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Surviving a plane crash along the Iditarod Trail

  • Author: Jeff Schultz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 28, 2014

Excerpt from the chapter "My Life-and-Death Plane Crash" in the recently published book "Chasing Dogs-My Adventures as the Official Photographer of Alaska's Iditarod," by Jeff Schultz, the Iditarod's photographer since 1982. This account includes a major contribution from Alaska author Bill Sherwonit, who, at Jeff's request, interviewed the rescuers and others involved and wrote a previously unpublished story. Schultz said he used that story "to fill in the behind-the-scenes rescue aspect that I was not privy to." Books are available in local book stores and at www.schultzphoto.com

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Piper Super Cub 7685Delta. We've crash landed on Golovin Bay, 5 miles from Golovin toward White Mountain. Pilot Chris McDonnell, passenger Jeff Schultz. We have injuries. We need snowmachines to come from Golovin to rescue us."

This is, verbatim, a message I can recite to this day, because I radioed those words over and over again on the afternoon and early evening of Sunday, March 9, 1992, using a handheld air-to-ground radio. I transmitted the message for what seemed like an eternity on both the emergency channel 121.5 and repeated on the Iditarod Air Force frequency 120.6. The radio was borrowed from my long-time pilot Sam Maxwell. He had loaned it in case I wanted to talk to pilots while on the ground photographing. Thank God for that loan.

Chris and I had taken off from the sea ice at Koyuk shortly after I finished photographing the leader and eventual winner of the 1992 Iditarod, Martin Buser of Big Lake. This was Chris's first time flying the race this far north. We had covered 65 miles on our way to the White Mountain checkpoint just 18 miles ahead. Low clouds over the mountains prompted Chris to take a safer route along the coastline, over the sea ice and then across Golovin Bay rather than follow the trail over the cloud-shrouded mountains. We had just turned the corner from the Bering Sea coast and were making a beeline toward Golovin when we spotted a couple seals on the ice pack. I remember talking about them -- the only life form we'd seen since leaving Koyuk.

The forward visibility looked fine as the village of Golovin crept closer, but the ceiling was fairly low and we flew at about 150 feet. We could see only a few hundred feet up the sides of the mountains near us. Our course took us directly over Golovin, and we could see the dark outline of White Mountain, our destination, some 18 miles ahead. Instead of taking the chance of following the marked trail directly across the ice to White Mountain, Chris felt it was a safer bet to follow the shore of the bay, where we could see willows and a few fish camp shacks along the shoreline. After a few minutes, suddenly those willows and shacks were no longer there. Or were no longer visible. I don't know which.

I felt the left side of my body pressing against the side of the plane. I knew the feeling from earlier flights, when a pilot steered the plane in a sideways attitude to either lose altitude or fly into the wind. Pilots call it "crabbing." But I also knew we shouldn't be doing that right now. Instinctively I called out, "Hang onto it! Hang onto it!" into the intercom.

My next thoughts are vague in my memory. I recall looking at my seat belt and either hearing or thinking, "We gotta get out of here." And in the next moment, we were outside the airplane. Neither of us can recall how we got out. To see the airplane after the crash, it would have taken a lot of effort and gyrations, the flexibility of a contortionist, to maneuver our bodies out of the wreckage. How we got out, I can only chalk up to God and his angels.

"Jeff, I'm so sorry," Chris was saying. "I'm so sorry."

"What . . . what happened? Where are we?" I managed.

"You're Jeff Schultz," he answered. "I'm Chris McDonnell. We're on the Iditarod."

I replied in a daze: "Yeah, but what's going on, where are we?"

We repeated that circular conversation for several minutes until our wits came back to us and we were both on the same page. We were alive, lingering in a surreal landscape, looking on at the blood strewn about the wreckage, still not registering that this was reality.

Chris could not walk, having one ankle dislocated and one sprained. His right wrist was broken and he was nearly scalped, bleeding profusely from a gash that would later require 70 stitches and several staples. Although I was dazed and foggy, I was in the best physical shape with all my limbs intact. However, it felt like my face had been hit by a freight train.

The wind was increasing, and the temperature was around zero and dropping. To escape it, Chris crawled to the fuselage, which now lay flat on the ground, and leaned against one side. I knelt and ducked my head though the window into the wreckage to retrieve our gear. In several trips, I dragged out most everything I could: packs, sleeping bags, pads, a first-aid kit, catalytic heater. I wrapped an ACE bandage around Chris's head and then put my beaver hat over it as tightly as I could, hoping to stay the massive bleeding. Chris managed to get into his sleeping bag.

