Posted by: harrisonjones | May 3, 2018

Miracle on Buffalo Pass Update

Since the publication of Miracle on Buffalo Pass I have been able to contact several more passengers and rescue personnel who were involved in the rescue of Flight 217. Dennis Brooks was a passenger on the flight and has written his memories of the crash, the rescue, and his recovery. I’m grateful to Dennis for sharing his memories and I know you will find his story an interesting addition to the book.

Dennis & Kathleen Brooks

Dennis and Kathleen Brooks

 

One Very Cold, Snowy and Windy Night
By Dennis Brooks

The pain in my back was sharp and very intense, my head and face hurt, and it was really cold. My body was so cold, especially my hands and feet, and I could hear crying and moaning and even wailing like nothing I had ever experienced before. The area around me was dark except for a small amount of light coming from some of the cabin lights. How could this this be? Where was I? What had happened? Why am I in so much pain and why is it so cold? Lying there I began to wonder if I would die. No Lord, this can’t be happening to me. I have my whole life before me. Things are going great in my life. School was behind me and my new and exciting career was now getting started. I just got married four months ago and my new wife, Kathleen, is waiting dinner for me at home. What is going on?

This story was set in motion on November 30, 1978. As a young 24-year-old project manager fresh out of college with a degree in construction management and a master’s degree in construction and business, I worked for a small development company based in California with an office in Denver. On November 30th I flew from Denver to Steamboat Springs with my boss to visit two of our projects—a Safeway store in Craig Colorado which was just finishing up and a Safeway store and shopping center project that was currently under construction in Steamboat. It all started out as a typical November day in the Colorado high country. The sun was shining but the air was cool and fresh. We spent Thursday in Craig and returned to Steamboat for the evening. On Friday morning we woke to overcast skies, we visited the construction site in Steamboat, met with the company’s on-site superintendent, inspected the project and gathered the necessary information to move the projects forward. By noon the weather began to get colder. It was somewhat overcast and there were snowflakes in the air. By late afternoon it was snowing hard. We headed to the Steamboat airport to catch our flight home only to learn that due to bad weather and snowy conditions the flight had been canceled. We waited in the airport hoping to catch a later flight out only to learn that it too was going to be canceled. Evaluating our options, and not wanting to spend the weekend in Steamboat, we decided to take a company truck from the project and drive it back down the mountain to Denver. The ride back to Denver was slow as the roads were slick and icy, and the snow was falling rather heavily. After a long an arduous drive we arrived safely in Denver where my boss and I parted ways. I took the company truck and headed for Fort Collins where I lived. Having been married four months earlier, Kathleen and I were residing in Fort Collins so Kathleen could finish her senior year at Colorado State University.

My job, come Monday morning (December 4th), was to drive the company truck back up to Steamboat since it was needed on the project. On Sunday evening as I was getting ready for bed, Kathleen and I discussed the possibility of her joining me for the day. Growing up in the Fort Collins area I had spent a fair amount of time in the Colorado high country west of Fort Collins and I knew it could be a beautiful place to see following a big winter snow. I had driven from Fort Collins to Steamboat on numerous occasions to go skiing during my high school and college days, so I knew the road and the beauty of the mountains is something that we both enjoyed. This would not be a busy business day—just one of driving a truck back up to Steamboat and then flying back to Denver and driving home. After studying for some college finals and working on a paper that she needed to finish for a class, Kathleen finally climbed into bed. I awoke from a deep sleep and sat up in bed and immediately stated, “You shouldn’t go tomorrow, you need to stay here and attend your classes and finish your paper.” And with that I don’t remember any further discussion.

Morning came, and the weather looked clear in Fort Collins and was forecast to be good throughout the day except for some winds along the foothills. Knowing that the roads may not be great, and the Colorado weather was always subject to change, I dressed warmly and I headed up the mountain towards Steamboat. The drive to Steamboat was uneventful, and as I had expected the winter wonder land was beautiful as the snow glistened in the trees and all along the winding mountain roads. I arrived in Steamboat and drove to the job site. After some conversation with the project superintendent, Joe Backers, we headed for the airport. It was now about 2:00 pm and my flight was scheduled to leave Steamboat at 2:45 pm. Around 2:30 pm we learned that due to high winds the flight coming from Denver was unable to clear the mountain passes and had to return to Denver and therefore there would be no 2:45 pm flight. The next flight out of Steamboat was Rocky Mountain Airways flight 217, and it was scheduled to leave Steamboat at 4:45 pm. I was told by the airline that there was space available on flight 217 and asked if I wanted to wait and catch the later flight. I agreed and continued to wait at the terminal. At 4:45 pm those of us in the waiting area were informed by the airline that flight 217 had left Denver late and that due to high winds over the mountain passes it would be delayed arriving in Steamboat. More time passed and many of us began to question whether we might be stuck in Steamboat for the night. About thirty minutes later the airline announced that the plane was in the air over Estes Park and should be into Steamboat in about twenty minutes. After more than twenty minutes had passed a few folks who felt they really needed to get to Denver decided to drive. Forty-five minutes after that last announcement the airline announced that the flight was on final approach into the airport and we would be boarding shortly. It was now around 6:00 pm. I stood there looking out the terminal window as the plane pulled up in front of us. The final passengers deplaned along with the pilot and co-pilot. Luggage was being removed from the rear of the plane. I watched as one pilot walked around the plane. He picked up a broom and with the handle he started knocking ice off the leading edges of the wings. The plane was refueled and shortly thereafter, around 6:45 pm, luggage was being loaded into the plane and we were allowed to board. The weather currently was not too bad, however; there was a little icy rain in the air. Being one of the first to board the plane I climbing the steps headed towards the front of the plane. Since the plane had a row of single seats on the left side and double seats on the right, traveling alone, I selected a single seat on the third row from the front on the left side of the plane. Moments later the plane was full, the pilots were aboard, the co-pilot gave us a little safety spiel and then climbed into his seat and the plane was headed down the runway.

