Friday, December 2, 2011

Plane crashes on ridge near Hailey

Passengers injured, aircraft damaged

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Sgt. Jamie Shaw, Blaine County Sheriff’s Office. A Piper Turbo Lance II crashed on a ridgeline above Water Gulch on Tuesday night, injuring its two passengers. The Blaine County Sheriff’s Office reports that the crash was caused by a malfunctioning autopilot, though the case is still under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A small private plane crashed on a ridge about a mile east of Hailey just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, injuring the two occupants and sending a technical rescue crew on a hike in search of the craft.

The Piper Turbo Lance II, a single-engine plane, went down at the top of Water Gulch, east of the southern end of Woodside subdivision, shortly after takeoff from Friedman Memorial Airport.

Jay Davis, public information officer for the Blaine County Sheriff's Office, said pilot Paul Tower of Boise attempted to activate the craft's autopilot just after takeoff. Davis stated in a news release that the system apparently did not engage correctly. The plane banked sharply to the left, hitting the ridge and injuring the occupants.

Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman said Tower suffered a compound fracture in his hand. Passenger Christina Rathbun, also of Boise, suffered a laceration to her head and was reportedly experiencing back pain after the crash.

The two were transported to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, then to St. Luke's Boise Medical Center. Rathbun has since been transferred to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

Lassman said the pilot called emergency dispatch by cell phone at about 7:15 p.m., reporting the crash and two injuries. However, crews never reached the scene because of the remote location of the crash and confusion on the part of the pilot.

"He said he was somewhere between Bellevue and Shoshone," Lassman said, adding that the disorientation was almost expected. "It was dark out, he'd just been in a plane crash and he had a severe hand injury."

Using coordinates from Friedman's air traffic control tower and the caller's cell phone, Lassman sent a two-person technical rescue team toward the site of the crash, in an attempt to reach the passengers as soon as possible. Meanwhile, as the crew was hiking, Lassman organized another technical rescue team with litters, ropes and climbing harnesses to extract the patients.

But before crews could arrive, an Air St. Luke's helicopter summoned by Lassman was able to land on scene above the crash site, extricate Rathbun from the aircraft and transport both patients to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center. Fire department crews cleared the scene and turned the site over to the Blaine County Sheriff's Office at about 10:30 p.m.

It took crews more than an hour to hike to the scene. With patients on a litter, transporting the victims would have taken several hours, said Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman.

"We didn't have to pack them out and stuff, which would have been a difficult rescue," he said.

Lassman said that despite confusion over the plane's location, the difficulty of finding the scene and the convoluted nature of the extrication, he was satisfied with the results of the rescue.

"It was a crazy couple of hours, but a good outcome," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the cause of the crash, Davis said Wednesday.

Katherine Wutz:

Safety concerns?

The plane crash east of Woodside Elementary in Hailey comes in the midst of a debate over whether Friedman Memorial Airport should remain in Hailey or be relocated farther south.

One of the main concerns from the proponents of relocation is safety, as Bellevue Councilman Dave Hattula stated in an October meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, citing concerns that a plane crash near Bellevue or Hailey could have devastating impacts.

Fritz Haemmerle, Hailey mayor-elect and a relocation supporter, said the incident drew attention to the reason for relocation.

"Obviously, planes in the sky sometimes come down out of the sky in inappropriate places," he said. "Everyone's concerns are with [the passengers], and it sounds like they are going to be OK. But if it would have gone down on Woodside Elementary, we would have had bigger concerns."

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