Crash crushes pilots

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— By the time a helicopter found the wreckage of a Lancair Columbia 350 on Sunday morning, members of Routt County's close-knit general aviation community already had gathered in the lobby of Steamboat Springs Airport.

Word spread quickly. By noon, more than 20 pilots were there.

"At a time like this, you find out you have a lot of friends who care about you," Mike Forney said. "Everyone called each other to make sure they were OK."

Civil Air Patrol Commander Jack Dysart was in the air searching for the missing plane that morning. When he heard over the radio it had been found, he headed home toward the runway at Steamboat Springs Airport.

Inside, pilots were discussing what they knew of the accident.

What they and the rest of the town would later learn was that pilot Greg Kyprios and passenger Lou Marina, both locals, had died in the crash Satur--day evening near Walton Peak as they were flying back to Steamboat Springs Airport from Iowa.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

'Hangar flying'

Their conversation was part grief and part pragmatic imagining of what could have gone wrong.

"We try to use each crash as a learning experience," Dysart said.

"If families in this community sat down every time there is a car crash on Rabbit Ears to discuss what went wrong, there would be a lot fewer accidents."

From the little they knew of the accident -- from their experiences flying over Rabbit Ears Pass in the dark and from the description of the wreckage from the air patrol members who saw it -- they pieced together a few hypothetical scenarios.

The ritual is called "hangar flying," the time pilots spend together inside the airport drinking coffee and telling stories. Or, in this case, trying to make sure whatever happened to Kyprios and Marina on Saturday night doesn't happen again.

They do it after every search for a downed aircraft.

"It's very seldom just one thing that goes wrong," pilot Jim "Moose" Barrows said. "It's usually a series of events that lead up to the crash."

'Fly the plane'

The mantra each pilot learns is, "Fly the airplane." It's a simple reminder to do something that's easy to forget when an instrument goes out or a door blows open. From looking at the position of the plane as it lay at the base of Walton Peak, flight instructor Jim Birkinbine could tell that, whatever had gone wrong, Kyprios had done just that.

"I have no idea what happened Saturday evening, but in my mind the pilot is a hero," Birkinbine said. "It wasn't a tailspin scenario. He glided in. He flew the airplane to the last moment."

On Sunday afternoon, as the pilots dissected the possibilities and offered advice to each other on how to respond in a similar situation, those who knew Kyprios remembered their fellow pilot.

"This is a tremendous loss," said Steamboat Springs Airport manager Mel Baker. "The aviation community is shook up about it. He was here a short time, but he made an impact."

When a close friend, or even a casual acquaintance you knew from using the same small airport, dies in a crash, it affects your head, Dysart said.

A day later, at roughly the same time of day that Kyprios and Marina went down, Dysart was flying back into Steamboat over Rabbit Ears Pass. He kept the plane much higher than he usually does on his approach over the mountains. He didn't start descending until he was well clear of any obstacles.

But even if a plane crash affects him mentally for a while, it doesn't stop him from getting back in the cockpit, he said. Others agree.

The flying life

Many of the pilots who fly out of the Steamboat Springs Airport have been flying since they were teenagers. A few are World War II veterans who got their licenses more than 50 years ago.

Being a pilot is a lifestyle. It's a passion, and in a small town like Steamboat, it becomes a connection to a surrogate family.

"If I'm having a bad day, I like to fly," Barrows said. "I sit (in the cockpit) and focus and everything disappears. You see the beauty all around you, and everything comes into perspective, even if I just fly for five or 10 minutes."

Steamboat Springs Airport is home to 91 private planes, some of which pilots share.

Pilots use their planes to commute to jobs outside the Yampa Valley, for business or as a pastime. No matter how much fun it is, flying in the mountains is inherently more difficult than flying at sea level or in the Midwest.

Kyprios' Lancair Columbia 350 went down near Walton Peak on Rabbit Ears Pass after dark.

"If you are flying over the mountains at night, and if you lose power, you'll crash," said Pete Bartoe, who has been flying since 1945. "You won't be able to stop it.

"In the dark, it's even worse. You think you can see some lights from town, but you might be real close to kissing a tree.

"Even with landing lights, your visibility is bad. You won't see the thing you're heading toward soon enough to do anything about it."

If there's a fuel shortage or an engine malfunction in the mountains, there aren't many flat spots to attempt a controlled crash, like there are in the Midwest, Bartoe said. "In the mountains you won't have that option."

Other risks when flying in the mountains come from simple lack of knowledge or from complacency. Air density decreases as altitude increases, which affects takeoff distance and rate of climb.

"It may take you 2,200 feet of runway at altitude where it only takes you 1,500 feet at sea level," Dysart said. "Flying in the mountains is not inherently dangerous, but you have to train and be aware of the conditions."

Birkinbine said he teaches his students one thing about mountain flying -- respect.

"Which of these things is more dangerous? A gun, a car or an airplane? All of those things are dangerous if you don't treat them with respect."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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