“We were doing fine coming out of Cody,” Betzold, 61, recounted in a Monday interview. “We got up to altitude and were getting ready to go through the pass (Sylvan Pass), and then the engine lost power.”
The pilot checked through his emergency procedures in an effort to get the Piper 180’s single engine going at full power again, but nothing worked.
“We were dropping into a canyon” — the Middle Creek drainage of the Shoshone River — “too much to turn around and we didn’t have any room, so I had to fly straight into the trees,” Betzold said.
While that sounds suicidal, he was following a lesson he’d been taught for the small plane: “straight ahead and under control. Land it wherever you have to.”
“I didn’t ever really want to try it, but I had to,” Betzold said of heading into the mix of pine trees. He said trying a landing on the curvy U.S. Highway 14-16-20 could have proven treacherous and attempting to turn could have started a deadly spiral.
It all happened quickly.
There was enough time for Betzold to share an expletive with his passenger and son, Douglas Betzold, but the two had an opportunity for little else before the craft was going down.
“Things are happening so fast you don’t really have time to get scared,” Betzold said.
The plane shredded in the tall trees, with pieces scattered over a couple hundred yards. Jim Betzold’s body also took a beating as the craft fell to a halt: He broke two ribs and his nose, fractured his spine, cut up his knees and bruised his head.
“At least I’m not taking a dirt nap,” a sore Jim Betzold laughed on Monday. Douglas Betzold, 25, escaped with cuts and bruises.
They were back on the ground at around 4:30 p.m. Friday, but the two men weren’t out of the woods yet.
They had no cell phone coverage in the wilds of Yellowstone, the plane’s radio wasn’t working and a handheld radio on-hand for emergencies failed to reach anyone, Jim Betzold said. The plane’s emergency beacon was picked up by a commercial airliner, he said, but something didn’t work right and the location was off by 50 miles.
“I knew we were going to have to stay the night, because we were hurting pretty bad, bleeding pretty good,” Betzold.
Using their emergency supplies, they built a fire, got some water and took some Tylenol to make it through the night.
Meanwhile, Sharon Betzold, Jim’s wife who was back in Alaska, learned the two men hadn’t made it to their destination in the Boise, Idaho, area.
“From my side of things, when I realized Jim and Douglas were ‘missing’, it was a very long night,” she said in an email.
The Park County Sheriff’s Office learned of the overdue aircraft around midnight Saturday. A search for the plane began at first light. A Park County Search and Rescue airplane ended up using the emergency beacon to locate Betzold’s plane around 9 a.m. Saturday, said Lance Mathess, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
A joint rescue operation was then launched with ground units from the National Park Service in Yellowstone and the county’s Search and Rescue team. As the crews were making their way to the crash site — a little less than a mile south of U.S. Highway 14-16-20 — they encountered the Betzolds walking out, Mathess said.
Douglas and Jim Betzold heard traffic on the highway Friday evening and had begun making their way — slowly, due to Jim’s injuries and the rugged terrain — towards the road as soon as daylight allowed, Jim Betzold said.
Upon meeting up with the rescue crews, the Betzolds were then treated by crews from West Park Hospital and taken by ambulance to the Cody medical facility.
Betzold praised the work of the medical and Search and Rescue crews, who he described as helpful, concerned and accommodating.
“Real good people,” he said.
Sharon Betzold also passed along her thanks to those involved in the search, including Park County Search and Rescue Commander Mart Knapp, Mike Pape with Idaho Division of Aeronautics and “Jay” at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.
“When Mr. Pape called the morning of Saturday, October 12, and said ‘I have some good news!’ that was all I needed to hear,” she said.
Deputy Chief Ranger Nick Herring of Yellowstone National Park praised the professionalism, expertise and quick work of the crews from Search and Rescue and the Park Service.
“We have a great dedicated group with Park County (Search and Rescue),” said Park County Sheriff Scott Steward in a post on Facebook. “Outstanding job and thanks for all you do to help our citizens and those who visit our awesome area.”
The crash investigation has been turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, Mathess said.
Betzold, for his part, has no idea what went wrong with his plane, which he carefully maintained for roughly 20 years. He said the craft performed flawlessly coming down through Canada on the trip.
“Everything’s that way: it works real good until it breaks,” he said.
He expects the plane is a total loss and does not know what will happen to the remains, located inside Yellowstone National Park’s boundary.
Betzold, whose home of Beluga is reachable only by plane, intends to resume flying.
“If I had the plane, I’d fly it today,” he said Monday. “I’ll definitely get another airplane as soon as I can.”