Within minutes it was too dark to see anything out the windows except for the lights on the wing next to me. Having flown this flight several times before, I was prepared for what could be a rather bumpy ride over the mountains through the turbulent air. However, this flight seemed to be rather smooth. We were in the air for quite a while and knowing that the flight was normally 45 or 50 minutes it seemed to me like we should be getting close to Denver. I was tired from a long day and was resting my head on the window at my left shoulder when I noticed the lights on the wings turning on and off. I began looking for the lights of Denver knowing that we should be very close. When the lights were on it was like driving your car with the headlights on bright into a blinding snow storm—a total white out. My assumption at the time was that the plane was coming into Denver and they were turning on the landing lights as they prepared to land.

My next recollection was what I believe to be about 45 minutes later and one of immense confusion. I woke up dazed and in pain as someone was climbing over me and pushing my legs down; my head was struggling to piece together where I was and what was happening. This guy was bleeding from a laceration to his head and he was stumbling over me trying to get to the front of the plane. It did not take long for me to realize that I had gotten on a plane, and that plane had crashed. I was not dreaming. This was real! That became very clear to me as the pain in my back was sharp and very intense, my head hurt, it was really cold, my body was cold especially my hands and feet. I reached in to my down jacket and found a pair of leather gloves, slipping them on while still trying to clear my head. I could hear crying and moaning and even wailing like nothing I had ever experienced before. Questions raced through my head and I wanted to jump up and get out of there. However, I quickly realized that I was going nowhere. From the pain in my back I knew it was broken. I was lying partly on my back and left side, against what seemed to be windows, and there were seats bent back over the top of me pinning me up against the side of the plane. Looking up, I could see the door where I had entered the plane several hours before.

My head slowly cleared of its confusion. As the pain intensified and as my suffering, as well as that of my fellow passengers, become more and more acute, I realized we were in very dire circumstances. I was helpless—utterly helpless. There was no way I could move and any movement at all caused me tremendous pain. My mind raced between my desire for the pain to end and heart ache for my wife and my family. How could this be? I was the athlete; I was the president of the Jr. group of the Colorado Mountain club. I was in great shape physically and I had climbed and repelled down the sides of mountains. If anyone should be able to do something it should be me. But that flat out wasn’t happening! So, in that moment of great hopelessness I only had one option left and that was to pray! And pray I did. I prayed hard and I prayed out loud. I wanted to live! I didn’t want to leave my wife a widow at 22 years old. I wanted to see my family again. But oh, the pain in my back was intense, and the cold was numbing to the bone. I could also feel that my face and lips were swollen and my right elbow and right ankle hurt.

I then realized that someone was up and moving about the cluttered cabin. I could hear people cry out as someone else stepped on them. I heard shouting in between the crying and suffering. This seemed to me to be a scene right out of hell itself with so much suffering, crying and torment. Then I heard some talking and someone opened what seemed to me to be the rear door of the plane. They began dropping in clothing from some of the luggage that they had retrieved. Lying beneath the opening I was able to grab a sweater or shirt and I tucked it around my legs. Then a pair of pants fell in on me and I took them and held them over my head and chest, breathing into them, trying to get warm. In the dim light that was emitted from the exit signs, I was only able to see a very small portion of the plane. Most of what I could see was the rear door above me and the rear bulkhead to my left. Struggling to look back towards the front of the plane, I could see that seats were strewn all about the cabin, and people were laying on top of seats and on top of each other. Several folks huddled in groups trying to keep warm. It seemed like most everyone was to the front of the plane behind my back and/or down at my feet. Later, I came to realize that there was also someone next to me, between me and the back of the plane, but they were quiet and not moving around. I later learned that this was Mary Kay Hardin who did not survive the crash.

The night passed on slowly as the wailing and moaning and suffering continued. I lay there feeling so helpless and trapped. The cold was so numbing, it would have been so easy to just give up and give in to the cold and pain. From my previous mountain training and camping I understood it was important for me not to go to sleep. I knew that hypothermia was a real possibility and if I let myself sleep I may never wake back up. So, I continued to pray. “Lord please help someone find us. Please be with my wife and comfort her and my parents and the rest of my family as they learn what has happened to me. Lord save us from this awful situation and direct rescuers here to us quickly. Please Lord Please!”

There were some very strange moments during the night in between the continual crying, moaning and suffering. There was a moment when someone started to sing the Doxology and although I could not see the other passengers it seemed to me that besides me, many others joined in the singing. Then as quickly as the singing started it was over and replaced by the intense sounds of suffering people. I remember someone crying out, “What time is it?” I happened to have a watch with hands and numbers that glowed in the dark and I called back “2:00 am.” It seemed as if hours and hours passed and again someone asked, “What time is it?” Looking again at my watch I could only report that it was, “2:10 am.” This routine happened several more times as the time creeped ever so slowly through the cold and seemingly endless night.

With the approach of dawn in the early morning there was a renewed since of hope mixed with desperation. I laid there waiting and hoping help would arrive soon. Because of my position being trapped under the seats, and with my back to most everyone, I was unaware of what was happening with other passengers, but I could sense that their suffering was continuing as was my own. Then there was a call for everyone to, “Be quiet.” We all could hear an engine of some type and the minute we heard it we all began to shout hoping we would be heard. Within a few minutes there was some acknowledgement that we had been found! “They found us! They found us!” The sound of the engine became louder and louder as the rescue team closed in on our position. With the realization that we had indeed been found, my excitement was uncontrollable. My mouth was so dry that my tongue just stuck to the sides of my mouth or lips. The huge release of stress caused me to choke on my tongue and vomit, and I nearly passed out. I was so tired and in such pain, but now there was hope.

