Bob Maddox, chief pilot and co-owner of Mountain Flight Service, said he became uneasy about the status of the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance about 50 minutes after it took off from Steamboat Springs Airport at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
The Beechcraft King Air E-90, with a pilot and three medical crew members on board, had taken off to pick up an automobile accident victim in Rawlins, Wyo., about 70 nautical miles away. It never reached its destination.
Even in the instrument landing conditions that prevailed at the Rawlins airport when the King Air took off from Steamboat, the flight should have been completed in about 40 minutes, Maddox knew. And he should have received a confirming page from the air ambulance dispatch center at St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver. The large hospital dispatches air ambulances throughout the region.
The air ambulance in Steamboat was paged at 8:30 p.m. because the airport in Casper, Wyo., where the patient was to have been picked up, was experiencing stiff intermittent snow showers. Casper is also 70 miles from Rawlins.
Shortly after 8:30 p.m., when the air ambulance from Steamboat was paged out, Maddox discussed the flight with pilot on duty Tim Benway and Director of Operations Darren Zehner, who also is a pilot. They reviewed weather data produced by an automated system at the Rawlins airport. The three men agreed that conditions were acceptable for the flight, Maddox said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
The flight over the mountains to Rawlins from Steamboat is familiar to Mountain Flight Service pilots, Maddox said.
"It's a flight we make often," he said. "I've made it several times."
By the time the plane took off, the weather in Casper had improved, Maddox said.
When the dispatch confirming the plane had landed in Rawlins was overdue, Maddox called St. Anthony's and was told that officials there had not heard from the plane.
Within just a few minutes, Maddox received a page asking him to call St. Anthony's.
"I did that, and I was informed the flight medic (Tim Baldwin, the only survivor of the crash) had made a cell phone call and told them they were down," Maddox said, while struggling to control his emotions.
Maddox said he activated his company's standing emergency plans and left for the hospital, where he arrived at 10:30 p.m. Subsequently, the battery in the medic's cell phone gave out, and it was four agonizing hours before there was any further word about the fate of the crew.
Maddox said he contacted family members of the crew in the meantime, but it wasn't until after 3 a.m. that he knew the fate of its members for certain.