Since the fall of 2009 we have worked on dozens of aircraft accident scenes.
Our company is small: just myself and my wife, who puts up with me. But as I am a veteran of the U.S. Navy, we employ veterans as well. I have a great staff that works together like a pair of old shoes.
We've worked hard to build solid working relationships with everyone, and our goal is to continue to exceed expectations at every opportunity. Our work may be a small piece of a large puzzle, but we're always conscious of our duty, and strive to deliver an exceptional outcome every time. Our responsibility is immense.
Thankfully, we've been successful so far—and we want to keep it that way. I'm proud that through our efforts, we can help bring peace and closure to those who need it most.
About the incident
A 1961 Cessna 172B made an emergency water landing after the engine quit producing power on Aug. 18, 2013, and it was recovered from the waters of Marion Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness in eastern Linn County, Ore. on Aug. 28, 2013.
The two adults in the front seats and two young teens in the rear all survived without injury. The fairly new pilot (who, I'm told, had about two years of flying experience) had landed the aircraft about 400 feet from shore without incident. It's amazing the plane remained upright—maybe a miracle. The plane's occupants swam to shore where they were greeted by a Boy Scout troop who were camping nearby and saw the events unfold.
The aircraft's weight at time of its recovery from the lake was almost 6,000 pounds. The empty weight of a B model Cessna 172 is about 1,600 pounds, with the loaded weight coming in at just under 2,300 pounds.
Once I'd told the insurance adjuster who contacted me about doing the job for them that it was no problem, we'd get it out...well, it was off to the races... and the phone.
Given the altitude of Marion Lake (4,500 feet MSL) and the temperature at lift time (78 degrees F), we knew we needed something that could lift it without creating more issues.
As it was the height of fire season out here in the west, finding a helicopter that could do the lifting wasn't easy. Croman Corp. of White City, Ore. came to our aid with its Sikorsky SH-61, which they pulled off the fire line in Northern California.
Because the airplane was ditched in a wilderness area, the environment was under the control of the United States Forest Service (USFS). The closest access to the ditching site from the trailhead was almost five miles—each way. No motorized vehicles or equipment of any kind were allowed.
In addition, Marion Lake supplies an enormous fish hatchery, and the threat of pollution into this pristine watershed had considerable consequences.
So, just another day at work, right??!! (Right! For us, anyway!)
We hired an outfitter, as we needed horses to haul all our recovery gear (plus the crew) into and out of the lake each day. We hired divers to do the underwater work, which would be no easy feat.
Laurie and Kevin Adams of The Mountain Group supplied 12 horses of various sizes to pack the gear. They also set up camp for us, providing tents, safety gear, wash stations, and all the food we could eat.
The head wrangler was Kate Beardsley, who guided us each way and offered encouragement along the trail at those points where there were shale drop-offs of well over 100 feet. The consequences of a misstep with either your horse—or your own feet—would be enormous.
District Ranger Grady McMahon had closed off the Marion Lake trailhead for our use. The agency was monitoring the lake area with added security to keep people out for safety and insurance liabilities.
We entered the recovery area—a two-and-a-half-hour ride on horseback—and the divers set about working in the lake. Our first task was to locate the aircraft.
The plane sat in about 30 feet of water about 150 yards offshore. It was resting near a ledge that dropped off into over 200 feet. And, as we found out when the divers came out for their first report, there was an underwater spring which was basically floating the aircraft on the bottom—even though it was in four feet of silt—and inching it toward that ledge.
The divers attached a safety line to the prop and placed a buoy to mark the location, which kept the aircraft from drifting any farther out and disappearing altogether.
The next day the divers were in the lake in order to attach the lifting bags to float the aircraft. This process was performed with 18 bottles of compressed air.
Once she was up, we rigged lines to pull the 172 in as close to shore as possible, which was about 30 yards off the shoreline. The aircraft rested on the rocks, but at least it was on its own landing gear.
By the time we were ready to hit the trail back to camp, it was about 9:15 in the evening and the sun had gone down. Let me tell you, it gets dark out there in the woods at night with no moon. We literally couldn't see anything.
Our guide Kate did have one small light, but as the trail weaved this way and that, my crew and I had difficulty seeing it. Horses are sure-footed and can see in pitch blackness where people can't, and we reluctantly took Kate's advice to leave it to the horses.
So, we let the horses work (and we prayed a little, too) and we all made it back safely, even when we had to dismount and lead our horses over the two shale cliff trails.
The big day
The next day, Wednesday, was the day of the lift. I left John Esch in camp to handle the news media, the USFS, and the other officials who had descended on our camp, while I, the two divers Jim Feemster and Ron Duncan, along with Kate, went back to the site to make final preparations for the lift.
All of this work, in all of its enormity, had to culminate at 2:00 that afternoon, or we'd have been out of luck. Perhaps worse than that, being late to finish our preparations would mean we'd have to postpone the lift altogether due to time constraints involving the helicopter.
Work done, divers out, we awaited the helo—which arrived on time.
As it hovered overhead, Jim Feemster attached the lift cable to the lifting straps that had been attached that morning, and up she went.
The tail of the airplane folded during the lift from the lake due to extreme water weight. (We were not able to purge it.) Thankfully, the rest came off without a hitch. The helicopter crew set the aircraft down next to our camp, and flew back to its base.
By the time we rode out from the lake to our camp, the FAA official had finished his initial assessment and the news media had all left. We took some well-needed time to relax and ponder what we had accomplished.
The plane was written off by the insurance company and eventually sold by them as salvage to a bidder.
Despite the folded tail, the rest of the aircraft was intact, and I'm sure many parts (such as the wings, etc.) will be used again by someone. Even the engine will eventually be torn down, overhauled and flown again at some point.
And my prayers had been answered: the plane was all there; no persons or livestock were injured (or worse); and the lake had not been impacted any further.
The District Ranger for the Willamette National Forest, Grady McMahon, gave us high praise for our work. He commented that you'd never know that an airplane had even been in there once we were done.
It was very nice of the ranger to say that, and we were satisfied, too: we had planned properly for a good outcome. Just as the pilot of this 172 had done.
U.S. Navy veteran Mike Dowd is a certificated flight instructor (CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, IGI) and has been an air traffic controller, commercial fisherman, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. In 1996 Dowd started Nu Venture Air Services, a company that works on aircraft accident recoveries, investigation, storage and salvage. He lives near Dallas, Ore. Send questions or comments to .
Nu Venture Air Services LLC