It was now about 5:45 am and new calmer voices could be heard, folks were starting to move around. In my state of mind, knowing that we had been found and that we were going to be rescued, I relaxed and drifted in and out of consciousness. The pain was so intense, but the cold had also numbed me to the bone and all my senses were dull and fuzzy. It seemed to take forever for them to get to me as they shuttled other survivors out of the plane into snow cats and down off the mountain. By now most of the other passengers had been removed from the site and taken away. I was one of the final passengers to be taken out of the plane. The seats that had pinned me down against the side of the fuselage had to be removed before they could slide a back board under me, strap me down and pull me through the wreckage. It was now mid-morning and I was finally loaded in to the snow cat for the trek down the mountain. I remember the ride being extremely painful. Every bump as the snow cat hit stumps or downed trees under the snow caused continued sharp pain. The snow cat pulled into a small yard filled with trucks and other vehicles in front of this little two room cabin which was being used as a triage point for the rescue. Strapped to my back board so that I couldn’t move, I was pulled from the snow cat and hurried into the cabin. With portable heaters blasting out hot air, I was placed on a table and blankets were piled on top of me. It was now around noon as they worked to stabilize me and prepare me for transport. I was shivering and shaking from the severe exposure. Around me stood numerous medical personnel and one of them reached to my neck searching for my pulse. I had a neck brace on as well as being strapped to the full length back board and when she was unsuccessful finding my pulse there she reached for my groin, again trying to find a pulse. At this point I found the strength to tell them, “Keep trying, I am still alive!” They cut my shirt off me and started an IV. Another lady removed my boots and held my feet in her warm hands trying to warm my frozen toes. One of the rescuers asked me if there was someone he could notify for me. I gave him my home phone, so he could reach Kathleen but also told him if he was unable to reach her at that number please call my folks house as she may be with them. He promised to make the calls as soon as he got back to his home in Kremmling.

At around 1:30 pm with an extremely week pulse, in shock and suffering from the long and harsh exposure, I was loaded into an ambulance along with another crash victim, Todd Chanoski, and we headed for Steamboat. Todd had similar injuries to me and he had been seated in the seat immediately behind mine on the plane. When they told us that we would be headed back into Steamboat, it was only then that I realized we were much closer to Steamboat than we were to Denver. All this time I thought we must have crashed in the foot hills just West of Denver. The blizzard was raging on as the ambulance pulled away from the cabin. As we headed over Rabbit Ears pass back towards Steamboat, the ice buildup on the road was heavy. Previous truck traffic with chained tires had created a road that felt like a washboard. The ambulance traveled slowly due to the choppy, icy roads and the blowing snow conditions. With every bump in the ice my back screamed in pain. The ambulance driver apologized for the bumpy ride and did what he could to adjust his speed attempting to neutralize the rough road, but nothing worked. It seemed like this ride would never end.

Finally, around 3:00 pm we arrived at the emergency room in Steamboat Springs. The hospital Doctors and nurses were ready. X-rays were taken and the report came back that I likely had a broken back. Although qualified to operate on it, they felt I would be better off seeing Dr. Courtney Brown, a well-qualified surgeon in Denver who they had consulted with. While lying in the emergency room I was visited by Joe Backers, the project superintendent I had just met with the day before. He too volunteered to call Kathleen and let her know what was going on there in Steamboat.

Following all the communications back and forth between Steamboat ER and St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver and coordinating with the Flight for Life medical jet, it was close to 9:00 pm before we were loaded back into an ambulance heading for the Hayden airport. The Steamboat airport was closed due to the weather, but Haden’s airport was able to handle jet traffic. The emergency medical jet was waiting for me and two other passengers to take us to Denver. The other two passengers on the medical flight were Todd Chanoski and Ms. Kotts. When the decision was made to fly me to Denver, Kathleen and my folks headed to Saint Anthony’s Hospital to be there when we arrived. Once in Denver the blizzard still raged on and it was not possible to use a helicopter to transport us from Stapleton International airport to the hospital. The three of us, all plane crash victims, were once again loaded onto another ambulance and we were driven across Denver to the Hospital. Because the weather conditions in Denver were so poor at this, the drive from Stapleton to the hospital took another forty-five minutes.

At 11:45 pm we arrived at the emergency room at Saint Anthony’s hospital. Kathleen and my parents were told that we were there and being unloaded. Kathleen said as we were first rolled through the doors she didn’t recognize me but knew which one I was because I wasn’t the lady and I wasn’t the Asian gentleman that had been brought in before me. She recalls that my head was swollen like a large ball and was black and blue with bruises. I had frost bite on my hands and feet, but most debilitating I had a broken back. X-rays were once again taken and doctors were consulted, once again I was told, “You have a broken back.” By now it was almost 2:00 am the morning of December 6th. After laying on that plywood back board for the last 16 or 17 hours, my butt hurt almost as bad as my back. Approximately 30 hours after the crash, the decision was finally made to remove me from the back board—carefully laying me in a soft(er) bed, allowing me to drink some water for the first time, and to finally administer some pain medication.

The road to recovery was not an easy one. The first thing the Doctors tried was to use what they referred to as a, “Craig pad”—a small triangular pillow placed in the small of my back trying to put pressure on my spine to realign it. On December 15th, after 5 days with no success in realigning my spine, the decision was made to operate. Dr. Courtney Brown, who was the past Olympic ski team Doctor, was the surgeon. He stated that my injury looked like a classic seat belt injury where one has been pulled from their seat belt causing the broken back. The surgery included a fusion between L2 and L3. He used stainless steel springs which he referred to as “Weiss springs” as clamps on either side of the spine. Before the surgery, I had felt like a fish with no connection between my upper torso and my lower hips. Following the surgery, with the steel springs clamping my back together, I once again felt that my upper and lower halves were connected. Now all I needed to do was to get out of this bed and walk again. A couple of days following the surgery, I was wheeled down to the physical therapy department where they would help me to stand and walk. How hard could that be?

