Sunday, April 7, 2013

08- The First Crash Of Sky 9 April 8, 1980


It’s been 36 years...36 years on April 8th, 2016
Between 1980 and 1994
Channel 9 lost 6 helicopters
and 5 colleagues.
I was on board the first time Sky 9 crashed.
Monday April 8th, 1980, at 9 a.m.
                
Haney Howell
Jug Hill
Chuck Richardson
When the pager goes off you just get up and go, simple as that. I left early, leaving Margie in a warm bed, explaining I would be searching in the helicopter for a lost cross-country skier in the Medicine Bow Mountains. I sped to the downtown helipad meeting pilot Jug Hill and Haney Howell, the reporter, before sunrise. Jug and I flew together in Sky 9 every weekday morning for the early news show on KBTV. This was really no different from every other morning, just earlier. Haney was there to report on, what might turn out be, a strong human-interest story requiring more than a pilot and photographer.
The weather was cool and clear in Denver but the mountains were overcast with reports of wind gusts up to 70 miles an hour. Cloudy or clear, I always wore mountaineering sunglasses in Sky 9 to hide my eyes.
Currigan Helipad 
On these early mornings, just minutes out of bed, sleep was never very far away and if Jug noticed me nodding off in the left seat, he would immediately put the helicopter into a dive jolting me awake. He loved to see me gasping, my arms grabbing at empty air. “You must a got a little too much of that “poor man’s either” last night” he’d howl, between laughs.
After awhile I learned to sleep sitting straight up and, with my mountaineering glasses on, he couldn’t tell whether I was awake or not; just one of my little copter survival skills. And copter skills were very important with no camera mount, no gyro-stabilizer, no monitor and sometimes a hair raising trip standing outside on the skids for, what we thought was, a better shot.
The search was going on in the Rawah Wilderness Area located at the top of Poudre Canyon west above Ft. Collins. We found the Rocky Mountain Alpine Rescue Headquarters and met rescurer Hunter Holloway who accompanied us in Sky 9.
No camera mount, no gyro-stabilizer, no monitor, no hair brush.
And you might have to shoot standing outside on the  skid.
The cross-country skier had been missing since Sunday morning. We had been searching the area for 45 minutes with no success when Hunter suggested we go back and rendezvous with the ground teams. As we approached the Chambers Lake parking lot, we could see people on the ground and decided to land. Jug mentioned something about a Chinook helicopter in the area but I never saw it before the crash. There was some later question as to whether he hurried the landing because of the nearby Chinook but the approach seemed normal to me. I’d seen Jug quickly spin the helicopter for a landing dozens of times. Rather than turning in a slow bank, he’d freeze the front corner in the direction he was turning, and spin the ship around that point. It’s a very quick way to come about. This time, just as he began the maneuver, a strong gust of wind hit us broadside. The small tail rotor couldn’t overcome the natural tendency of the ship to spin the same direction as the, much larger, overhead rotor. This loss of “tail rotor effect” sent us into an accelerating spin. By the second time around, I knew something was wrong. I was pushed against the door by centrifugal force. With more altitude we could have overcome the problem but at 200 feet there was no hope. Jug tried to get more power from the collective (the emergency-brake-like stick located between the seats) but the thin air at 10,000 feet wouldn’t let the blades bite like they did in lower, thicker air. He literally broke the collective off pulling on it with his left hand as we crashed.
It was all so surreal, and very chaotic. One second there was gray to my left and green to my right...then gray... then green... and gray and green. Round and round we went...in total silence. I remember very clearly after the first, and slowest rotation, Jug calmly saying into the microphone, “Hold on.” But after that, as we spun faster and then crashed into the treetops, there wasn’t a sound. It was eerie. Either my brain turned off the audio, or the helicopter headphones silenced what must have been a very noisy final approach. The searchers below hit the ground as we tumbled down through the trees, the rotor chopping 3-foot sections as we fell. Shrapnel shot everywhere as Sky 9 separated into thousands of pieces of flying debris. They said it was quite a sight, the tail rotor splitting off and landing on the other side of the road. Loud as hell. Sorry I missed it. The view wasn’t as good from my position.
There were small pieces of aluminum honeycomb
from the rotor and splinters of wood everywhere.
While I didn’t experience anything like my life flashing by, there was something worth noting. I’ve vocalized the same two words every time I’ve been in a life-threatening situation the moment I realized I was in real trouble. It’s happened enough times, and I mention this only because of this remarkable frequency, that I’m sure, if conscious, it’ll someday be the last thing I say,
“Oh Shit! ”, the words perfectly encapsulating both the explosive emotion and the total comprehension of the moment.
The chaotic, bumping and banging came to a sudden dark and airless stop. The cabin remained intact, but we came to rest inverted and on our left side, breaking out the Plexiglas around me. There’s no doubt all four of us would have been killed except for one thing...the cushioning effect of 20 feet of soft, fresh Colorado Champaign powder. Powdery snow that was now flooding, like water, into the broken cockpit. I was upside-down, on my head and left shoulder, and entangled in headphone and video cables. Only my right wrist, located somewhere near my face, could move. It was completely black. I couldn’t see but more important, I couldn’t breathe. With my free hand I grabbed at my face realizing only now it was snow I was gagging on. Jug was suspended from his seat on the right side, up and out of the snow. In the confusion, he unfastened his seat harness, and fell, head first, into the normally overhead control panel. Jug now stood in the only place available to him...on top of me.