Next I found the yellow Emergency Locator Beacon (ELT). I made sure the switch was in the ON position, then retrieved my handheld air-to-ground radio. Chris told me the emergency channel frequency. I dialed that in and found a Wheep, Wheep, Wheep noise. It was my ELT signal coming back at me. So I turned off the ELT and began the chant, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Piper Super Cub …"

I knew we were directly under the flight path for Alaska Airlines and that a flight to Nome would be passing soon. I thought I'd hear from them right away. But I was mistakenly under the impression that all commercial airlines were required to monitor the emergency channel at all times. No one came back, so I switched the ELT back on and then called on 120.6. No one came back. Chris suggested I try the local frequency 122.9. No one. I waited a few minutes and then repeated it all again. Still no one. My heart sank. I rolled out my sleeping bag to stave off the cold and continued the routine of making an emergency transmission every few minutes: first turning off the ELT, making the Mayday call on the emergency channel and the two others, then flipping the ELT back on.

Snow was falling, and it was getting dark. We both knew that we should not allow ourselves to fall asleep for fear we might not wake up. Chris and I talked about life and faith. We prayed for God to hear us, to provide a rescue. Every 10 minutes or so, I got out of my sleeping bag to repeat the radio and ELT routine.

***

Just after 7 p.m., Will Vacendak, a commercial pilot with Bering Air, was in White Mountain, was waiting on the tarmac for a late passenger to Nome. Just then, a phone call came in to the airline's village agent. It was FAA regional supervisor Jim Miller with a report that there was an ELT signal originating from the Golovin area. The SARSAT (search and rescue satellite) coordinates showed the location at just 12 miles from where Vacendak was parked. He dialed his radio to the emergency frequency, and verified a signal.

With the marginal weather and so many Iditarod planes flying, Vacendak and Miller agreed it should be checked out. Will put his passenger in the plane and flew toward the coordinates. Meanwhile, the weather continued to deteriorate. Will flew over the site, but because of the ground blizzard, he couldn't see the wreck.

At that moment, I was once more beginning my radio routine. This time, it reached somebody.

"Is someone trying to contact me on the emergency channel?" he transmitted. "This is Will. What's the problem?"

Hearing his voice, my knees went weak. I clutched the radio tighter and quickly responded, fearful that I'd lose contact.

Will directed me to repeat our names, our plane's N-number, and the extent of our injuries.

"Okay, hold on a minute," he said. "I'll get back to you."

Fear clutched me. Where was our lifesaver going?

"You're not going away, are you?" I pleaded into the radio.

"No, I will not leave you until someone is there to rescue you."

Tears sprang into my eyes. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

"Thank you!" was all I could say.

Will asked if I could see him overhead, his strobe lights or anything. No, I answered. Could I hear his engine noise? Yes.

"I'm going to fly a grid pattern over these coordinates. You radio me when you can hear me the loudest. I'm going to do that three times, okay?"

I honestly couldn't really tell what was the loudest, but did the best I could.

Rescuers assemble

As Will Vacendak was flying the grid pattern, a rescue party was being formed in Golovin. Having confirmed the ELT signal was an emergency, the FAA had called the village for help with a rescue operation. Leading the mission were two of the most experienced people in that region, brothers M.O. and Donny Olson. M.O. was a pilot; Donny both a pilot and a doctor – and now a state senator. They had grown up in that region and were visiting Golovin for their mother's 70th birthday. Maggie Olson's party guests included a traveling dentist, a schoolteacher, several pilots, and a couple Iditarod race veterinarians.

The first hint of potential trouble had come between 5:30 and 6 p.m., when a pilot called the Olson home and reported an ELT signal that he'd picked up nearby. They knew that an ELT signal didn't automatically mean a plane crash, but could be triggered accidentally or result from a hard landing. Without any specifics and with a storm outside, there was no reason to do anything at that time. The group was sitting down to dinner about the time that Will was telling me that he wasn't going to leave us.

"I had only finished about half my plate when a call came over the air-traffic scanner that a plane was down about 5 miles out on the bay," Golovin teacher Jack Davis later recalled. "We soon found out the plane's two occupants were alive and radioing a circling plane that relayed the message to us."

Within minutes, a search-and-rescue operation was set in motion. The Olsons contacted several snowmachine owners in Golovin. Donny, the only physician in the village, gathered medical supplies from the village clinic. M.O. retrieved his removable GPS — new technology at the time — from his plane, and entered the coordinates that Will had triangulated from his grid pattern with feedback from me. Theoretically, with the coordinates, they could drive their machines to within a few hundred feet of us.