Once in the physical therapy room, my bed was wheeled over beside a set of parallel bars that were just at hand height for someone standing with their hands at their side. My job was to roll to my side and then sit straight up to avoid any bending of my back, then slip off the bed and stand between the bars and walk from one end to the other. I got this, I thought to myself. I used to do the parallel bars in gymnastics. I wrestled, ran track and cross country so how hard could it be to sit up, slide off a bed, and walk the length of the parallel bars and back? Reality quickly set in when I struggled to set up, and when the room started spinning in circles around me, I was finished. Not having been vertical for several weeks, now my equilibrium was all messed up. Sitting there, I was so dizzy there was no way I could move. The physical therapist respectfully stated, “That’s okay Mr. Brooks, we will try again tomorrow.” She helped me lay back down and I was wheeled back to my room. Tomorrow came and we attempted the same routine. This time I was able to sit up and after a few moments my head quit spinning around, so I was ready to walk—so I thought. I reached for the parallel bars and slowly slid off the edge of my bed onto my feet. As I stood there I couldn’t make my legs work! I couldn’t take a step. Once again, the therapist said, “That’s okay Mr. Brooks, we will try again tomorrow.” She helped me back onto the bed and back to my room I went. It was at this point that I felt emotionally wiped out. I thought maybe I never will walk again and I was so depressed. At the time I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just standing up and walking. Over the next week or so I slowly regained the muscle control to make my legs work and slowly began to get around. On December 21st I was released from the hospital. Well, actually I was taken by ambulance so that I could stay horizontal all the way to Timnath, a small town just outside of Fort Collins an hour’s drive north of Denver, where my folks lived. Kathleen and I planned to stay with them for a few days and celebrate Christmas with them and the rest of the family.

For 6 months I wore the back brace not bending over at all. I could not put on my own socks, could not tie my own shoes and needed a great deal of assistance for the next few months. After about 6 months, the Dr. told me I could get rid of the back brace and start bending over slowly and easily. He explained that the muscles in my lower back had been extremely traumatized and that they would need some time to regain their strength and flexibility. He also stated that as I started to bend further and further, eventually I would snap the steel springs. He assured me that I would know when that happened and after they were both in pieces he would go back in and remove them. He was right about feeling them snap. Imagine how it might feel if someone pinched your lower back muscles with a pair of pliers. That is how it felt when those springs finally let go trapping the muscle between their coils. With broken steel springs, I would occasionally sit only to jump to my feet again as the end of one of those springs was using my back as a pin cushion.

In January of the following year (1980) a second back surgery was performed by Dr. Brown to remove the broken spring fragments. For years following the second surgery, I had to learn to cope with some pain which on occasion would shoot down my sciatic nerve from my lower back to the back of my knees. I learned that the dura membrane had been ruptured in the accident and that if there had been any additional trauma or pressure, my spinal cord could have easily been severed. The shooting pain down my legs was caused by scar tissue that had formed on the inside of the dura membrane which rubbed on the nerves.

I have learned many valuable lessons that I would not trade having gone through this ordeal. The first and foremost is that we have a big and loving God who does answer prayers. If He can’t get your attention one way, He may try another so maybe it is just a good idea to pay attention from the start. I have learned that I married a strong woman who loves me and is willing to stand with me through thick and thin. I also learned that the human body and mind is quite capable of extraordinary endurance. Although death is not a pleasant experience, because I have come so close, and because I know my Lord, I am not afraid to die. In many ways it would have been easier to just drift off and die that cold miserable night on the mountain. But life has so many rewards if we look for God’s beauty and work to stay in His plan. His abundance, grace and the hope it fosters is both everything to live for, and to die for.

All rights reserved. Permission to reprint all or part of this story by permission only.
© 2018 Dennis Brooks

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Posted by: harrisonjones | October 11, 2017

Real Life, Real Men, Real Heroes

 

At approximately 7:45 pm on December 4, 1978, Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 was forced down on Buffalo Pass, Colorado at an altitude of 10,500 feet. Within minutes, Denver Air Traffic Control notified the U.S Air Force Mission Command Center at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois that the airliner was down somewhere in the mountains. At about 8:05 pm the Colorado Wing of the Civil Air Patrol was alerted, and thus began one of the most daring and successful search and rescue missions in that organizations long history. The Rocky Mountains represent a formidable obstacle to search and rescue on a good day, but this night a howling blizzard raged across the region to add to the challenge. The mission was accepted by a determined group of selfless men who would not be denied the opportunity to help their fellow man.

Sonny Elgin was assigned as mission coordinator and began gathering resources. Jim Alsum was assigned as ground search and rescue team leader and began rallying his team and loading equipment. Jim’s two sons, Jerry and Dan, volunteered along with Don Niekerk and Rick Hopp. Harry Blakeman brought his communications expertise to the team along with all his personal radio equipment. The group formed a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles, ignored the wind, the snow and icy roads, and headed west out of Denver. Meanwhile, a gentleman named Dave Lindow had volunteered himself and his snow cat to aid in the search and headed east out of Steamboat Springs. He was accompanied by Ed Duncan who volunteered his flatbed truck to haul the snow cat. As fate would have it, Dave and Ed would meet the Civil Air Patrol team along the highway and join forces. Undaunted by the weather and lack of sleep, these courageous men would search through the night for Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 and the 22 souls on board. Their historic efforts are now documented in the book “Miracle on Buffalo Pass” and it was my pleasure to meet them in person at the book signing and survivors and rescuers dinner in Denver.

DINNER 1 (2)

Jim Alsum, Dan Alsum, Don Niekerk, and Jerry Alsum

Pictured above, Jim Alsum led the ground search and rescue team to find the airliner on Buffalo Pass. Don Niekerk and Jerry Alsum were members of the four-man snow cat team who initially found the crash site and rendered aid to the survivors. Dan Alsum soon arrived at the site by riding a snowmobile up the mountain to join the rescue.

 

Dinner 3 (2)

Harry Blakeman and Sonny Elgin

Harry Blakeman and Sonny Elgin enjoy dinner and remember the long night on Buffalo Pass. Sonny served as mission coordinator and rallied all necessary resources to effect the rescue. Harry maintained communications between the search team and CAP in Denver. He also stayed in radio contact with Colorado State Patrol, County Emergency Services, and road crews to clear a path for ambulances. 