I don’t remember saying anything but Jug swears I was yelling “Fire!” I do remember thinking that fire was a distinct possibility but I don’t remember saying it out loud. As I was clearing my face of the choking snow with my available hand and finally able to breathe, I saw my fingers were covered with blood...blood from my head. This is where Jug claims I screamed, “Fire!” but I only remember yelling, “Get off me! Get off!” as his boots stepped all over my upside down body. I didn’t feel any pain but I certainly was concerned about that blood.
I needn’t have been. It was pouring down from the Jug’s head where he’d received a large gash from falling into the control panel after releasing his seat belt. It was all his blood on me but at the time I was convinced I was hurt pretty bad. It was a scary moment. Jug scrambled up to and out of the side door. I freed my arms from the snow, sat upright, disentangled myself from the cables and climbed to the edge of the doorway just as the huge Chinook passed low overhead looking, for all the world, like the mother ship in “Close Encounters”.
Once I realized I was still alive, my next thought was of the camera gear. I found the TV camera buried in the snow under the front of the helicopter but it wouldn’t fire up. It must have fallen out through the broken Plexiglas. The recorder was in the back seat and seemed to be all right. By now Jug had found a passing motorist, who gave him a sanitary napkin to use as a temporary head bandage. I can still see him being led away from his fallen copter with that Kotex tied on his head and a large gauze bow under his chin. Haney was in the back seat just regaining consciousness. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. The camera recorder had struck him in the head. He was put on a backboard and taken to the waiting Chinook, trying to shout over the engines in sort of a half-stoned voice, “Chuck, Get pictures. Get pictures“.
They were both flown to the hospital in Ft. Collins. Jug escaped with a few stitches and Haney regained control of his extremities by the afternoon. Hunter Holloway had escaped without a scratch. I had smashed my right leg into the center console and hurt my lower back in the crash but didn‘t feel any pain for about an hour. I was taken to a small cabin a half-mile away to stay warm.
It was then I noticed my shin was swelling tight against the inside of my pant leg. My back was beginning to throb too. I was hurt but didn’t say anything. I didn’t want anyone to make me leave the crash site because my back pack was in the luggage compartment of the wreckage. I didn't want to lose my money, credit cards and IDs. I didn’t care to have my personal possessions picked over by just anyone, or even worse left behind in the deep snow.
Gary Croshaw, the northern bureau reporter for Ch 4 showed up at the cabin about an hour after the crash. I told him what happened, but said we crashed too far off the road for pictures. He’s a good friend. I can’t believe I said that. I must have been in shock or more likely embarrassed to BE the story instead of COVERING it. I didn’t want anyone to see Sky 9 like that either.
The story broke on Denver radio stations early that morning and Margie heard as she was driving to work: “Sky 9 has crashed. There is no word on survivors.” You can imagine how she felt.
What a way to start a Monday
The pain was just beginning to kick in as I caught a ride back to the crash site to retrieve my backpack with a borrowed shovel from a sheriff’s deputy. The cockpit had remained remarkably intact in spite of the trees, and the inverted landing. The ship was more on its side now than I remembered, the rescuers must have rolled it a little, but part of the top and all of the left side were still buried in the snow. There were small pieces of aluminum honeycomb from the rotor and splinters of wood everywhere. The luggage compartment door had come open as we were falling and the contents scattered.
The snow had been trampled by rescuers and there was no way to tell where my falling back pack might have hit and disturbed the snow.
If they had found it, they would have brought it to me or, more likely, set it aside with the other camera gear. Since it wasn’t in plain sight, my guess was it landed under the wreckage. I tried to dig with the shovel but found nothing but more pain from my now steadily throbbing legs and back.
It was cold and windy but I stayed there, waiting and chatting with the deputy, until a crane arrived that afternoon and lifted the wreck. Sure enough, there buried underneath Sky 9 was my pack. My posessions were intact.
Within the hour Chief Photographer Sam Allen arrived from channel 9 and drove me and the gear back to Denver. We talked about the crash and compaired other close calls we’d had along the way and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. But, of course, it did. Over the next 14 years the station lost 5 more news helicopters and 5 lives. It was dangerous work.
All these years later, almost another lifetime, the joys and sorrows of the last 36 years seem all the more precious. All this living has been extra; a gift.
I tell traveling companions they’re safe with me because I’ve already crashed once, so the odds are not in favor of it happening again.
I’ve stopped at the crash site a few times over the years while crossing over Cameron Pass. I’ve paused at the three chopped-off trees on the north side of the road by the Chamber‘s Lake parking lot. I’ve sat there, beside the road with Margie, watching the sun sparkle off the broken pieces of plexi-glass still littering the ground. It makes me feel humble; humble and very, very grateful for all the extra time.

