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The Adventure Begins

This "Crash in the Mountains Adventure" started with an invitation from Jon Hudson, Bozeman, Mont. for Sparky and Siew Hwa Imeson to travel to Bozeman and make a mountain flying presentation on Friday evening, June 1, 2007. Saturday was reserved for flying and provided Sparky the opportunity to fly with eight students for more than eight hours. Two of the flights were in Aviat Husky aircraft. The Husky is a great performing airplane suitable for bush or backcountry operations.

Bill Gallea and Jeanne MacPherson, through the Montana Pilots Association, were conducting mountain flight training at the Townsend, Mont. airport on the same weekend and asked us to join them Saturday evening.

My first flight Sunday morning, June 3, 2007, was in an older Cessna 172. The weather conditions were perfect for the first time in weeks ... the smoke from the numerous forest fires had abated.

After returning and parking the Cessna 172, I met Jon C. Kantorowicz (J.C.) of Great Falls, Mont. I removed my survival vest to 'cool down' and relieve the pressure on my neck. I visited with J.C. about his Husky. We were both excited to head out in the mountains to the west of Townsend.

Mistake

J.C., seeing that I had a survival vest, left the area to retrieve his own survival pack containing a VHF radio and other items. He placed these in the baggage compartment behind the rear passenger seat.

My survival vest was a 'shorty' fishing vest. For some reason the design of the vest placed all the weight of the survival gear on the curvature of my neck rather than being evenly distributed over the shoulders when seated in an airplane. I had flown more than nine hours the day before and a little over one hour Sunday morning, wearing the vest, and after taking if off, forgot to get it from my wife.

Not wearing the vest turned out to be a big mistake. Rob Hunter, www.PreparedPilot.com, had outfitted the vest with survival gear and an ACR AeroFix 406 GPS Personal ELT (PLB - Personal Locator Beacon).

You may have been exposed to the propaganda that states it takes satellites around four to eight hours to 'home in' on the 121.5 MHz ELT and then it narrows down the search area to something like 400-square miles. Compare this to the four minutes (for the signal to be picked up; it usually takes 45 minutes to calculate and process the signal) and accuracy smaller than a football field for the 406 GPS PLB, and it becomes a no-brainer on which unit to rely on. It is a matter of common sense to "don't leave home without it."

Flight

Engine start in J.C.'s Aviat Husky was at 10.09 a.m. Another airplane was using runway 16, so we waited for him to depart, then took off to the north from the grass runway paralleling runway 16/34. We turned to the west and flew by some mining activity at the Diamond Hill Mine and continued working drainages toward the north.

J.C. demonstrated his version of the "canyon turnaround" maneuver where he made a 180-degree left turn using a steep bank and half flaps. The stall warning horn sounded continuously during the turn and the airplane "bucked" throughout the turn as the wing encountered the stall burble. I was somewhat uncomfortable with this technique, thinking that it wasn't necessary to fly slow enough to encounter the beginning of a stall.

Continuing on, J.C. flew in various canyons while I monitored the flight. A couple of times we got too low and I mentioned that I do not fly below 500-feet AGL when flying upslope terrain. J.C. reversed course and continued flying toward the north. We spotted elk throughout the area in the various meadows. As we approached Beaver Creek I noticed a cabin on the west side of the ridge where the South Fork of Beaver Creek runs into Beaver Creek. We passed over this area and flew into the South Fork of Beaver Creek.

Before the flight I checked the XM Weather in my Cessna 180 and determined the wind aloft forecast was for calm wind for the 6,000-, 9,000-, and 12,000-foot levels. The small and insignificant updrafts and downdrafts we encountered bore this out and appeared to be minor convective activity rather than orographic lifting or sinking air. It was a dandy day for flying.

J.C. is an experienced pilot and I didn't have to continually say, "Stay in a position where you can turn to lowering terrain." I told J.C. before beginning the flight that my comfort level for flying up canyons was 500-feet AGL, to allow for a turn around in the event the terrain climbed faster than the airplane and also to provide a buffer if a downdraft was encountered.

It is only about nine miles on a direct line from the Diamond Hill Mine north to Beaver Creek, but we covered something like 30-40 miles, most of it in slow flight configuration, as we maneuvered back and forth on a generally east-west flight path and working to the north.

J.C. occasionally flew at less than 500-feet AGL, making me somewhat uncomfortable. This occurred mainly while flying down slope terrain, so it was not deemed to be a dangerous operation. After flying for more than 40 minutes and evaluating the aircraft performance, I told J.C. that I would revise my comfort level down to about 300-feet AGL in the Husky.

On the two flights in Husky aircraft conducted at Bozeman the day before I had no problem seeing forward or leaning sideways to see the instrument panel to check the airspeed indicator and vertical speed indicator. It was quite different on this flight. J.C. is a large man. To see any part of the instrument panel required that I loosen the shoulder straps of the 5-point seat belt system in order to be able to lean forward and raise upward and to the side. Even doing this I could barely see the airspeed indicator, so I mainly used aircraft attitude to monitor the airspeed.

As we proceeded south-southwest up the South Fork of Beaver Creek the terrain continued to climb. The airplane had no problem keeping ahead of the rising terrain.

Flight path from TownsendThe accident site was at an elevation of 6,585 feet. I was picked up the next day near the mouth of the Beaver Creek canyon at 5,460-foot elevation. The total change in altitude was only a little over 1,000 feet and we had started flying up the South Fork of Beaver Creek from a higher altitude. So the flight path was not a "bold, macho or brazen" operation.

Prior to the crash we flew along the side of a bare and rocky hillside on our right side. At this point it is estimated that we were about 500-feet AGL.

This was about one mile up the South Fork of Beaver Creek as the crow flies. The hillside is visible in the photo where the flight path line breaks.

I was comfortable and maybe somewhat complacent. I turned my attention to my lesson plan to determine what would next present a challenge for J.C.

The flight path went west from Townsend, Mont. then north to the South Fork of Beaver Creek

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