At least six snowmachines, some with sleds towing other rescuers, went out looking for us in the dark and in a ground blizzard, where it was impossible to see more than 50 or 100 feet ahead. At times gaps in the storm opened up, and they could see stars through the clouds and the lights of Will's plane circling. And yet, even with the coordinates and the occasional view of Will's strobe lights, they searched for more than an hour and still couldn't find us.

Finally, the searchers shut off their snowmachines and someone called Will on an air-to-ground radio. They informed him that they were at the coordinate site, but there was no sign of us, and they could only see a very short distance in the blowing snow.

Will radioed the message to me. Was there was any way I could build a fire or shine a very bright light? We had Chris's catalytic heater, which he routinely used to keep the plane's engine warm at night. I had pulled it and a gallon of white gas out of the plane. Quickly, I simply doused the nine-inch wick with at least a quart of gas. For years, I had carried my strike-anywhere matches in their waterproof container. I struck one match. Nothing. Struck it a few more times and still nothing. Tried match two. Nothing, nothing. Three, nada. Time was ticking by. I turned to Chris.

"Do you have a lighter?" I asked.

Thankfully, he had a BIC lighter in his pocket. I didn't care that I had to tilt the lighter upside down to get to the wick. Even knowing that the flame might burn me, I was desperate to light it.

WHHOOOOMMPHHHH! A 4-foot flame shot up and I quickly jumped back. Instantly I saw four headlights off in the distance.

As I later learned, Donny Olson was the first to get to us. Chris was still nested in his sleeping bag, but showing early signs of hypothermia. Donny radioed to Will that he was with us. It was okay to leave. The others soon joined.

Donny would later say that he was hesitant to touch us, as he was not carrying malpractice insurance. But seeing how bad off we were, he knew he had to help.

'Bloody streaks'

Our rescuers were astounded by what they saw of the plane. The landing gear was broken off, the propeller bent, the wings contorted — one forward, one backward — and the cockpit smashed. Snowmachiner Richard Toymil described the scene later, saying, "The plane was all messed up. The windshield was broken, there was blood all over the dashboard, and there were bloody streaks where they crawled out."

Another member of the rescue party, Paul Claus, remembered, "It looked like a wreck that no one would have walked away from."

Chris and I were in good spirits when the team arrived, but, Claus, a seasoned mountaineer and well-known Bush pilot, was convinced that we would not have lasted another two or three hours given our injuries and the stormy weather.

It was Claus who helped me get onto a sled and into a sleeping bag for a ride behind a snowmachine. Before we left, I was coherent enough to ask him to get my cameras and film from my pack. No way was I going to leave them behind.

Five or more of the rescuers stayed behind to help with Chris as we pulled away, Jack Davis driving the snowmachine, and Paul standing on the back of the towed sled. Mark Kelso accompanied us for safety on a second snowmachine. We headed in the general direction of Golovin, but for nearly 30 minutes, we were bumping, zigging and zagging, even going in circles because of the storm. At least once, Paul was thrown off the sled by an unexpected snow drift. I had been rescued from the crash site, but another thought flashed through my mind: "Are we going to make it back?"

"We just couldn't get our bearings for the longest time," Kelso remembered. "I kept thinking, 'Poor Jeff. The crash didn't kill him, but this ride might.'" On one of the zags, the drivers crossed the Iditarod Trail and were relieved to see a reflective marker. With that cue, they were able to follow the trail to the village, straight to the clinic.

Meanwhile, Donny Olson was trying to get Chris warmed up before transporting him. He had put fresh, dry gloves on Chris and was rubbing his arms, legs, and chest. Wrapped in sleeping bags, Chris was then placed on a sled behind Toymil's snowmachine and, accompanied by Donny, towed to Golovin. Four times on the half-hour trip back to the village, the party stopped so Donny could again rub his patient's hands and chest, trying to get his circulation moving. Donny said later, "Chris was in pretty bad shape."

At the clinic in Golovin, there were three village health aides tending to us besides Dr. Donny Olson and the travelling dentist, Mark Kelso. We were examined head-to-toe and given warm IV fluids to bring up our body temperatures. Chris was wrapped in a thermal blanket. Warmer and more coherent, I asked if anyone had a camera and to please take a picture of me and send it to me in Anchorage. Mark Kelso obliged.

The medical professionals determined that, lacking a shoulder harness in the plane, I must have hit the pilot's seat face first and fractured my skull. Kelso, the dentist, recalled, "We cleaned out a lot of dried blood, but there wasn't much else we could do at that point. I could tell there was some fracturing and his teeth had been pushed back and down. The damage was not irreversible." Nonetheless, Olson worried about my condition, thinking that there could be internal damage or even bleeding in the brain, given the look of my face.