7 comments:

  1. What a story and once again, glad you're still around, Chuck!! By the way, what was the name of the chopper pilot who followed Jug. I can see his face, but no name!

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  2. Ah, and Haney...those were the day, eh?

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  3. If memory serves, I believe Jim Dirker came along when Jug retired. After Jim left, Leo Galanis came to the Mighty 9'er. Sadly he and Chief Photog Brian Hostetler were killed when they hit an unmarked 'static line' near the Hogback in the west metro area. Static lines are (or used to be) 1/4" cable that ran 15-20 feet above high voltage electric transmission lines to capture lightning strikes instead of the lightning hitting the power lines. There was a low cloud cover so they were flying lower than usual which is why they hit the line. Every time I drive I-70 near Morrison I see the 'aviation balls' on those lines that weren't there at the time of the crash. Can't help but wonder if Leo would have seen the line if it had been marked. Art Hill followed Leo. Art and photog Kirk Selby were in an accident following an engine failure on take off or landing (can't recall which), but both walked away. Our last fatal accident involved pilot Peter Peelgrane and his mechanic. They were doing a test flight following scheduled engine maintenance. They were over Horsetooth Reservoir on an icy winter morning when the engine failed. Peter auto-rotated down so softly that the fiberglass antenna on the bottom of the ship didn't break on impact with the ice. The ice wasn't thick enough to support the ship's weight and they went into the reservoir. The mechanic drowned, but Peter survived for several days due in part to the freezing water. Unfortunately he never awoke from his coma. Several years later the Denver stations began sharing a chopper.

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    1. Hi Marc, I want to clarify a couple of things for the sake of accuracy. First, Peter did survive the crash and eventually emerged from his coma. I remember the first time I saw him at the hospital months after the crash. His wife Karen asked if he remembered me. Peter said, "Yes, that's the mate who threw up in me helicopter." He remembered the one moment that I wanted him to forget. Peter fought hard for more than 3 years to recover, but on the day of the crash, his heart stopped for at least 45 minutes and his body temperature sank to approximately 71 degrees. His body and brain simply endured too much damage. Thankfully, he maintained much of his personality and sense of humor. He eventually died from pneumonia. The second thing I wanted to clarify is that there were two freelance photographers on board Sky9 the day it auto-rotated into Horsetooth, not a mechanic. Their names were Michael Stone and Bob Ash and they were Peter's friends. I knew Michael, but sadly never got to meet Bob. They did not survive the crash.

      Thanks Chuck for sharing your story. You're still an excellent writer and journalist. A lot of people don't think about the news business as being dangerous, but it can be at times. I remember standing on that skid thinking I could fly. Unfortunately, life has a way of humbling us and bringing us back to Earth.

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  4. What a captivating story Chuck, WOW! When Sky9 went down, I was around 7 years old at that time. I absolutely LOVED Sky9 and my heart was broken to see Sky9 on its side. I was certainly grateful that everyone was going to be alright. At my impressionable age, I was so fascinated with 9 News that I would pretend and dress up like a photographer and be in my own make-believe world as a child being the dedicated photojournalist for 9 News.

    However, one of the most cherished memories was when Sky9 visited my school, Green Gables Elementary. Sky9 landed in the school's field before all of us kids. Wow, that was awesome! I brought a Polaroid camera and snapped a couple of pictures shortly after touching down. I will see if I can find those pictures and post them here sometime. I did not remember the names of the pilot and the passenger, but thanks to your story, the pilot was Jug Hill. As I look at your picture, I think you were the passenger who flew with Jug to my school. I think you, Chuck, did most of the talking and told all of us kids about your harrowing experience crashing in Sky9. One of you, I physically remember having short fingers as that was something I for some reason still remember. Then came time for Sky9 to depart. I still remember the sights and sounds of Sky9 cranking to life and watching a small dark puff of exhaust gasses emit from the exhaust section of the Allison engine and away you flew away.

    I have wondered through the years about all of you. Your story really brings back amazing childhood memories and I thank you. Congratulations on your amazing work as photographer...AWESOME!

    Your truly,

    Mike Sutherland
    Jacksonville, FL.

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  5. Thanks for sharing. I will share with those still here at 9 news. I flew for a few months with Jimmy Negri and Amelia Earhart (traffic reporter) and loved it. It"s a very unique profession. I'm on the ground now as a "photog"

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