The cold truth

April 16, 2013

In rugged, remote country, harsh weather can be more life-threatening than an aircraft crash itself. In 2012, AOPA Online Managing Editor Alyssa Miller reported on what she’d learned in a weekend-long winter survival course held in the woods of northwest Montana. The training, conducted by the Aeronautics Division of the Montana Department of Transportation, demonstrated that surviving a forced landing is only the first step.

That message was driven home in March by an accident eerily similar to the one that inspired the Montana course. On the afternoon of Sunday, March 3, a Cessna 172 crashed into a forested mountainside in the Wind River Range of southern Wyoming. Much about the accident remains unknown—the NTSB’s investigation is still in its early stages—but several press stories reported that the pilot survived the initial impact and tried to take shelter beneath the airplane’s wing.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center detected an ELT signal shortly before 4 p.m., which is currently considered the time of the accident. Within the hour, they had contacted the Casper Flight Service Station and the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office, which in turn alerted search-and-rescue teams. Meanwhile, the flight, which was on an active VFR flight plan with a scheduled arrival time of 4:20 p.m., was declared overdue half an hour after that because the flight plan hadn’t been closed. An alert notice was issued at 5:19 p.m., about 40 minutes before sunset.

The afternoon of the accident was relatively balmy by Wyoming winter standards, with temperatures actually above the freezing point, but it was breezy, with west winds gusting above 25 knots. As the evening wore on the winds increased, with gusts eventually topping 40 knots, and the temperature began to drop. At dawn it was down into the mid-20-degrees Fahrenheit, with continued gusty west winds. By 8 a.m. Monday, morning snow clouds had arrived, and while the snow only lasted a couple of hours, the temperature—now in the lower 20s—continued to fall. It dropped as low as 10 degrees over the course of Monday night, and didn’t reach the freezing point again until about 11 a.m. Tuesday, not quite two hours before the wreckage was finally located. The NTSB’s preliminary report noted that search efforts were halted several times by deteriorating weather, and by the time rescuers found him, the pilot had died.

The details of the pilot’s injuries have not yet been reported; nor has any description of what survival gear, if any, was on board. However, his hometown newspaper in California cited the coroner’s report as ascribing his death primarily to hypothermia, with traumatic injuries only a contributing factor. Still unclear is whether he could have survived those injuries for 45 hours in milder weather.

It’s important to note that this pilot did most things right. He was on an active search-and-rescue flight plan, his ELT activated and the signal was detected almost immediately, and he stayed with the airplane to improve the chance of rescue—but still succumbed to two days of Wyoming winter weather.