Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Beating Popular Wisdom

On Saturday, sixteen-year-old Autumn Veatch was on board a Beech Bonanza, a zippy little single engine airplane, with her step-grandparents. Autumn must have been a passenger, as one must be seventeen to pilot an airplane like that in the United States. So her grandmother or grandfather was flying it. They were en route from Kalispell, Montana (at the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Trench) to Lynden, Washington (on the west coast, just south of the Canadian border). This route crosses mountains, some of the most rugged and remote territory in the contiguous United States. The aircraft is capable of flight up to about 25,000, enabling it to climb over some mid-level weather, assuming those on board have supplementary breathing oxygen. I don't know if they did, or if they flew at oxygen-requiring altitudes on this flight. In the US a pilot can cruise indefinitely up to 12,500' without supplementary oxygen, and the mountains in that area are not so high that they would need to be above 12,500'.

Autumn has probably flown with her grandparents before. She looks comfortable in her headset and a photo of her wearing it was available to the press. I don't think that her parents would have given it to them. CBC likely got the photo off social media. My experience shows that reporters will creep the Facebook galleries of a person, their family, employer, and known associates in order to print pictures of them and their family in association with a story. Having an unusual name just makes it easier for them. The Bonanza crossed the Idaho-Washington state line and then dropped off radar. If US radar is anything like Canadian radar in that area, that disappearance itself is nothing to be concerned about. Radar just doesn't cover aircraft below the flight levels as they cross that expanse of mountains. Typically Canadian controllers let the pilot know that they have been lost from radar, and that they are likely to lose radio contact also, then give the pilot a time and frequency to attempt to contact the next controller. But the Bonanza pilot did not ever contact the next controller. The aircraft was reported overdue on Saturday afternoon.

Autumn said that the plane entered a bank of clouds and then crashed and caught fire. Autumn escaped from the wreckage, largely uninjured. and stayed in the area, a mountainous, wooded and probably kind of smoky spot: smoky from numerous forest fires in British Columbia, in addition to the smoke from the burned plane. If she had her phone with her she may have tried to use it, but was unable to get a signal, or perhaps the battery was dead. Searchers were able to track the aircraft occupants' cellphones until about an hour and a half after the plane was lost from radar. Five aircraft equipped with special radios for detecting the missing plane's emergency-locator transmitter searched the mountains, while ground crews focused on the area along their course not far past where they dropped off radar.

The usual advice for anyone in an airplane crash is to stay with the aircraft and wait for rescue. The logic is that the airplane is a large metallic object that may have been tracked on radar and is probably emitting an emergency signal that can be tracked by satellites and search and rescue aircraft, while you are a tiny piece of meat who doesn't know exactly where she is. You are at risk of falling over a precipice, getting more lost and injuring or exhausting yourself. Whether Autumn knew this advice or not, she followed it for about a day and then decided to walk out. It was mostly downhill, but she didn't fall over a cliff. There was a trail and she followed it, walking for a couple of days. She came out at a road, the somewhat ambitiously-named "Highway 20." The road is often closed in the winter, but probably she didn't have to wait too long for someone to drive by. A motorist gave her a ride to the little town of Mazama, where they called 911.

Autumn is physically okay, but the civil Air Patrol has turned the search over to the Navy. Reading between the lines of the story, one can only presume that the grandparents were killed in the crash or the post-crash fire. No wonder Autumn chose to leave the site. I haven't searched for information beyond this one news story. I could probably find that half my assumptions are wrong if I looked a little further, but this isn't news reporting. I've merely added some information based on my own experiences. The NTSB preliminary report isn't even up yet. I don't know Autumn or her family. I just happen to have written a story a couple of years ago that included a sole survivor of a single-engine plane crash walking out of the woods in the northwest, and a damaged Beech Bonanza turned up in our hangar today, so it struck a chord.


Colin said...

My understanding is that you have to be 16 to solo and 17 to get your certification, or something like that. She couldn't have been flying the plane alone, but she could have been at the controls, especially if her grandfather was a CFII.

D.B. said...

N8749A was an A35 Bonanza, and doesn't appear to have been turbocharged, so it's probable ceiling will be around 17000. If it's anything like mine, that's more theory than practice, I've never taken it above 14,000 (no oxygen).