Note To Reader: George Strother, 62, a veteran Alaska commercial pilot clearly understands the demands and danger of flying small planes in remote areas. Over the years, Strother has had his share of bad landings. On July 17th of last year, a crash almost claimed his life when his amphibian airplane flipped over as he attempted to land on a lake, leaving him upside down and underwater with two badly broken legs. Training, clear thinking and help from witnesses to the crash helped Strother clear the wreckage. A 911 cellphone call notified emergency authorities of his situation, while activation of his ACR MicroFix™ Personal Locator Beacon quickly established his precise GPS coordinates to guide the rescuers directly to his location.
Here's George's story in his own words:
I had just finished the annual inspection of my Lake Amphibian LA4-200-EP and decided my first flight would be to head WNW from a private strip near my home in Wasilla some 70 miles to Hewlett Lake to visit friends and spend a day fishing. After my arrival, I caught a couple of nice Northern Pike and decided to stay for dinner, then called my wife, Fran, to say that I'd be heading home.
The water conditions were glassy, completely flat, which is difficult landing conditions because of the lack of depth perception for the pilot. I decided after dinner and before I headed home to do some practice landings. The first attempt was a bounce and unsuccessful. On the second attempt, I was coming in just right (150 ft. per minute down) but apparently the plane nose was too low as I hit the water and immediately flipped.
It all happened so fast that I didn't even have time to draw a breath. The windshield was gone, water filled the cabin and I was strapped into the seat upside down with two broken legs (though at the time I didn't know it). The pressure pushed me back into the passenger compartment where I struggled to release the seat belt, which I managed to do after a few tries. Previously safety information teaches pilots in this situation to keep focused taking one-step at a time and to keep your orientation, which I did by grabbing onto the broken windshield frame, even though I cut my hand I knew where I was and where I needed to go.
As I started to swim out of the windshield opening, my right hip boot was entangled under the instrument panel and I had to get my leg out of the hip boot before swimming clear of the plane then up to the surface. Having eventually freed myself of the wreck and surfacing I noticed the inflation tab was missing on my life vest, so I swam back to the wing and pulled myself partially up on the wing and found the inflation tab, and inflated the life jacket.
While all of this was happening, my friend and host Christa Wegscheider who owns Hewlett Lodge with her husband Martin, saw my predicament and boated over to my location. Seeing my condition she used their cell phone to call 911, which then contacted a private air-ambulance service to respond.
So I had help on the way, a 45-minute flight away, and I was cold and hurting. I called my wife on the cell phone to tell her matter-of-factly that I crashed and probably broke both legs, but not to worry that help was on the way.
The 911 crew flying the helicopter then called the Wegscheiders' cell phone asking for more precise location. I activated my PLB so Search and Rescue could acquire my exact GPS coordinates. Within 5 minutes of activating the MicroFix™, the rescue chopper crew had the information and were heading directly to me. From the time of the crash to my arrival at the emergency room was three and a half hours.
Epilogue from George:
Being in Alaska and flying for 36 years in the bush, I'm a major proponent of being prepared for any contingency, including emergencies. In 2007, I purchased my ACR 406 MHz PLB through REI. In 2009, upon learning that satellites were no longer monitoring 125.5 MHz ELTs, I upgraded to a 406 MHz ELT. As it turned out, in this incident, though the ELT activated, it could not work as the antenna was on top of the plane completely underwater, so the signal never reached the satellites. My PLB, however, which also was underwater, worked fine once I was out of the water and able to deploy the antenna and activate it. Learning from this situation, my advice to fellow pilots is to carry a PLB on their vest or flight jackets. In the event they survive a crash where ELT is damaged or disabled the PLB is invaluable insurance.
George Strother is keeping busy spending his days reading and working on his various hobbies, including woodworking and ham radio operation. While his badly shattered left leg mends (two titanium plates and 19 screws), George is confined to a wheelchair. He hopes to be back up on his feet in another six to eight months. His plane was totalled and sold off for parts. Though George doesn't plan to purchase another plane, he hopes to continue flying in the future with rental airplanes, and will carry his PLB.
About Satellite Detectible Emergency Beacons
406 MHz EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) and PLBs transmit signals on internationally recognized distress frequencies. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) monitors the 406 MHz signal and the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System (COSPAS-SARSAT) detects and locates distress signals and forwards the information directly to the Coast Guard. GPS coordinates greatly assist search and rescue crews, and in the event GPS isn't acquired, position can be calculated through Doppler Shift as a reliable backup.
NOAA has reported that in 2010, Cospas-Sarsat assisted in the rescue of 43 people in 12 aviation related incidents. Worldwide, the Cospas-Sarsat system is credited with rescuing more than 28,000 people since the program's inception in 1982. Of that number, more than 6,500 persons were rescued in the U.S.
An EPIRB/PLB is a satellite-signalling device of last resort, for use when all other means of self-rescue have been exhausted and where the situation is deemed to be grave and imminent, and the loss of life, limb, eyesight or valuable property will occur without assistance. All beacons must be registered online at www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov following purchase.
About ACR Electronics, Inc
ACR Electronics, Inc. designs and manufactures a complete line of safety and survival products under the ARTEX and ACR brand names including ELTs, EPIRBs, PLBs, SART, Strobe Lights, Life Jacket Lights, Search Lights and safety accessories. The quality systems of this facility have been registered by TUV to AS9100c. Recognized as the world leader in safety and survival technologies, ACR and Artex have provided safety equipment to the aviation and marine industries as well as to the military since 1956. The company is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and employs 180 at its manufacturing facility. For more information about ACR Electronics, Inc., please go to www.acrartex.com.
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