From 1,000 feet above, the Harrison Creek Drainage area doesn't look threatening; it's just another dip in Rabbit Ears Pass' heavily treed and mountainous landscape.
But the drainage is deceiving, and the consequences can be deadly.
For pilots flying out of Steamboat Springs Airport and traveling east over the pass, the drainage area can appear to be an escape when the pilots realize they don't have enough altitude. It appears to be an inviting, wide-open valley that will provide room to climb.
But the valley is a box that narrows quickly. Downdrafts are common. Pilots who enter the area quickly become trapped.
Three of the past five planes that crashed after flying out of the Steamboat Springs Airport crashed in the Harrison Creek Drainage area. Of the 11 people who died in plane crashes in the past 11 years, six lost their lives in that box canyon.
With the proper altitude, dozens of pilots fly over the canyon safely on a daily basis. But any of several factors -- a lack of mountain flying experience, threatening weather or overestimation of the airplane's performance -- can turn the canyon into a danger zone.
"Harrison Creek is so deceiving," Civil Air Patrol Commander Don Heineman said. "It climbs so rapidly. It looks so big and all of a sudden there is nothing there."
Heineman, an experienced mountain pilot and certified flight instructor, thinks pilots need to be warned about the dangers the canyon can present. It is his patrol that gets called out when planes go down.
More education about mountain flying is needed, he said, as are maps that mark the danger areas more clearly. "I'm not here to point any fingers," he said. "It is nothing but a sequence of events that have occurred that didn't go right. And because of that, we can look at what we can do to make these things better."
The Danger Zone
In the past 17 years, there have been nine fatal air crashes involving planes arriving or departing from Steamboat Springs Airport. Twenty people have died. The victims have been a mixture of out-of-state travelers and longtime local pilots.
Three died within 400 yards of the runway, others on Copper Ridge and Emerald Mountain. One crashed during a fly-by and another in the middle of an aerobatic stunt.
In the past eight months, two planes have crashed in the Harrison Creek Drainage.
On Dec. 29, 2002, one woman died and three passengers were injured when a Piper Cherokee Saratoga crashed into the hillside. On July 19, a California pilot and a Windsor couple died during a trip from Steamboat Springs to Fort Collins, when their 1978 Grumman crashed into the same area and burst into flames.
The planes crashed within 200 yards of each other. They were not the first to go down in the area.
Eleven years ago, two men died when a twin-engine Beechcraft slammed into the ground in a clearing along the Harrison Creek Drainage. The National Transportation Safety Board said the pilot, David Klausner of Longmont, was told that a general aviation flight using visual flight rules -- flying without instruments -- was not recommended. The NTSB ruled the pilot became disoriented and lost control of the plane.
With the two most recent crashes still under investigation, the NTSB has yet to state whether geography played a part in either.
"We always take a look at those contributing factors. We take a look at any of the mountain passes and go back through the history for the number of accidents in each one and what contributed in those accidents," NTSB investigator Brennon Mayer said.
The NTSB also will look at the pilots' experience, mountain weather conditions and possible equipment failure.
"It is hard to compare the one (in July) to what happened in December until we have identified the most probable cause to these accidents," Mayer said.
The sky above Rabbit Ears Pass is just like the highway itself: The main artery for travelers comes to and from the Front Range.
Pilots with mountain flying experience know that 1,000 feet of elevation is needed to clear the pass safely, Steamboat Springs Airport Manager Matt Grow said. Pilots can gain that altitude by taking off north from the runway, turning east and heading over Rabbit Ears Pass.
But if they can't, all it takes is a few circles over the Yampa Valley near Colorado Highway 131 to gain the elevation needed to clear the pass, Grow said.
In its recommendations on mountain flying, the Federal Aviation Administration warns pilots not to fly up the middle of a canyon.
The FAA also said pilots should approach mountain passes with as much altitude as possible and warns that downdrafts, winds strong enough to force airplanes down, can be encountered. It also recommends a clearance of 1,500 to 2,000 feet over any pass on a windy day.
Harrison Creek Drainage is just one of the many perils that come with mountain flying. Still, area pilots say those who know and obey the laws of the land are safe.
"It can be the most beautiful, magnificent thing if you know what you are doing," Heineman said. "If you don't know what you are doing, it's the scariest environment. (The mountains) can rise up and bite you."
Close to 7,000 feet above sea level, flying out of Steamboat can be a daunting task for a flat-land pilot.
Pilots must factor in density altitude, the altitude at which the aircraft thinks it is performing. Density altitude can be affected by temperature and humidity; the higher the density altitude, the lower the airplane's performance.
