News — 30 March 2017

That was South Custer Search and Rescue Commander Jim Gregory’s reaction to two men walking away from a weekend airplane crash 7½ miles southwest of Mackay.

Pilot Phillip Bates, 37, Meridian, and co-pilot Ryan Jennings, 30, Boise, were doubly lucky since they were quickly found by Mackay volunteers hiking back toward civilization along a ridge the evening of Saturday, March 25, Gregory told The Challis Messenger earlier this week.

Custer County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) was alerted to the crash at 3:24 p.m. Bates and Jennings said they crashed while making a second pass up a canyon toward Shelly Mountain, according to a CCSO news release. A strong downdraft hit their Cessna 182, forcing the small plane down into trees and snow on the flank of Shelly Mountain, about 8,500 feet in elevation. As photos the men took show, their plane nose-dived into the snow. There was no fire or explosion, and both men escaped with minor injuries.

A SPOT satellite-tracking device gave the crash coordinates to International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC), which notified the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Stu Lumpkin activated search and rescue, and Gregory and two South Custer team members snowmobiled in and crossed paths with the men as they were hiking out along a different route at 6:15 p.m. By 7:18 p.m. South Custer volunteers had snowmobiled out to their search and rescue vehicles with Bates and Jennings and were on their way back to Mackay.

Luck

Gregory and fellow volunteers Matthew Tillotson, Bart Wojciechowski and T.J. Parks drove up Alder Creek drainage to a trailhead after they got the call. Fellow volunteer Bart Gamett was meanwhile locating the plane crash coordinates on Shelly Mountain on his computer back in Mackay, using Google Earth. He texted the map to the team in the field so they could pick the best route to the plane crash.

Gregory, Tillotson and Wojciechowski rode up Trail Creek, a tributary of Alder Creek, toward the site. Parks waited at the vehicles with ATVs in case those were needed for the search.

While Gregory and Wojciechowski rode up the creek bottom of a tributary of Trail Creek, Tillotson took his snowmobile up higher to a ridge in hopes of sighting the crash site. Instead, the two men nearly ran into him as they were hiking out toward the Cabin Creek drainage to the south, where they could see a road leading out to civilization.

The rescue team was about three quarters of a mile from the crash site when members met the men, Gregory said.

Tillotson, an expert snowmobiler, ferried Bates and Jennings down to the other two rescuers and the trio rode back out to the trailhead with the rescued pilot and co-pilot. It was 8 p.m. by the time they drove back to the Mackay Fire Hall.

“They were happy we were there, surprised and amazed they’d come out of it as lucky as they did,” Gregory told The Messenger. “They were in good spirits.”

Protocol is for plane crash victims to remain at the scene of the crash to make it easier for rescuers to find them, Gregory, said, but apparently Bates and Jennings were feeling lucky after climbing out of their crashed plane with minor injuries.

If the two hadn’t seen Tillotson and crossed paths with his snowmobile, “We would have gone all the way in to the plane and not found them there,” said Gregory. They would have had to hike out Cherry Creek to the first house on Antelope Creek.

The rescue was “a bit wild,” Gregory said. “It sure could have gone a lot worse. Every search we go on, we learn something new. This time, we got lucky.”

The men’s hike out (and the rescuers’ snowmobile ride in) took them through wet, mushy snow, although some southern exposures were bare, Gregory said. “It was like walking through a wet sponge.”

Family members came to Mackay and drove Bates and Jennings back to the Boise area, Custer County Search and Rescue Coordinator Levi Maydole said. “They were incredibly lucky. This was one hell of a survival story.”

The Federal Aviation Administration will be investigating the crash, Maydole said, and the airplane owner’s insurance company will no doubt be responsible for paying to haul the wreckage out.

Maydole, along with search and rescue volunteers Dustin Webster and Dean Boyd, stood by in Challis and helped with logistics during the search.

“Custer County Sheriff’s Office would like to thank all those involved in this operation,” Maydole wrote in a news release.

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