Joseph and Maria Richards were flown to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, where they were listed in fair condition in the Intensive Care Unit on Monday. They were scheduled for additional surgery that day.
The Richardses’ plane went down at about 3:50 p.m. approximately two miles east of Yellow Mountain and about seven miles northeast of Younts Peak, said Mart Knapp, Park County Homeland Security coordinator, who coordinated the rescue operation though his position as interim liaison officer for Park County Search and Rescue. Though initially thought to be in the Shoshone National Forest, the site later proved to be barely inside the Teton Wilderness, he said.
A snowtel in the area indicated there was about 57 inches of snow on the ground, though that could vary a foot or two either way at the crash site, Knapp said.
One rescuer said the snow was very deep at the site, but the crust was hard and supported the rescuers’ weight.
The Richardses were flying from Boise, Idaho, to St. Louis, with a stop in Michigan on the way. The single-engine plane, N52VC, is listed as an experimental aircraft with two seats owned by Joseph Richards.
Knapp said there is some speculation that the Richardses’ plane went down because of icing.
“The way the weather was, I don’t think you can rule icing out,” he said. “The pilot was concerned about the weather, and with the clouds the way they were — it wasn’t raining or snowing, but with clouds, you’ve got moisture.”
The actual cause of the crash won’t be determined until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation, he said.
The crash was reported by the Salt Lake City Air Route Traffic Control Center, which had been monitoring the plane’s progress on radar. That prompted a call from the Park County Dispatch Center to Park County Search and Rescue, West Park Hospital and the Cody Volunteer Fire Department.
Rescue crews staged near South Fork Highway and Hunter Creek Road, approximately 50 miles out of Cody. Calls for helicopters to assist with the rescue went to Sky Aviation in Worland and Air Idaho in Idaho Falls. A fixed wing airplane also helped with the search and with communications.
The plane was located about 6:30 p.m., shortly after both helicopters arrived in the area. The Sky Aviation helicopter, piloted by Josh Hellyer, flew three firefighters and their rescue gear to the crash site first.
The firefighters were needed first because the plane’s canopy was stuck, trapping the Richardses inside the plane, Knapp said. The firefighters took extrication equipment to remove the canopy so they could be removed from the plane.
Hellyer then made a second trip to fly three members of a wilderness rescue team from West Park Hospital to the crash site. The team included two intermediate emergency medical technicians and a paramedic, said Kevin Schlosser, who coordinated West Park Hospital’s rescue operation efforts.
Intermediate EMTs have at least 316 hours of training, and a paramedic has at least 1,200 hours of training. In addition, each team member has additional training in wilderness rescue, Schlosser said.
The couple was carefully removed from the plane and provided any immediate treatment needed, then packaged for transportation to the Air Idaho helicopter, which flew them to the hospital in Idaho Falls.
That initially caused some confusion, as two ambulances from West Park Hospital were at the staging area, expecting to transport the crash victims to the hospital. When Hellyer informed them Air Idaho was transporting them directly to the hospital, WPH personnel in Cody were notified the patients were on the way there.
Knapp said he always leaves the decision on where to take patients up to the pilot of the medical rescue helicopter.
“They have the experts on board,” he said.
The Air Idaho pilot decided to take the Richardses to Idaho Falls because trauma was involved, and because Jackson was closer and he could refuel there, Knapp said.
Though relatively brief, rescue efforts were very complicated, Knapp said. The rescue operation required coordination of the Park County Sheriff’s office, Park County Search and Rescue, the Cody Volunteer Fire Department, West Park Hospital, the county’s fixed-wing plane and the helicopters from Sky Aviation of Worland and Air Idaho, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, air traffic control radar bases in Salt Lake City and Seattle, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, the Shoshone National Forest and Teton National Forest, and briefly, Park County Homeland Security and the Wyoming Civil Air Patrol.
In addition, Knapp said, the command center fielded a few calls from family members and friends of the Richardses.
“You figure all those people were calling in,” he said. “It was wild.”
One tense moment came when no one was sure whether the Air Idaho helicopter had made it to the crash site. A radio call went out to the pilot of the fixed-wing plane to try to verify the helicopter’s presence visually, but the pilot couldn’t see the crash site at that time because of low clouds.
Knapp said he then functioned in his Homeland Security position and asked for help from the Wyoming Civil Air Patrol. That request later was cancelled when Air Idaho’s presence at the scene was verified by Hellyer when he brought back the three firefighters at the conclusion of the rescue.
That confusion was caused partly by differences in communication systems, and partly because the helicopters were on the ground.
“Once the helicopter sets down, they lose their communications,” Knapp said.
The Richardses “were really glad to be off that mountain,” one firefighter said after returning from the scene. “They’re nice people.”
Knapp said he was pleased with how well, and how fast, the rescue operation went.
“Very seldom are you going to have a plane crash in the winter in the wilderness and have them out in four and a half hours,” he said. “This could have turned into an all-night affair,” Knapp said. “The fact that we were able to get them out in four and a half hours is a credit to the four (Park County) agencies working together.
“The FAA and the NTSB have all expressed gratitude just for the way we handled it and the speed we got it done. I won’t say they couldn’t believe it, but an operation like this is not an easy operation.”
The Richardses were flown out at 8:45 p.m., just before nightfall. Had the rescue taken much longer, the couple likely would have been on the mountain all night, because the helicopters would have been unable to fly in the dark.
Knapp said he learned later that the Richardses were unable to reach their emergency equipment while they were trapped in the plane.
“If they had had to spend the night, it would have been really rough on them,” he said.