Aspen tower

The air-traffic control tower at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is pictured on a snowy day in January 2019. Air-traffic controllers on Monday afternoon reported to local emergency dispatchers that a small plane made an emergency landing about 4.5 miles northeast of the airport, near Woody Creek. No one was injured and the pilot and passenger are safe.

A pilot and passenger of a small plane that made an emergency landing using a parachute in the Woody Creek backcountry north of the Aspen airport were uninjured and safe Tuesday morning, after Mountain Rescue Aspen launched an expedition to find the occupants.

A Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office press release issued at 9 a.m. Tuesday stated that Tyler and Kristina Noel of Verona, Wisconsin, located outside Madison, were in the 2017 Cirrus SR22T aircraft that was the subject of a harrowing day and night. 

Air traffic controllers from the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport alerted the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office that an aircraft was in distress at 3:25 p.m. Monday. It was then reported the aircraft had crashed approximately five miles northeast of Aspen. 

Sheriff’s deputies were able to make contact, and stay in contact throughout the afternoon and evening, with the plane’s occupants via cell phone. They reported that they were uninjured and had come to rest on a steep, wooded hillside after using a manually-activated parachute attached to the back of the plane. However, the pair, a married couple, was not equipped to spend the night in the cold temperatures that dropped to single digits by early Tuesday morning.

According to sheriff’s deputy Jesse Steindler, who was on duty until about 2 a.m. Tuesday dealing with the incident, the pilot reported that the plane’s “instruments went haywire” and were indicating that the engines were stalling. 

“He said something to the effect to me that he knew he was not stalling, yet he followed protocols and made a split-second decision whether to activate the parachute and he did. I imagine that was because he could not see anything out the window,” Steindler said, noting the afternoon’s snowy, inclement weather.

Steindler further noted that the mountains in the area of the crash, which was roughly five miles from the Aspen airport near Lenado, top out at about 10,000 feet — which is likely close to the elevation where the plane was flying. He said the pilot had filed flight plans to fly from Aspen to Eagle. 

The plane, which Steindler described as extremely lightweight, was equipped with a parachute mounted on a small rocket that when activated is shot off the top of the aircraft. The rocket separates the chute from the body of the aircraft then the chute deploys, allowing the aircraft to float to the ground.

The sheriff’s office activated Mountain Rescue Aspen to go to the crash site and extract the occupants. The all-volunteer rescue agency involved 31 members, deploying approximately 25 into the field using skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles, according to a press release. Steindler noted that the conditions were challenging with waist deep snow on the ground, more coming from the sky and darkness falling. The MRA field team made contact with the plane and its occupants at around 6:25 p.m. He described the crash site as four to six miles from the nearest road. The team had precise coordinates for the crash site, but were still operating in pitch-black darkness when they neared the area. The pilot was able to turn on the plane’s light to help rescuers pinpoint their exact location, Steindler said.

It was “invaluable” that the plane’s occupants were able to use their cell phones to communicate with rescuers, Steindler said. 

“If it wasn’t for that we would probably still be looking for the plane,” he said.

The plane’s occupants were using whatever they could in their luggage to stay warm, Steindler said. MRA personnel brought additional warm clothes and snowshoes for the rescue subjects to wear and use for hiking back out through the deep snow to the road. 

The plane’s chute had become entangled in the trees and the chute was keeping the plane in place, according to the press release. National Transportation Safety Board officials, who were contacted and were consulting with the sheriff’s office during the rescue operation, had recommended cutting the chute, out of concern that windy conditions could cause it to lift the body of the plane into the air. However, rescue team members advised that doing so might cause the plane’s body to come loose so the line was not cut.

The MRA field team and the plane’s occupants began the long trek out at about 9:15 p.m., the sheriff’s office release says. At approximately 12:05 a.m., all rescuers and the two subjects were safely out of the field.

Steindler said that the plane’s occupants became upset when the rescue team insisted that they leave their luggage behind. He added that the couple declined any ambulance services when they made it back to the road.

The entire incident was unprecedented in Steindler’s career, he said. 

“This is certainly the first crash of this sort [I have seen] where everyone walks away and I had never heard of a plane with a parachute on it before last night,” he said.

The sheriff’s office veteran praised the heroism of the Mountain Rescue team.

“They are the best bunch of volunteers I have ever worked with,” Steindler said. 

Those volunteers drop whatever they are doing, leaving their families to trek through harsh conditions to help another human being, he said.

“Every step of way was a danger to everyone involved in the field,” Steindler said. “There were a million ways things could have gone wrong. … What they do is really incredible.”

The sheriff’s office is not disclosing the exact location of the crash site because “there is a very valuable airplane sitting up there unattended." Steindler said that the plane’s tail had broken off but the fuselage was intact.

He added that the NTSB is in charge of any further investigation of the incident. He said he would be surprised if federal investigators attempted to access the crash site in the near term, noting the deep snow conditions.

 

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.