A medevac from Nome had already been requested to fly the two of us to Anchorage. Such a flight presented some risks, given my head injuries, but my vital signs had stabilized by the time the flight arrived, and Donny Olson figured it was worth the risk.

As I was escorted out of the clinic to a waiting pickup to take us to the airport, I had to ask someone through my broken jaw, "Is it really OK to fly now?" They assured me it was. Chris was brought to the plane on a stretcher. Mike Owens, an EMT and nurse I knew from Nome, was in the plane to attend to us. He and Donny Olson made sure that we did not fall asleep on the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Anchorage.

This was becoming the longest day of my life and that flight felt like the longest ever. I SO much wanted to sleep.

Troubles at home, too

It was 4:30 A.M. when we were wheeled into the Anchorage hospital. I could see my best friend Ron Halsey, our pastor Richard Irwin, several people of the Iditarod Trail Committee, and my wife, Joan. She mouthed the words "I love you" as I passed by. I was touched to see so many people there at the hospital at that hour.

Little did I know that March 9 had already been a very long and difficult day for Joan. After several months of good health, our 1-year-old daughter Hannah was running a 103.5°F temperature and began having seizures. At 10 p.m., Joan had placed Hannah in a tub of tepid water to bring the fever down, and help control the seizures.

About that time, she received the first of four phone calls from people involved with the crash. The first call from my usual pilot, Sam Maxwell, told Joan it was nothing serious, just some scrapes and bruises. However, by the fourth call, from Donny Olson, she knew it was serious as he told her of a bump on the head and potential broken jaw. All Joan could think about was a head injury and possibility of me having seizures. Shortly after midnight, Hannah's seizures started again, so Joan drove her to Providence Hospital. By 2:30 a.m., Hannah was checked and treated. She, along with our friends, stayed at the hospital and waited for me to arrive.

Chris's hospital stay lasted three days. He had surgery to repair his dislocated left ankle, fractured wrist, and nearly scalped head. And though I was much better off at the crash site, my injuries were a bit worse in the long run. There was too much swelling on my head to do surgery right away, so I had to wait days in the hospital until the surgeon felt I was ready. Cards and letters poured in from all over, and many visitors came to see me. I was even interviewed by a local TV station. I could not talk well, as I could move my jaw only slightly.

The first operation to fix the fractures was scheduled for four hours. Ten hours later, the doctor just said that I'd had enough, and it was best if he just stopped then. He had placed five titanium plates and twenty-four screws into the front and side of my skull.

When I awoke, my eyes were swollen shut, my nose was packed tight with gauze, my mouth was wired shut, and there was a tube down my throat. I couldn't speak.

The only normal senses I had were touch and hearing. When a nurse attempted to vacuum phlegm from the tube, I freaked out and struggled against her, thinking she was trying to kill me. I was frightened of nearly everything. The only way I could communicate was by writing, but I couldn't see the paper I was writing on. My scrawl was often indecipherable to Joan, and that lack of communication made me freak out even more.

Three days after the surgery, I went home, still very much in a daze. For several weeks I just lay in bed or around the house, very selfishly expecting Joan to take care of all my needs. A month later, on a trip to California, Joan told me she needed to see a counselor, to get some help. That snapped me out of whatever funk I was in, and our relationship changed for the better.

On the trip to California, I looked like Frankenstein. People stared at me as we walked through the airport. Four more surgeries lay ahead, and I wore braces for a year to realign my teeth. Today my nose looks like a boxer's after many bouts, but the only permanent issue is that my left eye waters a lot more than normal in a cold wind. A very minor issue, I might add.

Several months after the crash, rescue pilot Will Vacendak summed it up: "Those guys would have froze to death, except that a lot of things went right for them. There's the fact that I happened to be flying in the area, that I had the equipment to locate their position, that Jeff brought along a hand-held radio, that both M.O. [Olson] and I had GPS units, that there was a doctor in Golovin. If we hadn't been able to pinpoint their location like we did, we would not have found them until the next morning or when the weather cleared. That may have been too late."

I think the Golovin health aide, Irene Aukongak, may have expressed it best: "Everything seemed to be in line that night, everything fell into place… The Lord was with us, we were blessed."

Jeff Schultz has been photographing Alaska and Alaskans since arriving in the 49th state in 1978 at age 18. In 1990, he founded the stock photo agency Alaska Stock Images and operated it for 21 years. Reach him at www.schultzphoto.com.

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