 

Dinner 10

Jon Pratt and Dave Lindow

Dave Lindow, pictured on the right, discusses the rescue with passenger Jon Pratt. When Dave heard about the crash, he volunteered himself and his privately owned snow cat to help with the search and rescue. After hauling the snow cat over the icy mountain roads from Steamboat to the east side of the Park Range, he joined the Civil Air Patrol team in the search effort. When weather and terrain dictated that the only way to continue the search was in the snow cat, Jim Alsum assigned three of his team members to go up the mountain with Dave driving the snow cat. Jerry Alsum, Don Niekerk, and Steve Poulson from Rocky Mountain Rescue, joined Dave and just before dawn on the morning of December 5, 1978, the four men found the wreckage and the survivors. Jon Pratt was the first passenger they saw standing in waist deep snow and waving his arms to get their attention.

Dinner 4

Don Niekerk and Rick Hopp

 

When Don Niekerk and the initial rescue team found the airplane on Buffalo Pass, they radioed the base camp, “We have survivors.” Jim Alsum immediately sent Rick Hopp and Dan Alsum up the mountain on snowmobiles with additional equipment to render aid and help evacuate the survivors. The two men followed the snow cat’s trail in the blowing snow and pre-dawn darkness to find the crash site. The trip covered thirteen miles of rugged terrain. Both men had EMT training as did Jerry Alsum and Don Niekerk. Not only did they help with initial medical treatment and triage, they also helped dig Gary Coleman out of the cockpit and get him into a warm down casualty bag to save his life.

Dinner 6 (2)

Dan Alsum and Ron Plunkett

 

Dan Alsum enjoys a lighter moment with Ron Plunkett. Ron was Gary Coleman’s close friend and fellow pilot. When Ron heard about the crash, he joined Gary’s brother Don and left Boulder headed for the crash site. They drove through the blizzard all night and arrived at the base camp just before Dave Lindow brought the first survivors down from Buffalo Pass. They assisted medical personnel prepare patients for transport and waited to hear of Gary’s condition. When Gary arrived at the base camp his body temperature was so low his survival was in jeopardy. Ron Plunkett and Don Coleman loaded him in an ambulance headed for the hospital in Kremmling and Don crawled into the casualty bag with him to provide body heat.

WOTR 6 (2)

Jim Alsum

 

Almost thirty-nine years after the rescue of Flight 217, Jim Alsum signs copies of “Miracle on Buffalo Pass.”

 

WOTR 18 (3)

Don Niekerk

 

Don Niekerk autographs books for patrons of the “Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.”

 

WOTR 19

Jerry Alsum

Jerry Alsum adds his autograph to someone’s book.

 

WOTR 58

Dan Alsum

Dan Alsum takes a break from signing books to explain the search and rescue.

WOTR 47 (2)

Rick Hopp and Harry Blakeman

Rick Hopp and Harry Blakeman autograph books at the museum event.

Dinner 21

At the reunion dinner, the rescue team stands to be recognized and receives well deserved applause from a grateful audience. They were thanked not only by the survivors, but also by the survivor’s husbands and wives and children. Words will never adequately describe the selfless actions of these courageous men and one word they will never utter is hero. However, that is the word everyone else used continuously to express their gratitude to a team of men that risked so much to simply help another human being. God bless them all.

 

 

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 6, 2017

Real Life, Real People, Real Courage

As you may know, the book release of Miracle on Buffalo Pass was held at The Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver on Saturday September 23rd. Today I will begin a blog series to introduce you to the incredible people that experienced the miracle and were willing to tell their story in the book. If you have read the story, you will enjoy meeting the passengers, the crew, and the rescue personnel who attended the book release event almost thirty-nine years after the crash. After writing about these courageous people for more than a year, I have never felt more privileged than when I met them in person. I am so humbled that they allowed me to tell their story and I know it will benefit all who read it.

WOTR 59

Luann and Jeff Mercer

 

Jeff and Luann Mercer sign copies of Miracle on Buffalo Pass for those who attended the book release event. When Jeff and Luann boarded Flight 217 in 1978, they were bound for Florida where they were to be married. The wedding was delayed by the injuries they suffered in the accident, but their lives have since flourished together and it was a pleasure to be with them in Denver. Their story is inspiring and encouraging.

Dinner 18 (2)

Margie Kotts Roosli and Matt Kotts

 

In 1978, Margie Kotts left Steamboat Springs aboard Flight 217 with her eight-month old son to visit her sister in Denver. Margie suffered a concussion in the accident, but Matt was uninjured. I was so happy to meet them in Denver. Matt is now Captain Matt Kotts and a commercial airline pilot. Wonderful people with a compelling story.

WOTR 62 (2)

Maureen Redmond Smith

 

Maureen Redmond Smith is pictured signing books alongside Matt Kotts. Maureen selected a seat next to Margie Kotts and her infant son on Flight 217. Maureen was traveling to Denver to attend a training session for her employer. After the crash occurred, Maureen realized Margie was incapacitated and took responsibility for eight-month old Matt. She protected Margie and Matt from the frigid snow and wind on Buffalo Pass by stuffing Luann Mercer’s wedding dress in an opening in the airplane’s fuselage. It was a pleasure to meet a brave and courageous lady with concern for all around her.

Dinner 19 (2)

Jon Pratt

 

Jon Pratt played a huge role in The Miracle on Buffalo Pass. Jon was only twenty-years old in 1978; however, he was an Eagle Scout and was experienced with survival skills. Jon sustained injuries in the crash but far less than most of his fellow passengers. He was able to render aid to others throughout the frigid night and is credited with saving many lives. Jon addresses his fellow survivors and rescuers at the reunion dinner and was applauded for his heroic efforts on Buffalo Pass. I was more than privileged to meet Jon and it was gratifying to see the appreciation shown by the passengers he cared for on that tragic night in 1978.

