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From the AOPA ePilot electronic newsletter (used with permission):

Famed mountain flying instructor injured in Montana crash

Sparky Imeson, author, lecturer, and mountain flying expert, was injured while giving tips to a pilot on the last day of a Montana Pilots Association mountain flying safety clinic at Townsend, Montana, southeast of Helena.

Both Imeson, 62, and his student suffered crushed vertebrae in the June 3 accident. Imeson also suffered broken ribs and a broken toe while the student had a broken leg. The accident might have been worse had Imeson not been aboard.

The two had been flying in an Aviat Husky A-1B for nearly 30 minutes and had planned to fly up a canyon with upsloping terrain for instructional purposes. They were going to fly until the terrain was 500 feet beneath them before turning back. They decided that since the Husky has a strong climb performance, they would instead allow the upsloping terrain to reach within 300 feet of the aircraft.

Suddenly, a downdraft with wind shear shifted to a tailwind while Imeson was making notes for a debriefing later, in a few seconds, the aircraft had descended to 150 feet above the canyon floor, which has 60- to 80-foot dead trees.

Imeson said, "We gotta get outta here," but instead of turning left toward lowering terrain, the student briefly turned toward rising terrain. An attempt to climb caused a stall, Imeson said.

"I said 'Nose down! Nose down!' He did get the nose down so that instead of having a vertical crash, we were moving forward when we hit," Imeson continued.

The aircraft struck trees, and upon crashing, the engine struck a rock and bent upwards, catching fire quickly. The men forced the door open and escaped, but the aircraft and its ELT were destroyed by fire. Imeson had left his personal locator beacon with his wife. It could have told rescue personnel in a few minutes the exact location of the men.

Instead, they spent the night on the mountain and were found the following day. Imeson was discovered last because he left the crash site and began a descent to a cliff where he thought his cell phone might work.

Is Imeson planning any new books soon? "Maybe one on how to survive a crash," he joked from his hospital room in Helena. He was released on June 7 to return to his home in Jackson, Wyoming. Alton K. Marsh

J.C. Kantorowicz

J.C. was quite upset with Mr. Marsh's article stating, "I cannot believe that a well known writer such as Alton K. Marsh would write such a defamatory story without checking the facts. I also cannot believe that Sparky could confuse the events so badly ... of course, he did take one hell of a rap to the head. I believe the proof would be in looking at his head and chest and then looking at mine.

As I read through all the e-mails, in my mind I tried to form a short precise story that would serve to tell all the pertinent facts in a way that would not defame anyone, praise all who tried so hard to find us and inform my fellow Husky pilots on the good, bad, and the ugly. I was about to start the story when I found the AOPA article. Anyway ... I will tell a short story about what happened, then my observations on our stupidity and then finally what I intend to do in the future."

In all fairness to J.C., because his recollection of what transpired during the events leading to our crash differ from what I recall, both views are presented here. There is no attempt to infer that one version is the correct and the other should be discounted.

PREFACE

During the mid-afternoon of Sunday, June 3, the Montana Aeronautics Division initiated an aerial search for two pilots gone missing during a training flight that originated in Townsend, Mont.

The burned aircraft was located the next day. By reviewing and analyzing this accident other pilots can place themselves in the situation and ask what they would have done along the same lines or what they would have done differently. Hindsight provides a great advantage and may allow one to develop a plan of action should the unthinkable ever occur.

J.C.'s Account

I will tell a short story about what happened, then my observations on our stupidity and then finally what I indent to do in the future.

The day was severe clear, a nice warm morning. We left Townsend at 10:00 a.m. and climbed west toward the mountains. As we climbed we did air work. Basically my learning Spark's short canyon turn, plus one other "just for fun." We then turned northwest looking for a suitable canyon, finding one we descended to within 300 feet of the canyon bottom and stayed right over against the south face (sun-warmed side) finding thermals, both strong and light. A couple of time we turned around and rode a particularly strong one again. No down drafts. Reaching the ridge line, we dropped over into the next canyon north. This was a minor side drainage to what we later learned was Beaver Creek. I cut the power and descended rapidly into the main canyon bottom. This entire canyon had been burned off some years ago and contained snags – 50-feet to 60-feet tall – the ground was completely covered with dead fall and new growth fir trees that for the most part were 6-feet to 8-feet tall with occasional 10-feet to 12-feet tall new trees. The best thermal feature here were the prominent rock faces. We did not encounter the strong thermals that we found where there was green growth, although near larger rock faces and cliffs there were decent up drafts.

