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MEEKER | When a small single-engine airplane performed an emergency landing in the Flat Tops Wilderness in January, everyone breathed a sigh of relief that plane’s occupants were able to walk away from the event uninjured. But that’s not the end of the story.
The pilot and his wife were picked up by helicopter and transported to Pioneers Medical Center after the emergency landing, but the plane was left behind. That created a conundrum for the insurance company and for the Forest Service.
“It’s against wilderness values to have a mechanized vehicle in that area,” said Blanco District Wilderness Manager Tory Houser. “We already have agreements with search and rescue that covered getting the people out, but extracting the plane required a Minimum Requirements Analysis.” The analysis is used to establish the minimum impact to the wilderness.
The Forest Service had to determine the best course of action to protect the wilderness and still extract the plane.
“We could have waited until summer and gone in with a pack string of mules,” Houser said. “But that would have taken weeks.”
“The insurance company wanted the plane out intact to investigate the cause for the emergency landing,” said Blanco District Ranger Curtis Keetch. Explaining the remote location, high altitude and weather conditions that precluded rapid extraction of the plane to the Arizona-based insurance company fell to Keetch.
“We had to wait for a two-day window of good weather,” he explained. January’s heavy snowfall made that difficult. Area snowfall reports increased from 61 inches at the beginning of January to 81 inches by the end of the month.
The high elevation required a specialized helicopter. The insurance company contracted with a salvage specialist and helicopter. The helicopter, a Huey model from the Vietnam era, had just undergone major maintenance and repairs.
After some delays, the extraction was scheduled for Feb. 16.
The helicopter flew in to the site, approximately 32 miles from Meeker, and dropped off the salvage specialist at about 9:30 a.m.
“He told them to come back at 1:30 p.m.,” Keetch said.
The salvage specialist dug the plane out of the snow and removed the wings from the fuselage during that window of time. When the helicopter returned, they picked up the wings and the fuselage separately for transport to the Lost Creek parking area.
“They were able to take everything out without setting down the helicopter,” Keetch said.
The wings and fuselage were placed on a flatbed trailer and taken out through Meeker.
The only piece that’s left behind is the plane’s landing gear, which came off during the landing and is buried in the snow.
“We’ll go back in this summer and take that out,” Houser said.
“This kind of thing is a rare occurrence,” Keetch said. “The best outcome is the folks who walked away from it.”