Dinner 26 (3)

Jon receives a thank you from Margie Kotts Roosli

 

Dinner 27 (3)

Vern Bell

Vern Bell was only nineteen-years-old in 1978 and returning to his home near Denver on Flight 217. Like Jon Pratt, his injuries were not severe and he was willing and able to help the other survivors. Vern was on a simple day trip and not expecting to be subjected to a blizzard and he was dressed in tennis shoes and a jacket rather than boots and a parker. Nonetheless he trudged through the snow along with Jon Pratt to empty the baggage compartment and provide all clothing available to the passengers in the cabin. The two young men moved the most severely injured into the baggage compartment and made them as comfortable as possible and then worked to dig the copilot out of the cockpit. At the dinner, Vern received great appreciation for his heroic efforts also.

Dinner 15 (2)

Jane Klopfenstein Oates and First Officer Gary Coleman

 

First Officer Gary Coleman was critically injured in the crash and trapped in the wreckage of the cockpit. Here, he is pictured as he memorializes Captain Scott Klopfenstein who tragically lost his life in the accident. Jane Klopfenstein Oates, Scott’s sister, looks on as Gary honors the memory of her brother. Gary was not only trapped in the cockpit, he was buried in snow and ice. Despite the heroic efforts of Jon Pratt and Vern Bell, he could not be removed until rescue teams arrived. Gary was pronounced dead at the hospital in Kremmling, but his demise was prematurely announced, and he eventually recovered and returned to flying.

Dinner 16 (2)

Here, Jane reads a letter from Virginia Klopfenstein, she and Scott’s mother. At age ninety-one, Virginia was unable to travel to attend the events in Denver. Her letter of appreciation for those who gave their best effort to aid her son was poignant and heartfelt and touched everyone in attendance. A sober reminder that The Miracle did not exclude the tragic loss of life.

In the next blog I will introduce you to the rescue teams who risked their own safety to find the crash site and then rescue the survivors.

 

Posted by: harrisonjones | July 21, 2017

Excerpt From Miracle on Buffalo Pass

 Miracle on Buffalo Pass will be released worldwide on September 23, 2017. The book documents the events of Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 on December 4, 1978 and I’m happy to share a brief excerpt from the opening chapter. Click on the photo page to view more photos from the book.

         Flight 216 was late. Not an unusual turn of events for the winter of 1978 in Colorado. The departure from Denver had been delayed, and now strong headwinds were restricting the progress to Steamboat Springs. Captain Scott Klopfenstein and First Officer Gary Coleman prepared for the descent and approach and waited to clear the mountains east of Steamboat. The mountain range was not only an obstacle to navigation—it was also significant for several other reasons. On the west side of the range, the famous Steamboat Ski Resort could be found, and that would eventually be the destination for most of the passengers aboard Flight 216. The east side of the range constituted the Routt National Forest and nothing but wilderness. The ridge line at the top of the range not only divided ski slopes from wilderness, it also divided the United States of America. The squiggly line on a map represented the Continental Divide.
The aircraft’s distance measuring equipment (DME) was not operating to give the pilots a mileage readout to Steamboat making it necessary for them to cross reference two navigation stations to calculate when they would be beyond the mountain and it would be safe to descend. The DME was not required for the flight, but nonetheless very useful in that it would normally display an accurate mileage readout to any navigation station within 200 miles. The Denver Air Traffic Control Center did not provide radar service at the lower altitudes in the Steamboat area, although radio communications were usually good. Despite the strong headwinds and cloud cover, the flight was smooth with surprisingly little turbulence.
When Air Traffic Control cleared Flight 216 to descend, First Officer Coleman read the clearance back and glanced out the cockpit window to inspect the wing and propeller on the right side of the aircraft. Satisfied there was no ice accumulation, he continued to monitor the instruments and review the approach procedure for Steamboat Springs. The weather at the airport was reported as overcast at 2000 feet above the ground and six-miles visibility with light winds—well above the minimums for landing. The temperature hovered in the twenties, and snow was always a possibility in December, but none was reported now. Scott and Gary briefly discussed the familiar approach procedure and agreed the weather was not a problem.
With any luck, they would be able to turn the aircraft around quickly and head back to Denver to complete a long flying day. Both crewmembers had reported for duty at 12:30 in the afternoon, and now with sunset they protected their night vision by keeping the cockpit lights to a dim glow. The runway lights at Steamboat would be a welcome sight when they broke out of the clouds. Even with a quick turnaround, they would be fortunate to finish their duty day by 8:30. They had been forced to abort the first flight of the day and return to Denver because of the strong westerly headwinds. Every passenger seat would be occupied on the return flight and they would enjoy the advantage of a tailwind.

        The passenger terminal at Steamboat Springs consisted of one large room with random seating for customers awaiting arriving and departing flights. Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 was scheduled to depart at 4:45 p.m. It was now after six, and the inbound flight was nowhere in sight. Some of the paying customers were voicing their frustration and expressing their displeasure with the airline. Others were accustomed to Colorado weather and the disruption it often caused for most activities—including airline flights. Whether they waited patiently or otherwise—the terminal was their temporary crucible. They were a diverse group.
A young mother cared for her eight-month old son—and waited.
Three young ladies, who worked for the Forest Service, talked about their upcoming training class in Denver—and waited.
A young couple, engaged to be married, discussed their wedding plans—and waited.
A twenty-year old man, on a business trip for his employer, was not intimidated by the challenge of delay—and waited.
A retired military officer was well versed in schedules gone awry—and waited.
A nineteen-year old guy from Lakewood, near Denver, was returning home—and waited.
They all waited with one thing in common—the desire to get to Denver and points beyond—a final destination and an end to the waiting.
The announcement that Flight 216 was arriving was met with relief and anticipation. Passengers near the terminal’s window could see the aircraft’s landing lights in the distance. Those who chose not to watch the approach soon heard the sound of the turbo-prop engines, first as they were reversed to slow the airplane on the runway, and then again as they idled toward the terminal.

