“Jesus, there it is.”
It was 4:46 p.m. on Aug. 28, and Brent Kallem — a flight paramedic on board St. Luke’s Health System’s Bell 429 GlobalRanger high country rescue helicopter — gazed along the east side of a granite peak in Idaho’s Payette National Forest.
A white and green plane was crumpled into a jumble of pines, a 50-foot-wide debris path trailing it, one wing severed.
On a scenic flight east to the US Forest Service’s Soldier Bar Airport, the Cessna TU206F Turbo Stationair II had begun a steady descent less than 14 nautical miles from the town of McCall, where it had taken off. Eight nautical miles later, it hit its last radar target, according to a preliminary report from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The US Air Force’s Rescue Coordination Center picked up the plane’s emergency locator beacon around 1:18 p.m., triggering the hunt for McCall Aviation’s missing aircraft.
Flanking Kallem in the high country rescue chopper from Boise were pilot Doug Mohr and Brad Galleher, the flight nurse.
It appeared as if the Cessna had lopped off the top of a tree six stories high, then plowed 120 feet into the forest, its wings chopping down trees before coming to rest about 1,000 feet below the mountain’s peak.
It was 50 nautical miles away from its intended destination.
The rescuers expected to find no survivors.
“My God, there’s a guy that comes out from under the wing and is waving at you,” Mohr told Coffee or Die Magazine about what the crew saw as they approached.
They landed in a meadow and began the 40-minute trek up the mountain. But they knew help was coming.
A radio call to Boise had scrambled Air St. Luke’s Magic Valley Paramedics Special Operations Rescue Team, experts at saving high country crash victims. Another Bell 429, flown by Tim Allen, carried the team’s field supervisor, paramedic Chad Smith, and Mike Boughton, a flight nurse. They landed in the meadow and started up the mountain too.
The Boise teams found one passenger in the Cessna dead and another entrapped by the engine block. The pilot who’d flagged them down had suffered a broken leg and abdominal injuries.
The air reeked of splintered softwood and leaking high-octane avgas, a potentially combustible combination. The plane was partly vertical and teetered between the tree limbs that cradled it. To treat the trapped man inside, the high country rescue crew would have to stabilize the Cessna.
That’s why Smith was there. A SORT member since 2013, he was a pro at technical rope rescues, using rigging at very high altitudes to save lives.
Nearing the crash site was a Two Bear Air Rescue crew with a hoist in their helicopter that could haul people off the mountainside and drop them at a meadow landing strip, saving everyone from scrabbling up and down the slope with their gear and any survivors.
A Hotshot handcrew also rappelled from a Bell 205 helicopter directly onto the wreckage site. The four Hotshots wanted to make sure no sparks from the crash had ignited the fallen firs.
Then another crew rappelled in. Now there were eight Hotshots to help out.
Smith recalled one of the Hotshots saying, “We’re not really good at anything but cutting trees, but we can probably build you a landing zone right here.”
Two Hotshots broke off to help Smith stabilize the Cessna with ropes. That gave Smith the chance to reach the passenger trapped inside and start an intravenous line of fluids and whole blood into his right arm.
He’d lost so much blood, he’d turned pale. To keep him alive, they’d need to warm him up, so the medical teams placed hot packs in his armpits and groin before swaddling him as best as they could in sleeping bags.
Smith and the others began cutting away at the Cessna’s metal to get closer to the patient. Then they ripped apart the seats so they finally could free him.
Two Bear Air hoisted out the first medical team’s flight nurse, Galleher, and the survivor with the broken leg. They dropped them off near the Bell 429 in the meadow, and the air ambulance flew off to a trauma center about an hour away.
Smith told Coffee or Die they prepped for the possibility that their patient’s blood pressure would drop rapidly once they pulled him out from under the plane engine.
Minutes after he was freed, his heart stopped.
“He had tons of internal chest and abdominal injuries, a pelvic fracture,” Smith said. “The internal bleeding was bad.”
Smith’s team went to work. They needed to help him breathe, so a cut was made in the patient’s throat to stick in a cricothyrotomy airway device. They also inserted chest tubes to reverse the blood pooling in the patient’s chest cavity, pressuring the lungs and heart.
Darkness was falling. The man died.
On the flight back, Smith took to pondering. He didn’t like that the patient had died, but he liked that they’d given him a fighting chance. And they saved the plane’s pilot.
“I mean, it sucks because that’s not the outcome we want, but at the end of the day, I also feel like we gave him every possible chance to survive that he wouldn’t have gotten,” Smith said. “I don’t know of any other civilian service that can provide that care in that situation. Basically, other than an [operating room], he got every treatment he would have gotten at a hospital.”
The Hotshots spent the night on the mountain. The landing zone they built made it easier for crews to return and extract the dead passengers. Federal accident investigators also used the spot to reach the wreckage.
A final report into the crash hasn’t been completed.
This content was originally posted by Coffee or Die magazine in December 2021.