I had been flying at 70 mph with 20 flaps. However, in this canyon flying along at 60-65 mph, full flaps and 1/2 to 3/4 power maintained a slight climb which jumped when we found a good thermal. Ahead of us the canyon was opening up into a "Y" shaped valley. About two miles wide at the top tapering to perhaps 1/2 mile wide where we were. Just ahead on our right was a large rock cliff which had been heated all morning by the sun and both of us thought we would find an excellent thermal there. As I flew along the cliff about 10 feet off my right wing tip the climb stopped and airspeed started to fall. As I applied full throttle and initiated Sparky's short turn around to the left, the wing stalled and we started to fall ... fast! I lowered the nose (telling Sparky at the same time what was happening) and saw lots of dead fall immediately in front and to the left of us and a small canyon to the right. We were well beyond the cliff so I turned right up the small drainage. From that point on I was trying to climb and steer my way between the dead trees. I finally knew I could clear the dead wood and then turned left again ... but we were going down again. When I realized this I tried to land the aircraft straight ahead, as gently as possible. After the crash, looking over the site, I believe that I missed all the standing dead wood. Of course it is possible that I did hit snags and they fell completely down, out of sight. However, from where the plane laid and the flight path straight back, there were two tall snags, a little wider than the wings that appeared untouched. Between them the tops were clipped off some of the short new fir trees. From the time I decided to turn away until we were on the ground seemed like 5 seconds ... may have been more but it sure didn't seem like it!

I landed in a boulder patch, actually a third small creek bed that I had not seen on downfall (not approach). The landing gear sheared mostly off, still sort of attached. The prop and engine hit a fair bounder (about 3-feet by 3-feet by 5-feet) which tweaked the motor about 1 inch to the right and one inch up. The wings collapsed down, somewhat. On the abrupt stop, I asked Sparky if he was all right and told him my foot was hot. He hollered back that we were on fire. I looked out the open top door and saw flames coming out of the cowl. He said we have to get out and I agreed. He then asked for a fire extinguisher, which I did not have (wouldn't have done any good anyway).

Crash site 2The empennage is visible in the lower left of the photo.
None of the snags nor the new-growth trees were disturbed
or broken, showing a vertical descent. Photo by Greg Morris,
District Ranger, Townsend Ranger District, Helena National Forest.

I held the door up and helped him out. I also had to tear his head set wires out the side of the plane as he was somehow caught with them. He then held the door up so I could get out and we managed to get about 10 feet away before turning to look back. In the ten seconds or so that this all took, the entire cabin was engulfed inflame. Both of us lost out ball caps, head sets, dark glasses and Sparky lost his hearing aids. (Explains why he was hollering.)

Sparky then commented that it was about to blow, I agreed and we took off for 50 to 60 feet. Sparky took one hell of a rap to the head over his eyes and was bleeding profusely down his face and shirt, his left eye was shut. He said "I'm going for help" and I could not talk him out of leaving. He left almost immediately after our run. I had landed gently enough that the ELT never went off. The fire burned hard for about 20 minutes and then turned into grey wispy smoke hugging the ground. Everything was gone by then, the plane burnt up completely leaving only the steel tube frame, cable9 and some of the aluminum sheeting around the engine and the prop and spinner.

There was no damage I could see to the entire fuselage. The two "V" braces were slightly bent, probably because of the engine moving. We both agreed afterward that if we had been in a Super Cub, we would not have survived.

Surviving the night and attracting the attention of the searchers is a whole 'nother story.

MISTAKES:

#1 Sparky leaving his survival vest with his wife, me putting mine behind the seat.

#2 We were not clear with the people on the ground where we were going.

#3 I had felt entirely comfortable with the first green canyon, I was uneasy in the second canyon. I should have listed to Mike V's little voice in my head saying "Do we really need to be in here?"

#4 If I had stayed at 70 mph and 20 flaps perhaps I would have noticed the loss of lift a little earlier.

#5 If I had used Mike V's short turn around learned the day previous, I probably would not have stalled and the turn around would have been successful.

NEXT TIME:

#1 I will have BAS harness BOTH front and rear.

#2 I will buy and wear a Gallet helmet.

#3 I will always wear my survival vest!!!!!

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