Forest Service (carefully) pulls wrecked plane from Flat Tops
February 20, 2017
A downed plane in the Flat Tops Wilderness offered the White River National Forest a unique clean-up challenge last week as the agency worked to extract the aircraft while respecting wilderness values.
A Colorado Springs couple in a small, four-seated plane went down in the wilderness Jan. 7 near the Devil's Causeway and McGinnis Lake. The couple were rescued by a medical helicopter and were luckily treated only for exposure to the intense cold, their landing site having been above 11,000 feet and the temperature at minus 18.
A little more than a month later, after a few weeks delay for winter weather, the Forest Service successfully retrieved the aircraft on Thursday.
Because the plane went down in an officially designated wilderness — known as "the cradle of wilderness," actually — the Forest Service couldn't simply drive in, load up the plane and go. The rugged terrain of the Flat Tops would make that impossible, not to mention that it's the Forest Service's job to maintain the area's wilderness values.
"Wilderness being wilderness, it's remote, and getting trucks in there would be impossible without building a road," said Curtis Keetch, Rio Blanco District ranger.
In these situations, White River begins by drafting a "minimum requirements decision guide," a tool to determine what options offer the least impact.
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"We go through a pretty arduous process" to find the least impact and avoid incursions that would otherwise be against the Wilderness Act, said Keetch.
Exceptions are, of course, granted in emergency scenarios. Search and rescue teams can to venture into wilderness areas with mechanized vehicles and equipment to save lives. Most wildernesses have a memorandum of understanding with search and rescue teams, allowing them to bring in helicopters for rescues, for example.
But sometimes after these missions, motorized or mechanized equipment gets left behind, such as victims' snowmobiles, said Tory Housing, Rio Blanco District recreation program manager.
Once rescue missions are over and the urgency has passed, the Forest Service has time to slow down and consider how to act with the least impact.
White River's two realistic options in this case were a helicopter extraction or packing in a team of mules, crushing the plane into manageable parts and hauling it out piece by piece, said Housing.
A pack string of mules wouldn't be able to go until summer, and White River wanted to avoid the plane being there when summer visitors got to the area.
"Tearing it apart during the summer would have been disruptive to anyone up there," she said.
Dragging the plane's pieces out could have also meant leaking fuel along the path, said Housing.
Additionally, a pack string would have taken around 10 mules, a team of people and a week or two of work, said Keetch.
And by summer, the plane could have settled more.
The insurance company's needs were also time-sensitive. Because the small aircraft didn't have a black box, insurance investigators wanted to analyze the plane as intact as possible. The plane was mostly in one piece except for its landing gear, which had been ripped off.
Ultimately a helicopter extraction fit the bill to pull the plane out quickly, safely and with the least wilderness impact, said Housing.
A private contractor was flown to the site, about 10 to 15 miles by air, said Keetch.
An expert in this kind of extraction, he dug the plane out of about 20 inches of snow that had fallen since the emergency landing and cut the wings with a battery-powered handsaw.
Working with some impressive precision, he was able to get the parts packed and out in only a couple of hours, said Keetch.
The helicopter then transported these pieces to a snowmobiling company's property, which was used as a staging area.
The best part of this was that the people in the plane walked away from the accident, said Keetch.