For 38 years, a group of pilots in the Southwest has supported a special holiday delivery to members of the Navajo Nation, flying donated items to be distributed during the holidays. This year was different, as Navajo Christmas Airlift participants with the Arizona Wing responded to downed aircraft, one piloted by a fellow airlift participant.
On Nov 11, two private airplanes, piloted by a father and son, respectively, were en route to Gallup, New Mexico, from Arizona to deliver donations. While passing near the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, the father’s plane developed engine trouble and landed in a wooded area. The son stayed overhead and requested emergency assistance.
When the son’s aircraft ran low on fuel, another airplane in the vicinity stayed overhead awaiting rescue personnel.
While returning from Gallup, New Mexico, Lt. Col. Leland Scott Curtis, a transport pilot with the Arizona Wing’s Scottsdale Composite Squadron 314, was asked to fly to the area to report on the situation. By this time, rescue personnel were arriving on scene, so Curtis returned to his base at Phoenix Deer Valley Airport.
The downed pilot was injured, but airlift organizer Gregory McColley of Phoenix said he credited the airlift with preventing further injuries. Because the donation bags were filled with soft materials and dislodged after the first impact, they cushioned him until the plane came to rest. He was rescued and hospitalized, then released several days later to recuperate at home.
At the same time, a second plane in the vicinity, this one unrelated to the airlift, also made a forced landing and was able to transmit a Mayday call. Lt. Col. Art Rogers of Payson Senior Squadron 209 was returning to his home base in Payson on a maintenance flight when he heard the radio traffic and contacted the wing’s virtual incident command, which had been set up to monitor CAP pilots during their travel to and from Gallup.
The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center opened a mission, and Rogers – who had refueled in Payson – was directed to return to the area of the second forced landing to assist. He circled overhead, relaying information between the downed pilot and 1st Lt. Mike Ricker of Arizona Wing Group 7, the air operations branch director, assuring the pilot that help was on the way.
The virtual command post coordinated with the state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, which dispatched a helicopter from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to make the rescue.
The pilot involved in the second crash wishes to remain anonymous, but in an email to Capt. Aaron Feller, Arizona Wing director of emergency services, he praised Civil Air Patrol for coming to his rescue.
“For the 40 years of my flying life, I’ve been reading stories of aircraft accidents in various aviation periodicals,” the rescued pilot said. “In the back of my mind, I wondered what it would be like to endure an accident. How would I react, and would the rescue system work?
“Although I don’t recommend the experience, the reality was mostly drama-free. My training kicked in, the ELT (emergency locater transmitter) worked, a passing commercial airline received my emergency call, the information was relayed to the proper authorities, and within an hour, a CAP plane was circling overhead reassuring me that help was on the way.
“I was rescued shortly thereafter by a sheriff’s helicopter that conveniently took me back to my home hangar. The plane was totaled, but I was rescued and back home within three hours of the incident –amazing.”
He concluded his message with, “A big thanks to you and your team for the huge role you played in my rescue. Without your service, the result could have been quite different.”
Maj. Dave Roden
Falcon Composite Squadron