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ACR Personal Locator Beacon Assists in Pinpointing Location of Downed Alaska Bush Pilot

Name George C. Strother
Product Name ACR MicroFix
Date of Rescue 07/17/2010
Saved By LifeMed Alaska
Lives Saved 1

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 17, 2011, 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 cell phone 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 once the plane hit the water, the nose crumpled 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 water pressure had pushed me back into the passenger compartment where I struggled to release the seat belt, which I managed to do after four tries.

Previously safety training 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 could not pull the inflation tab 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 who owns the lodge, saw my predicament and boated over to my location. Seeing my condition she used her cell phone to call 911, which then contacted a private air-ambulance service to respond.

Soon help was on the way, a 45-minute flight, and I was cold and hurting. I called my wife on the cell phone to tell her matter-of-factly that I crashed and had broken both legs, but not to worry that help was on the way. I activated my PLB so Search and Rescue could acquire my exact GPS coordinates and forward them to the air ambulance. 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 aircraft 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELT), 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 which was upside down, and the antenna was completely underwater, so the signal never reached the satellites. My PLB, however, which also was underwater in a pocket of my life jacket, 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.


Update (April 2011): George Strother is keeping busy spending his days reading and working on his various hobbies, including woodworking, gardening 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 walking by the end of summer 2011. His plane was totaled 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 always carry his PLB.

A fine, well built unit, that worked perfectly. Also many thanks for the free overhaul after an emergency use.