Rocky Mountain rescue

I have been a pilot for around 30 years and have a commercial license and instrument rating. I currently have a V35B Bonanza, but for the first 18 years of flying I had a Cessna 182. This story happened around 2000 in the east/central part of British Columbia in the Cariboo/Bugaboo area of the Rocky Mountains.

I am a certified appraiser and utilized my plane to service smaller towns around Prince George. I made a trip to Valemount to do some inspections where I would put my mountain bike in the back of my Cessna and would conduct my inspections on the bicycle and then fly home (two of my favorite things).

I live in Prince George and Valemount is about an hour flight to the east, going past Mount Robson peaking just under 13,000 feet, which is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Truly an eye candy trip.

I usually follow the highway just in case of engine trouble but this time, on my way home, and for the first time, noticed a valley that was a little more direct to Prince George. I thought what the heck, I have good elevation (8,500 ASL) and if there was a problem, I could likely glide to the highway.

Mount Robson
Mount Robson is a beautiful place to fly by, but not a great place to be stranded in a car.

As I was following this valley I centered my VOR and the needle was right on the 080 radial and my DME showed 80.0 nautical miles from the station. Well heck, that’s like in the cross hairs for aviation so I decided to look down and see where I was geographically. When I looked down, I saw a red flare coming up at me. Well that’s a first. I looked again and a second red flare was shot upwards. I began a circling descent and noticed on this logging road, four individuals with their arms outstretched basically making a “T” sign. I didn’t know what that meant. (turns out it means vehicle trouble).

I thought perhaps there was a medical emergency and they wanted me to land. The logging road was straight enough and wide enough to facilitate a landing, but usually these roads are full of pot holes and if I pranged up the plane, then two parties would be stranded. I elected to climb high enough so my VHF radio could contact Flight Service and broadcast the location for this stranded party. That is what I did and continued my flight home.

Upon landing, I thought I would stop in and see the Flight Service Specialist and see how things were proceeding. He informed me the RCMP dispatched a Mountie from McBride. I said, “Geeze, Prince George is much closer than McBride. They should have sent someone from here.” He suggested I phone them up, which I did. They immediately said, “OK, we will send someone from Prince George.”

I then asked them if they could find them based on the 080 radial and 80 miles from the station. They said they got a basic idea from the FSS but only had forestry maps to navigate. At that point I asked if they would like me to refuel and lead their members to the lost party. They immediately took me up on that offer. I said if there is indeed a medical emergency and an air-evac is required, their cruiser car was to turn on the emergency lights and I would attempt a landing.

I refueled and flew back to the scene and noticed the officer from Prince George had arrived at the turn off to Hungry Creek. I then flew in the direction of the stranded party. When there was a split in the road, I would fly a circle in the direction I wanted the officer to steer. He would then turn in the opposite direction to where I wanted him to go and I nicknamed him “Wrong Way.” He was heading up this narrow ravine with rapidly rising terrain and I tried turning him around but undaunted, he kept up with his heading. I grabbed an unused appraisal report form and wrote on it “Wrong Way,” crunched it into a ball and flew low and slow over him and threw it out the window. (Later he thought he saw something being tossed out the window, but it landed in a really overgrown thicket and did not bother to trudge into it on the off chance his vision was correct.)

Logging road Canada
A logging road as a landing strip? Hopefully not.

This was rather a hectic part of the trip for me as the ravine was narrow, requiring me to basically fly within the walls of the valley. When I was headed to the west, I was in a direct line with the sun and vision was almost impossible due to the blinding light. This was compounded by the stall horn going off due to my slow flight and angle of bank to keep the plane within the walls of the valley.

Just when I was about to give up, the fellow from McBride showed up. Wrong Way told him I kept circling around him and the new guy suggested he may have gone the Wrong Way! The rest of the way was relatively painless. The Mounties were going at a good clip along the logging roads which must have been punishing on both car and body. Finally, through various turns and crossbacks, they came upon the stranded party.

Wow, talk about a lot of excited jumping up and down and waving hands. The Mounties also joined in with the waving. I still get shivers up my back when I remember this part of the trip. There was no emergency lighting activated so I flew home.

The next day Wrong Way came to my office to thank me for my service. He informed me the stranded party was a mom, dad, two kids around 10 and 8 years and a little dog. The father was showing his family his hunting grounds when the fuel pump on their truck packed it in.

This is the Hungry Creek area of the McGregor chain, which is the foothills to the Rockies. There are few better places to hunt grizzly bears than this area. Little (or big) dogs make some of the best bait for grizzly bears. Anyway, a couple days later, after their truck was fixed, the family came to my office to thank me for my efforts in leading the RCMP to them.

They said they had already spent a night in the truck and there was no vehicle traffic to help them out. This is a really remote spot and that time of the year was basically barren of any traffic. They decided to walk out to the highway. They had no food but some candies and limited water. They had walked around five miles and thought they were going the right direction in making a turn to the left. They walked another mile and a half and came to the end of a clear cut. They then had to walk all the way back to the main logging road. When they got back to the main road the kids started crying as they were afraid, tired and hungry.

Grizzly bear
The only thing living in this part of the Canadian Rockies is not always friendly.

They are a religious family so Mom and Dad said let’s join hands and pray to God for help (this is the exciting part). After the prayer ended, they heard the noise from my engine. I flew right over them and started to leave them behind. That is when the dad decided to fire off one of their emergency flares. They had six of these and wanted to keep them for protection from bears as they already had observed two during their walk. When I overflew them he tried firing one. That’s when I had looked down!

On cross country flights I always scan the horizon looking for landing strips in case of an emergency but seldom do I directly look down.

When I started to turn, he fired another one. The rest is history. They brought me a nice bottle of whisky to thank me for my contribution to their safety. When I told the story to my Rotary Club, someone asked if I am now a converted Christian. I replied, “After I finish the whisky I may consider it.”

The story made the local radio and newspaper as the RCMP like to pass along “good news” stories. It also made it in two Calgary newspapers as the family was from Airdrie, a suburb of Calgary. It also made The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper. That’s Incredible, a show from the States, phoned me up and asked if I would be willing to re-enact the story if they sent up a film crew but this never happened.

I now have just under 2,000 hours and have never experienced anything like that again. I think this family has some important things to do in this world as I had never gone along that flight path before and kind of felt like a puppet on a string. It was exhilarating to be able to use my aircraft and my flying skills to help a family in need.

I still use my aircraft for appraisal assignments away from my home town and like nothing better than to drive my plane to work!

2 Comments

  • David,
    Great story. FWIW I know of three similar events over the past 15 years where people in the western US have followed their GPS on primitive roads into terrain with no cell coverage… got stuck, and perished. Unfortunately, they did not have a guardian agel, such as you, to save them. Thanks for your story. It’s a good reminder that by looking outside we may see something other than scenery and other aircraft.

  • David. Great story! And an amazing rescue. I have traveled through that same area by motorcycle on a solo trip from Alaska to Nova Scotia. I stopped along highway 16 for a cooling dip in a river, well it never happened. As I was about to enter the river at the rest area i started hearing big crashing noises in the woods just off the path. I hightailed it out of there pdq. As i got back on the Yellowhead I saw a sign for the Sugarbowl Grizzly Den protected area!! Black bears don’t really scare me but Grizzlys sure do.

    I plan on returning to the same area next summer in my 172. I am excited to be able to see this vast country from the air.

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