And once in the air, pilots have to gain the altitude necessary to cross over the mountains, remaining aware of changing weather conditions and the effects of winds sweeping across peaks and into the valley.
"As long as pilots continue to fly in mountains and don't have any mountain flying experience, you will continue to see incidents," Grow said.
Flying in a mountainous area without training is like driving in a blizzard without experience, Heineman said.
Just as there are no laws to prevent inexperience winter drivers from taking on steep mountain passes in the winter, pilots are not required to have any mountain flight instructions, Heineman said. Pilots can take optional mountain flying lessons, and the FAA recommends that pilots stop at lowland airports to talk to local pilots before making their way into the mountains.
"If pilots stopped and got that kind of information, we at the Civil Air Patrol wouldn't have to search as many planes as we do," Heineman said.
'Height is safety'
Even experienced mountain flyers can have trouble. Lloyd "Skip" Moreau is a pilot with more than 20 years of mountain flying experience.
Moreau had flown through box canyons, knew about the recommended 1,000 feet to fly over mountain peaks and had flown in and out of Steamboat three times before crashing his plane last December.
On the Sunday afternoon Moreau flew out, he said there were beautiful, blue clear skies, but he knew a storm front was moving into the area.
He and three passengers departed from the Steamboat Springs Airport and circled town to build altitude, he said. The plane had 800 to 1,000 feet to spare as it headed toward the pass. But then it got caught in a downdraft, he said.
When he looked at the dashboard, Moreau said all the instruments were fine save the altimeter, which showed the plane was dropping fast.
"I have never encountered (a downdraft) like that," Moreau said. "It sneaks up and grabs you and by the time you are in it, it's too late."
Tony Marsh, who sat behind Moreau in the plane, said the pressure was enormous.
"He tried to pull out, but it wasn't responding. It was like a hand was on top of us pushing us down," he said.
By the time he realized the plane was caught in a downdraft, Moreau said he was running out of options and the ground was approaching quickly. He saw a clearing and aimed for it.
As the plane raced toward the ground, Moreau said he intentionally steered the plane through trees to clip off the wings in hopes of separating the fuel from the plane.
Moreau missed the clearing and the plane came to rest upside down.
When Moreau heard about the most recent crash, 163 feet from where his plane came to rest, he had one thought: They got caught in the downdraft, too.
"Everybody thinks I'm crazy," he said. "But what are the odds of crashing less than 200 feet apart?"
Civil Air Patrol pilot Jack Dysart was up in the air the day Moreau crashed, searching for the downed plane. A few hours later, while conducting the search, they, too, felt turbulence, he said. The air was choppy, which is common for that area and most mountain canyons, he said.
As local pilot Brad Hoefer easily climbed Rabbit Ears Pass on a recent Friday morning, the July crash site was in plain view from the 1953 Cessna. Far above, Hoefer turned the plane around and headed back into Steamboat. He had three words of advice: "Height is safety."
The United States has 19,500 airports, just 449 of those have air traffic control facilities. Airports with air traffic control towers have defined routes that pilots are required to follow. The FAA determines how, where and who flies.
Most airports are like Steamboat, where it is the pilot's responsibility to navigate a safe pattern on and off the runway.
"At uncontrolled airports, pilots can take off and fly however and wherever they want to," Grow said.
The pilots do not even have to notify the airport that they are arriving. When the airport is closed, pilots can still land by clicking their radio microphone to turn on the runway lights.
Most pilots do call the airport from 10 miles out to let it and other planes know they are landing. But general aviation pilots flying under visual flight rules are largely allowed to enter in and out of Steamboat how they please.
In order to enforce a required flight pattern, Grow said each of the nation's 19,500 airports would need an FAA representative present to regulate how and where airplanes fly.
Under visual flight rules, pilots also are not required to file flight plans. A flight plan indicates when and where a pilot took off and where he is supposed to land. When pilots land safely, they call to close the flight plan.
Both Grow and Heineman said flight plans would have been instrumental in the last two plane crashes. It took officials two days to identify the victims and the intended destination in the July plane crash.
And if one of the passengers in the December crash had not had a cell phone, Grow said a flight plan could have meant the difference between knowing within hours whether a plane was missing and having the passengers spend a life-threatening night in a snowstorm.
Although Grow said none of the crashes in the past 20 years is related specifically to the airport -- most were because of pilot error -- officials are looking for ways to reach those unfamiliar with the area to educate them about the pitfalls of mountain flying.
Heineman talked about making regional maps, marked with the area's danger zones, including the Harrison Creek Drainage.
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