So I'm back overflying the same wilderness I've been looking at all week. Trees. Muskeg. A big round lake. Dirt roads. The area is so crisscrossed with oil and logging roads that I'm not sure how the bears manage to propagate so effectively, but the ground crew assure me that there are plenty of bears. Just black bears seen so far, though, not grizzlies. I haven't seen any, but then I'm smart enough not to walk out of town.
Once again I'm monitoring the nearest FSS frequency on one radio and 126.7 on the other for en route traffic. I'm fifty miles from the aerodrome (their control zone radius is five) and I'm not on the way to anywhere that normal people go at my altitude, so the radios are on in the background just kind of for entertainment. I'm also listening to the Arrogant Worms on the iPod nano. A helicopter calls the aerodrome. There's a helicopter maintenance base there so the darn things are taking off, flying a circuit and landing all the time. It still makes me smile when they call final for something that isn't a runway. Like "the gas pumps" or "apron III". The helicopter asked for something I didn't pay attention to, and then the FSS guy replied.
I hear the words and do and do an aural doubletake. I ask my mission specialist, "Did he just say an aircraft 'has gone down'?"
"That's what I heard."
As explained in an earlier discussion, "down" to a pilot is a neutral term. If I get a text that a flight is down, I expect that the airplane is taxiing up to the fuel pumps. I record my down time each time my wheels touch pavement. "Call me as soon as you're down," my boss might ask before departure. But "gone down," that's not neutral. That's bad. Or, at minimum, very interesting.
For a hundred kilometres around, pilots are turning up their radios and turning off their iPods. What went down? Where? How bad is it? Someone calls inbound for landing and is told that runway 03 is temporarily closed. If the accident occurred on the runway, maybe it's just a gear collapse. But the term for that would be something like "disabled aircraft" not "gone down." An airplane could have taken off and then stalled/crashed back on the remaining runway. I keep listening.
Someone says he can see the aircraft. It's a helicopter pilot. He says there's a passenger on the belly. That means the airplane is inverted. I wonder if it's in the river. He says there's another passenger lying on the ground. So it's not in the river. Also lying on ground is bad, but much better than strapped in burning airplane. Obviously the airplane is not on fire, or the passenger would find a more convenient place to stand. I hear the words "light aircraft" from someone.
Light aircraft contact the ground inverted in two ways that immediately come to mind: stall-spin and landing mishap. The presence of two people who got out of the airplane strongly suggests that it was not a stall-spin. It's more likely to have been an inflight loss of engine power, followed by a forced landing on inappropriate terrain. (That's not a criticism of the pilot: the terrain he or she picked was probably the most appropriate within gliding range, but there is a strong shortage of appropriate places to land around here). A classic forced landing accident in a Cessna trainer involves a correctly executed forced approach, touching down slowly and under control, then a wheel digs in or catches and the airplane flips upside down. Typically belted occupants receive minor or no injuries and the airplane is substantially damaged. I've no idea if that's what happened here. I've gone through a number of hypotheses in a few minutes.
The helicopter pilot says he will remain hovering over the site so they can find it. The tower passes someone else a NOTAM on a closed runway with vehicle traffic. It seems that the airplane has gone down just off the end of a runway. The RCMP are driving out to the end of the runway to start the search. The helicopter pilot is talking to the RCMP on another VHF frequency, so I tune up that one, too. I can't hear the cops on the ground, but I can hear the helicopter pilot telling them which way to go. The person on the ground is sitting up now.
The RCMP reach the site by walking towards the helicopter and listening to the pilot's guidance, then the helicopter goes to land. About half an hour later you can still hear the ELT in the background of every call the FSS makes. One pilot points this out. We're so conditioned to report hearing the "whoop, whoop, whoop" of an emergency locator transmitter if we hear one that the pilot hasn't thought it through. If the ELT is audible only when the FSS transmits, than the ELT signal must be coming over the FSS transmission, and therefore be audible to the FSS. Presumably the radio in the FSS that is tuned to 121.5 is on speaker, so that everyone in the room can hear it. The FSS guy simply says "we're already aware of that."
Hours later when I land one of the taxiways is still NOTAMed closed, but when an ultralight wants to take off the FSS says they are lifting the restriction now, and approves the intersection departure. I don't see anyone around to ask to make sure that everyone was okay.