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Photo courtesy of Dennis Heap

 

 

Posted by: harrisonjones | July 6, 2017

Miracle on Buffalo Pass

My previous blog described the beginning of a new book project, and after nine months, I can now discuss the conclusion of that work. The book will be titled Miracle on Buffalo Pass, and as previously promised, it documents a true story told in the words of those who were there.

MOBP Front Cover Final

On the evening of December 4, 1978, Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 departed Steamboat Springs, Colorado bound for Denver with twenty-two souls on board. Less than an hour later, the flight was forced down on Buffalo Pass at an altitude of 10,500 feet when it encountered severe icing conditions and unforecasted downdrafts created by the winds of a mountain wave. The tragic accident triggered one of the most intense search and rescue efforts in Rocky Mountain history.

I should explain that the project was conceived by Kelly Coleman, a young lady who was born long after the incident on Buffalo Pass. Kelly is the daughter of Gary and Debi Coleman—Gary was the first officer on Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 and narrowly survived the accident. When Kelly contacted me and began telling the story, I was intrigued and knew there were many questions that needed to be answered. Kelly introduced me to her father and Gary and I connected on so many levels right away. We visited the crash site near Steamboat Springs last October and have been collaborating for the past nine months. With a little research and a lot of detective work we were able to get in touch with many of the passengers, search and rescue folks, medical personnel, law enforcement officers, Rocky Mountain Airways employees, and others who saw a need and volunteered to help in the rescue. To date, I have interviewed more than thirty individuals who have graciously told their story for publication.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting people of great courage; men and women of unbound determination; unassuming heroes; highly dedicated law enforcement officers; doctors and emergency medical personnel willing to go far beyond a job description to save lives; skilled aviation professionals; and others who just volunteered themselves and whatever resources and equipment they owned because their character would not allow anything less. The people I have interviewed for this book have inspired me, not as a writer, but as a human being. I am indebted to each of them.

Many of these people will join me on September 23, 2017 for the official book release gathering hosted by the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver. The museum features an exhibit of artifacts from Flight 217.

Wings Book Signing 3

Coming soon, I will be posting pre-publication excerpts from the book as well as when it will be available in paperback, Kindle, and Audible editions.

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 4, 2016

Go Tell It On The Mountain

 

This past weekend I went to the top of a mountain to hear an incredible story. Located on the Continental Divide, just east of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is Buffalo Pass. At just shy of 11,000 feet, the atmosphere is thin and the view is breath taking. More so for a flat land Georgia boy like me. On December the fourth, 1978, the isolation of Buffalo Pass was shattered when a giant ice formation fell from the night sky and was buried in the snow. It was as if Aliens had invaded Earth when human forms began emerging from the snow bank and standing in the shaft of light emanating from whatever had fallen from the sky. However, there was no one anywhere near Buffalo Pass to observe the strange scene. Why would anyone in their right mind be out in a raging blizzard with snow accumulating by the foot and wind spilling over the mountain crest at 60 knots or more? Humans are not designed to function with wind chills at 50 below. Even the Elk and Bear that normally inhabited the forest had taken shelter elsewhere.  

Thirty-eight years later, on an early October morning, I stand on Buffalo Pass enjoying a pleasant clear morning with the temperature in the fifties and a gentle breeze rustling through the forest. The weather forecast is for rain, but the prognosticators have somehow miscalculated. Only experienced aviators, of which I humbly include myself, understand the fickle nature of weather and the limited credibility of forecast. That is not to say I understand the weather. Only the fickle nature. Walking with me, as we climb over fallen trees and I stumble over rock formations, is another aviator. Gary Coleman is explaining the events of that night long ago when a Rocky Mountain Airways De-Havilland Twin Otter flew into a glacier like cloud and could not escape until the cloud decided to calve it off and force it down on Buffalo Pass. The ice was so thick, the smooth airfoils of the “Twotter” now resembled the rough peaks of the mountains below. The de-ice boots on the leading edge of the wings pulsed in vain as ice weighed the airplane down and destroyed the lift capability of the wings. It simply refused to climb and then refused to hold altitude. Gary Coleman occupied the copilot’s seat of Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217.

rma-twin-otter

 Gary and I are accompanied by his lovely wife Debi and their faithful Yellow Lab, Miles. We have abaondoned the four wheel drive Suburban on a Forest Service Road, and now we travel the steep terrain on foot, hoping a hunter doesn’t mistake us for Elk. Debi is a former flight attendant and a pilot in her own rite. Our journey to the crash site is thwarted by a deep ravine, but we are determined and climb higher to find a way around the obstacle. I feel great anticipation at the possibility of reaching the crash site, and then I feel guilt as I realize Debi and Gary are experiencing different emotions. Miles ignores us and cavorts through the woods as if he owns the mountain.   

There were twenty-two souls on board the airplane that night, and miraculously twenty-one of them not only survived the impact, but also refused to succumb to the inhuman environment of the blizzard until they were rescued the next day. First Officer Coleman and Captain Scotty Klopfenstein, never gave up and fought the airplane and the fickle weather until the very end. When the mountain wave of air spilling over the crest of Buffalo Pass forced the airplane down, the right wing clipped the tower of a high voltage power line, shearing off several feet of wing and the aileron.  At the last second Gary kicked the right rudder to avoid a rock wall and slewed the airplane into a snow bank instead. A life-saving decision for twenty of the twenty-two souls on board. One passenger passed away on the mountain, and Captain Klopfenstein died a few days later in the hospital.

crash-1 

The wings sheared off and the fuselage rolled onto its right side as the machine, no longer an aircraft, came to a stop. The cockpit opened up and the windshield blew out before the skid ended. Snow scooped into the flight deck and left Gary trapped and buried up to his chest. As the blizzard continued to howl, the accumulating snow covered him almost completely, leaving only his hands to indicate a human was still there. Gary would need fate, fortune, or divine intervention to survive, and whether it was circumstance, luck, or divinity, help arrived in the form of a twenty year old passenger named Jon Pratt. Jon, an Eagle Scout and trained in survival skills, found Gary and removed the snow covering his face, allowing him to breathe. Gary was later diagnosed with a ruptured spleen, a concussion, numerous lacerations, and eventually frostbite. He could not be extracated from the cockpit until the next day. Somehow the ship’s battery continued to power the cabin lights and also the same ice lights on the exterior of the fuselage that had allowed Gary to watch the ice build on the wings. The ice lights evidently gave Jon the opportunity to discover Gary and render aid.  

