BY, ANDY JAMESON
We all know mountains are dangerous. Avalanches, cliffs, and cold weather are just a few of the obstacles that people encounter when traveling in the mountains. Less widely appreciated are the hazards that mountains pose to aircraft. Ski resorts in particular tend to attract aviation disasters. A number of factors can lead to an unexpected mountainside “landing”. Frequently cited factors include: misjudging the elevation and ability of the aircraft to climb, poor visibility, and simple navigational errors. Below are five of the more interesting and notable aircraft crashes at ski resorts.
1. Best Known Mountain Air Crash: Las Leñas “Alive” Crash
Flight 571 Wreckage Marte Chairlift
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes Mountains on October 13, 1972. This crash is widely known, as it was made famous by the 1974 book “Alive: The Story of Andes Survivors”, and the eponymous 1993 film starring Ethan Hawke. The twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D was flying from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile. This route required crossing the Andes Mountains. Due to inclement weather, the aircraft could not fly over the mountain range; instead, the aircraft needed to fly south along the range until reaching the Planchoon Pass. Once at the pass, the flight crew planned to turn west, and then once through the mountains, proceed north for a final descent. While traveling south, a lack of visibility forced the pilot to estimate the distance travelled based on average speed; unfortunately, the pilot neglected to account for headwinds, and turned west before reaching the pass. The plane ultimately crashed into the side of the Andes Mountains, less than six miles from Las Leñas.
Of the 45 people on board, 16 survived, 17 died in either the crash or shortly thereafter, one died on the ninth day, eight died in an avalanche that swept the plane down the mountainside on the 16th day, and three others died prior to the eventual rescue. Those who lived survived an amazing 72 days before being rescued. Unfortunately, the tragic accident was made worse by a decision to walk west towards Chile, when a town to the East was actually much closer. Today, the wreckage of the aircraft is still located on the side of the mountain. I’m told that on a clear day it can be seen from the Las Leñas chairlift.
2. Craziest Freak Accident: Mount Cermis Prowler Accident
On February 3, 1998, a United States Marine Corp EA-6B Prowler was conducting military training exercises. The aircraft was flying at 540 mph between 260 and 330 feet above the ground (well below a Pentagon minimum of 1,000 feet). At 2:13 local time, the aircraft’s right wing struck a gondola car cable, sending one car to the mountain floor. All 20 people on board the gondola car died. A second gondola car with an operator on board was saved by the car’s brake.
The prowler landed safely at the base in Aviano, Italy, 60 miles to the north. The pilot, Captain Richard J. Ashby, was investigated but ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. The U.S. Military blamed the accident on an inaccurate map used by the flight crew. Apparently this map did not show the gondola on it. Rumor has it that despite being cleared of all charges, the flight crew never flew a military jet again.
3. Celebrity Ski Resort Crash: Alpine Valley Stevie Ray Vaughn Helicopter Crash
On Monday August 27, 1990, musician Stevie Ray Vaughan perished in a helicopter crash on the slopes of Alpine Valley Resort in East Troy, Wisconsin. Mr. Vaughan had just completed playing a show at the resort’s amphitheater with blues artists Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and his brother Jimmie Vaughan. After the show, Mr. Vaughan boarded a Bell 206B Jet Ranger Helicopter with three members of Eric Clapton’s crew (agent Bobby Brooks, bodyguard Nigel Browne, and assistant tour manager Colin Smythe), plus the pilot Jeff Brown. The helicopter crashed into the ski slopes approximately 300 feet above the takeoff position. Interestingly, the crash went unnoticed until the passengers failed to reach Chicago, their final destination. When the downed aircraft was found, it was discovered that all five people on board had been fatally injured.
4. Most Aircraft Crashes of Any Ski Resort? Magic Mountain Vermont
Magic Mountain Vermont- Aircraft Beware Remnants of a Sikorsky S-58 Helicopter
Which ski resort has seen the most aircraft crashes? The Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum (http://www.vtssm.com/) has documented 10 aircraft crashes involving 11 aircraft at ski resorts throughout the state. Incredibly, four of these incidents involving five aircraft have occurred on or over Magic Mountain’s trails. With Magic’s open access glade policy, skiers can both enjoy the natural terrain, while also hunting for a piece of aircraft wreckage. Special thanks to Brian Lindner on behalf the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum for the info below.
On September 13, 1962, Magic was hitting its stride and expanding with the addition of what today is referred to as the Black Chair. While pouring concrete for the lift’s foundation, pilot Frank Minjoy lost control of his Sikorsky S-58 Helicopter and crashed into the side of the mountain. Amazingly, Mr. Minjoy survived the accident.
Eleven years later, on February 22, 1973, Dan Delp was piloting his Cessna 310 when he got disorientated in the fog and crashed into Magic. The first people on the scene were Magic Mountain patrollers. Unfortunately, the pilot and his passenger were both killed.
On February 3, 1975, just shy of three years after the Cessna 310 crash, two General Dynamics FB-111 Aardvark fighter jets were engaging in refueling exercises over Londonderry, Vermont. The aircraft were practicing hooking up to a KC-135 tanker when the two fighters collided at 20,000 feet. Both crews safely ejected and landed 200 feet from Magic’s summit.
After the excitement of the 1970s, Magic went without an aircraft crash for 28 years. This streak was broken in 2003 when James Smith failed to maintain altitude in his Cessna C-150M. He crashed above the trail “Wizard”, only 100 feet below the summit of Magic Mountain. Mr. Smith was discovered by a hiker, who was able to contact authorities for assistance. Mr. Smith suffered head injuries but survived!
Maybe I’m superstitious, but if I were a pilot, I think I’d stick to skiing Magic’s rather than flying near it.
5. Coolest Adaptation of a Plane Crash: Mission Ridge
Have you ever hit Mission Ridge’s B24 Terrain Park? You might be surprised to know, the park is named after a B-24 aircraft that crashed during a training mission on September 30, 1944. The story goes like this: WWII had ended in Europe, but it was unclear how long the Pacific conflict would go on. Without an end in sight, the U.S. was constantly building bombers and training their crews. On that fateful evening, the B-24 left Walla Walla Army Air Base in the rain and fog. The bomber failed to clear the mountain top by at least 600 feet. Six men died: 2nd Lt. J.D. Hunt, 2nd Lt. Ted R. Lewis, Flight Officer Robert J. Heneckes, 2nd Lt. Francis W. Lequier Jr., Corp. Calvin D. Flaming, and Corp. James R. Manthei.
I’m told that for long time, hikers could still find wreckage on the mountain. Today, the wing and a plaque are mounted at the spot of the accident. I like the incorporation of the mountain history into the present layout, but despite the cool logo, I wonder if you are tempting fate naming a terrain park where aerial tricks are performed after an aircraft crash.