Student pilot survives plane crash and freezing night
By Matthew Brown
BILLINGS, Mont. — A student pilot whose plane crashed into a mountainside survived a freezing night huddled in the tail of the wrecked aircraft and wrapped in emergency blankets, then hiked a mile through waist-deep snow wearing only shorts to meet rescuers Wednesday.
The Rocky Mountain College freshman was on a solo training flight to Powell, Wyo., when his small plane crashed into a forested slope on Big Pryor Mountain after taking off from Billings late Tuesday.
Andrew Scheffer, 18, apparently veered off course and hit near the top of the mountain about 40 miles south of Billings, authorities said.
When he met up with rescuers around 11:30 a.m., Scheffer was suffering from hypothermia.
"He ended up hiking quite a ways in his shorts and tennis shoes, in waist-high snow. He was very cold and cut up by the time we found a place to land and could hike into him," said Jon Trapp, assistant coordinator of Carbon County Search and Rescue.
He was taken to St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, where he was in serious condition. He declined requests to talk to reporters.
Scheffer had stayed with the 2006 Piper through the night, Trapp said. With overnight temperatures dropping close to zero, Scheffer wrapped himself in an orange tarp to keep warm and also wore a jacket and wool cap.
The next morning, he climbed to the top of a nearby ridge and used a cell phone to contact his flight instructor to report he had survived the crash, authorities said. That call was made at about 8:30 a.m., almost 12 hours after Scheffer left Billings.
St. Vincent emergency physician Michael Bush said Scheffer was recovering from frostbite, a minor concussion, and various cuts and bruises to his head, hands and kidney. Bush said he could be released as soon as Thursday.
"He’s an extremely fortunate young man to survive," Bush said. "He kept his wits about him. He was smart and didn’t try to get out in the middle of the night."
Scheffer started to hike out after he was spotted by rescue planes, around the time he reached the flight instructor.
With cell phone service in the area spotty, Scheffer made several other calls and sent text messages before his phone went dead, Trapp said. Rescuers on the ground had searched for him through the night in an area about 8 miles from the crash site, Trapp said. The downed aircraft was spotted from the air at about 9 a.m.
The cause of the crash is under investigation, said Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the FAA’s Northwest Mountain Region in Seattle.
Dan Hargrove, director of aviation for Rocky Mountain College, described Scheffer as an experienced pilot with 150 hours of flying time. He said the solo flight — attempted as part of the flying program’s syllabus — was not Scheffer’s first.
"He’s a private pilot and an instrument pilot — he’s a real pilot," Hargrove said.
The 10-year-old aviation program has about 100 students and a fleet of eight Piper and Beechcraft airplanes based at Billings Logan International Airport.