Meanwhile, elements of the Civil Air Patrol, Rocky Mountain Rescue, Sheriffs Deputies, and scores of local volunteers organized to search and rescue. Following the erratic signal of the aircraft’s Emergency Locator Tramsmitter, they were able to navigate as far as the Grizzly Creek Ranger Station below Buffalo Pass before the road became impassable. Now, Snow Cats and Ski Mobiles were the only way to move higher up the mountain. Tough, courageous men did just that and radioed back at six a.m. that survivors, including Gary Coleman, had been found.  Evacuation began and the passengers and crew were transported down the mountain to the ranger station where they were triaged and moved to several local hospitals in ambulances with rattling snow chains on the tires. The ranger station consisted only of a tiny cabin with a pot bellied stove, but it was a luxury resort on that night.

buffalo-pass-6 

Now, on this warm October morning, we stand at the base of the tower the airplane first impacted. We silently imagine the Twin Otter buried in snow with its lights still illuminated. I am so impressed with the courage and determination of Gary Coleman. Just the kind of aviator I always enjoyed flying with. He points out the direction of approach and where the airplane came to rest.

buffalo-pass-7 

It has been thirty-seven years since he last visited the crash site, shortly after the accident. I wander away in order to allow he and Debi some privacy to process together. Miles ignores all of us.

buffalo-pass-4 

Debi reaches down and picks up an object from the ground. It is a piece of the fiberglass bulkhead from the Otter’s baggage compartment. We find more debris among the rocks and grass including an aircraft bonding strap designed to prevent static electricity from arcing between metal surfaces. Some of the small metal debris still features the blue paint of Rocky Mountain Airways. A testament to the endurance of polyurethane.

This story cannot be told in a blog post. It deserves to be told in a way that can be a legacy to all involved. The passengers, the crew, the search and rescue personell, the EMT’s, the doctors and nurses, and other volunteers who gave so generously. It needs to be told in their words from their perspective. It needs to serve as inspiration for others who are faced with adversity in their lives. It is testament that the human spirit can endure, and survive, and prosper. With the help of Gary, Debi, and their daughter Kelly, I intend to do just that in the form of a non-fiction book. The book is not yet titled, the first chapter is not written, and I am overwhelmed by the task at hand, but God willing, it will happen. Check back for progress reports.   

Posted by: harrisonjones | September 19, 2016

Shadow Flight Audio Edition

The audio book edition of Shadow Flight is now available on Amazon, Audible, and ITunes. Thomas Block did a great job producing a long book (114,000 words) with numerous characters and many sub-plots. Thank you Captain Block and I sincerely hope everyone will enjoy the audio edition and Tom’s interpretation of Shadow Flight.

 

Posted by: harrisonjones | June 12, 2016

Audio Edition Available

Equal Time Point is now available at Audible.com and at Amazon.com. Thank you to everyone who has inquired about the release date and also to everyone who has already purchased the audiobook. As always, comments and reviews are very much appreciated.

For those of you new to Audible, there is a 30 day free trial membership which includes a free audiobook. I hope you will take advantage of the freebie and of course I hope you will choose Equal Time Point.

Thank you once again to Captain Thomas Block for producing and narrating Equal Time Point. Look for my other titles to be released as audiobooks in the near future.

Posted by: harrisonjones | June 2, 2016

Audio Books

I’m happy to announce that my titles will soon be available as audiobooks. The first to be published will be Equal Time Point, and it will be available by mid-June. Shadow Flight and The Pilot Class will follow in the coming weeks. The books will be available at Audible.com, Amazon, and Apple Itunes.

 

The audio editions will be narrated and produced by Thomas Block. Captain Block has authored numerous bestselling aviation novels including Mayday, Orbit, Skyfall, and most recently, Captain. The bestselling novel, Mayday, co-authored with Nelson Demille, was also made into a movie. I am most fortunate to have Captain Block on board and I encourage you to check out his novels.

 

As always, I’m grateful to each of my readers who have supported my work and taken the time to post comments and reviews. Technology continues to revolutionize the world of aviation and now the book business as well. You can book a flight on your iPhone in seconds and then download a book as quickly to enjoy while you stand in line at the TSA. What a goofy world we live in. I’ll post the release date of Equal Time Point when it’s available.

Posted by: harrisonjones | January 22, 2015

The Pilot Class

TPC crop 2

At long last I’ve finished my third novel, The Pilot Class. Creating characters and encouraging them to say and do the things that make a story plausible can be a frustrating experience. They don’t always act like the reader wants them to. Everybody loves the hero that exacts revenge, retribution, and justice, but it’s important to hate the bad guy who caused the problems to start with. Since it’s not in my nature to cause unnecessary problems, it becomes difficult to create the antagonist. Once I learn to hate him too it becomes easier.

The Pilot Class follows a group of young pilots as they experience the initial training class for a major airline. The group includes former military pilots as well as civilians, one of which is a former female flight attendant. As pilots they all have confidence and ego, but it soon becomes apparent that they will have to cooperate to graduate. Personalities, a married flight attendant with an abusive husband, a major airline accident, and the federal government are all obstacles that stand in their way. Who will survive The Pilot Class to fly the line?

When I sat in my own pilot class years ago, I was fortunate to have great classmates who remain great friends. Turn off the TV, recline your lounge chair and enjoy a pilot class of your own.

The book is available on Amazon Kindle and will be published in paperback soon.

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