jodi, a registered nurse, in their 1969 Bonanza. “This accident is like a nightmare you don’t wake up from. You try everything you can think of to help, but nothing changes the reality of what happened—or the consequences.”

Witnesses said the airplane clipped power lines suspended above the broad, shallow river before hitting the water in a flat attitude so powerfully that both doors sprang open and all four occupants were ejected. Two Mexican fishermen in a rowboat helped rescue the survivors, and others transported them to a local hospital in their own vehicles.

Slater was unconscious when the fishermen brought him to the muddy riverbank—and he died there about 30 minutes later.

Rescue FlightBy early afternoon, Slater's body had been taken to the morgue, and then a wrecking truck hauled the aircraft out of the water with a winch. Workers loaded the pieces onto a flatbed truck and dumped it at the airport where investigators could examine the pieces, but little was left intact.

Liga volunteers, and especially the pilots, were confounded about why Slater had flown so low over the river. Had there been engine trouble that prevented him from climbing? Or was he simply trying to thrill his passengers with a low-altitude tour?

Slater was an instrument-rated private pilot who had performed admirably on 22 previous missions in the last seven years. He had brought his Spanish-speaking mother and daughter on other Liga trips to El Fuerte and enthusiastically supported the group. Now Liga (the Spanish word for “league”) members faced the wrenching tasks of caring for their own injured volunteers, informing Slater's family that he was dead, and confronting the fact that their group’s future was suddenly in jeopardy.

Read more about Liga’s work in Mexico the August edition of AOPA Pilot.

Topics Mexico, Travel