FedEx pilot dies in plane crash

Blasting caps at site hamper recovery

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— A FedEx plane piloted by a 44-year-old Wyoming man crashed into a ridge on the south side of Emerald Mountain Saturday morning en route to Steamboat Springs Airport.

Rescue workers found the single-engine plane ripped into pieces, its propeller dug deep into fuel-soaked dirt on a steep ridge. The plane ripped the tops off a stand of aspens by the crash site.

The recovery workers stepped gingerly around the site, avoiding 80 electrical detonators that had been packed away in the plane before the box that held them broke open, sending the small, cylindrical blasting caps scattering. The detonators, which were bound for a coal mine, were unlikely to go off, because they are usually detonated using a strong electrical charge, said Routt County Undersheriff Dan Taylor.

The pilot, from Casper, Wyo., was pronounced dead at 3:13 p.m. by Deputy Coroner Dwight Murphy. Murphy had not yet released the pilot's name at press time. Based on scanner communication, the pilot was filling in for another FedEx pilot at the time of the crash.

The pilot was removed from the wreckage at 5:50 p.m. by sheriff's deputies and Search and Rescue officials who attempted to leave the scattered pieces of the plane untouched so an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board could investigate. Norm Wiemeyer, the NTSB investigator, will be traveling to the site today to begin his investigation.

The plane, which crashed about 1.5 miles south of a navigational tower at about 9 a.m. in cloudy weather, spilled aviation fuel all over the ground when it hit. Despite the detonators, aviation fuel and canisters of flammable liquid that were located in the rear of the plane, the plane did not explode.

The pungent smell of the aviation fuel alerted the first investigators on the scene to the site of the downed plane once they had climbed the ridge above the crash.

"It was not hard to find. When we came over the top of the ridge, we could smell it," Taylor said.

Steamboat Springs Airport employees were in contact with the pilot at about 8:45 a.m. when the plane was still about 20 miles away from the airport. When the pilot had not landed a half-hour later, the employees called Airport Manager Matt Grow. By then, the Federal Aviation Administration was already on the phone with local officials, Grow said.

Joe Stevens of the Civil Air Patrol was called to investigate, but because the local Civil Air Patrol plane was being repaired, the pilot of another FedEx carrier went up to find the plane. Stevens, who also works with Search and Rescue, began to mobilize the ground team.

Although the navigational instrumentation on top of the mountain recorded the plane had passed nearby, recovery workers did not have a precise longitudinal and latitudinal fix until mid-afternoon, said Search and Rescue Incident Commander Adam Christman. The plane's Emergency Locator Transmitter was not operational, he added.

Once the other FedEx pilot found the crashed plane, he helped Search and Rescue workers get to the site. The first Search and Rescue worker on the scene was Mike Hirshman, who trekked about 4 miles from Cow Creek Road through Humboldt Ranch up a windy road to the site.

The base for Search and Rescue workers was established about a few miles up muddy Cow Creek Road from its intersection with County Road 33.

Hirshman, who is a paramedic, left after noon and came to the site of the crash at about 3 p.m. By that time, Taylor, Sheriff's Investigator Ken Klinger and a group of Search and Rescue workers had almost reached the site on all terrain vehicles. From across the ridge, the wreckage, nestled in a grove of aspens and scrub oak, looked a little like patches of snow, but from as far away as 100 yards, the smell of the fuel was distinct. A FedEx logo was one of the few identifiable marks left on the plane after the crash. Both of the wings broke off.

Hirshman said there was nothing that could have been done to save the pilot. After the Sheriff's Department had secured the scene and Hirshman returned to Cow Creek Road, a party of recovery workers returned to the scene to get the pilot out.

Katrina Zupan, FedEx's station manager in Steamboat Springs, said company policy specifically forbids her from commenting on the incident. Beyond confirming the crash, no one at FedEx would comment.

Corporate Air, the owners of the turboprop Cessna 208B, gave the sheriff's department a shipment list that clued investigators in to the presence of detonators on the plane. Officials from Corporate Air would not comment on the crash.

Sheriff's officials will reconvene with Wiemeyer this morning before heading up to the crash site. Wiemeyer also investigated a crash near the Ramada Vacation Suites Hilltop that occured last September.

Tom Ross contributed to this report

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203

or e-mail asalzman@steamboatpilot.com

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