Cessna Crash In High Terrain

The accident involved a Cessna 402C (medium piston twin), operated as a contract express mail/cargo aircraft. The flight originated in Reno, Nevada on a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight plan, bound for Columbia, California as a re-positioning flight. Since he was a friend of the pilot, Franco had been flying in the right seat as an observer to gain experience. The aircraft took off from Reno at 12:08 in the afternoon and headed south. A little under half an hour later it collided with high mountain terrain 11 miles south-southwest of Walker, California (southwest of Carson City, Nevada).

Franco has little memory of the accident itself. The last thing he remembers prior to going through the trees is seeing Carson City pass by on the left of the aircraft. Then he has flashes of the trees coming at him.

The aircraft impacted a 10-20 degree uphill slope at around 10,000 ft. elevation, coming to rest inverted. As the aircraft descended through the trees, it broke up, with the nose and forward cockpit area rotating and tearing away to the left. Both wings separated, along with the right engine and left horizontal stabilizer. Numerous penetrations occurred in the belly of the fuselage and wings, probably from impact with the trees.

The clearing where the aircraft came to rest was covered with 2-4 feet of snow. The pilot was ejected from the aircraft and did not survive. Franco remained in his seat, but all the structure in front of, and beside him was torn away.

Franco was knocked unconscious during the initial impact. He regained consciousness while upside down, still strapped into the seat. He realized that his right leg was hanging down in front of him, the result of a bad compound fracture of the femur. He spent the first few minutes orienting himself, and yelling for the pilot. He realized that there was “nothing left in front of him” and that he could “reach out and touch the snow”. The temperature at the time was about 25 degrees (F), the winds were gusting and he was getting very cold.

Franco released the restraints and fell forward into the snow. As he looked around the area, he spotted the company cellular phone that had been in the pilot’s flight bag. He grabbed it and, realizing he had to get out of the wind before hypothermia set in, crawled in the snow around the wreckage, back to the cabin. The baggage door was damaged in the impact and jammed shut, forcing him to kick in a window to gain entry to the cabin–difficult and painful with both ankles broken. He finally succeeded and managed to worm his way through the window into the sheltered cabin.

Out Of The Weather

Once inside, he found his own flight bag and retrieved the handheld radio he always carries when he flies. Fortunately, he makes it a point to always keeps the battery charged up. Tuning in 121.5 MHz (the emergency communications frequency), he discovered that the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) was not transmitting. He crawled back to the rear of the aircraft where the ELT was located and tried to activate it manually, but was unsuccessful (the reason for the ELT’s failure to activate is not known as of this writing).

He then began to broadcast a “mayday” on 121.5 using his handheld. After about 15 minutes of trying there was still no response, so he tuned in one of the Oakland Center frequencies he remembered from their departure. He made contact initially with a Cessna 414 twin, who offered to relay the mayday, though the signal was weak. As he was talking to the Chancellor pilot, the crew of a Nevada Air National Guard C-130 Hercules operating in the area overheard the communications and initiated the Search and Rescue (SAR) effort. They were returning from a training flight and happened to still be at altitude and on Center frequency. Unfortunately, they didn’t have direction-finding equipment in the aircraft and were forced to use the old null-signal approach to locate the downed airman.

As the SAR system began to crank up, helicopters from Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada, were called up for the search effort. Meanwhile, Franco had made himself as comfortable as possible in the cabin of the inverted Cessna, donning his ski jacket and several articles of extra clothing to keep warm. To conserve battery in his handheld, the Herc crew put him on a 15-minute communications schedule. Around this time, the FAA had obtained the number of the cell-phone in the aircraft and he was able to communicate that way as well.

Because of the lack of good signal for direction-finding, the search aircraft were flying in and out of canyons, trying to get a fix on his position. The Herc crew asked him to try to manually activate the ELT again. He crawled back and tried several times, but it still wouldn’t work. By this time, it was getting toward evening and there was a major storm front approaching the area from the north. If he didn’t get found soon, there would be no way for him to survive the below-freezing temperatures and snow.

The C-130 crew maintained communications and the Navy helicopters were finally beginning to hear his transmissions as well. They were able to narrow the area down to one of two canyons and he finally began to hear aircraft operating in the distance.

“Hard Right, Hard Right!”

The sun was setting, it was beginning get dark and Franco realized the battery in his radio was beginning to run down. Suddenly, he heard a deep “thumping” of rotors and a Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight appeared around one of the peaks. He began to yell into the radio, “Hard Right, Hard Right!” When he let up on the transmit button, he realized that the display on the face of the radio was blank. There was just enough power left for him to hear the Sea Knight crew call, “Aircraft in sight.”

They overflew his position and tried to find a place to land. Unfortunately, because of the terrain, snow, and trees, they couldn’t set the big twin rotor chopper down. A Bell UH-1 Huey also participating in the search flew in and was able to drop two rescue specialists nearby and they hiked to the crash site. Franco noted that his first sight of the guy in the baggy orange pants and white helmet was one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen. It had taken 4 1/2 hours for help to arrive.

The rescuers stabilized his leg and got him in a Stokes litter to hoist him into the helo. Inside the Huey they had the heater going full-blast as they worked on him to keep him alive. He was medivac’d to the hospital in Carson City where he underwent hours of surgery to repair his leg and other injuries. He now has a steel rod in his upper right leg and a pin in his big toe, but he has made a complete recovery. He has returned to flying and on April 21st of this year he flew a Cessna 172 from Northern California to Prescott, Arizona to share his experience with students and his old professors at Embry-Riddle University. He attributes his survival to being prepared and knowing what to expect, as well as a whole lot of luck.

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One Response to Cessna Crash In High Terrain

  1. mak-the-knife says:

    I must say that this is one of those cases where you have to step back and reflect. Call it luck, fate, or the hand of God–something reached out and protected Franco during that crash. Seeing his seat, upside down, with nothing around it but snow, I would have said that surviving the impact was impossible. It is absolutely amazing that he came through this ordeal alive and in relatively good shape.

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