Hikers Film Plane Barely Recovering From Spin In Mountains

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Cameras are everywhere these days and hikers in the Devil’s Thumb area in Colorado on July 4 almost captured a plane crash. The hikers posted this video of an incredibly close shave as the pilot of the aircraft, possibly a 152, managed to recover from an incipient spin within feet of the ground near the top of the Continental Divide. The formation known as Devil’s Thumb is at 12,200 feet and it was warm day even at that altitude as evidenced by the clothing worn by the hiker. No more details are available.

Video credit: Jason Dunn via Facebook.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

54 COMMENTS

  1. I’d like to know how a C152 manages to get up to 12,000 ft to begin with! Since it was reported as being warm, there must have been some updrafts in the area.

    • I’ve done it but did indeed need to take advantage of updrafts in a mountainous area. Even then it required patience!

    • To clear terrain I’ve gone as high as 14,000 ft in a 152, but that was solo, cold, and about 100 lb lighter than now. That video was crazy terrifying. My training airport was surrounded by terrain like this and it was understood that you never entered a canyon before having at least 1,000′ to clear the top and even then you had to be aware of potential downslope winds. Unless you’re in a F-16 you’re not going to out climb this kind of terrain in a single engine aircraft, and turning in a canyon is frequently fatal.

      • Last I saw statistics, blundering into a canyon and losing control in trying to turn around was one of the most common fatal errors in mountainous British Columbia Canada.

        The COPA conference in Red Deer AB circa 2002 gave seminars on mountain flying, as most attendees were from the much lower eastern part of the country.

        A technique to reduce risk of going down the wrong canyon of a series in the mountains is to approach at an angle, which gives you a bit more time to see down it and turn away or into it as appropriate.

    • I have had 3 152s in Minnesota. My current version has the Sparrowhawk conversion with ported and polished cylinders (about 130 hp) plus long rang tanks and STOL kit. It is no problem to get to 12000 for cruise. Service ceiling is several thousand more than the factory however without OxygenI I haven’t tried to find out how high. I have soared a stock 152 with engine at idle to over 15000.

  2. N65440 on Flightradar24. The most amazing part: he retreated east, then climbed up and tried again over Rollins Pass–this time successfully!

  3. Amazing recovery, literally a thousandth of a second from the end of times. Bob Hoover would have gasped if he saw that one.

  4. Boxed in maybe? Not familiar with the terrain but certainly looks like a hasty 180 was executed and the poor aircraft struggled to gain altitude after the near earth encounter. Definitely an undergarment change upon landing…

  5. Boxed in for sure, OMG, I’d be returning where I came from for a change of underwear and reassessment of my life choices. If they continued on and tried again I can’t help but think they are not aware of how close they came!

  6. Back in the day I supplied 6 aircraft to a flying school, one I modified, it had long range fuel, so it was heavy and slow to climb when full. I installed the high compression pistons, modified cooling baffles and a new prop as part of the STC. The 152 was flown and climbed to 13 thousand feet and spun down to 6 thousand without my Knowledge. So it can be done. Instructor was removed from the flying school. By the way the 152 with the mod performed better than my 172’s in climb and cruise.

  7. Back in the mid 50’s, I took an Ercoupe up to14,000 feet in the Northern Texas panhandle area. As it had colored side windows, to take a photo in color, I had to open the canopy. In a TEE shirt, I about froze my butt off but got the pix I wanted. It took the better part of 30 minutes to get up there and after shutting down the Continental, it took about 10 minutes to glide down and restart the engine. Retired Instructor—GBF

  8. I wonder if he was making an emergency turn back after realizing he wasn’t high enough to clear the pass, perhaps stalled in the thin air (rather than a spin). Either way, the plane’s shadow seems to show he was within feet of hitting the ground. Yikes!

    • That appears to be the case. I’m surprised that plane could get that high in the first place.

  9. Almost a re-run of the terrible JU-52 crash in the Swiss mountains, august 2018, but that cost 20 people their lives.
    Anyhow, having thousands of hours on both the C150-152 and the C172, the C172 never “bit” me with dropping a wing unexpectedly. The twoseater did however, twice. Since then I got more cautious in the thing.

  10. Doesn’t look like a spin to me. More of a hammerhead turn. Not sure why he waited so long to make the decision to bail out. Flying in the Cascades, I try to approach ridges at a 45-degree angle (rather than perpendicular to the ridge), just in case winds get a bit swirly and you need to make an escape.

  11. Spin training is part of glider instruction. I understand that power pilots used to get it too, but few have dive brakes like gliders. If you start at least at 6, you can get in several spins on the way down. If you practice it, you will do the recovery instinctively. No pilot fails to gain from some glider lessons.

    • Spin training is required for CFI rating in gliders only. That said, because we spend so much time close to stall speed when thermalling, we spin all of our presolo students because the day *will* come when that happens.

  12. C152 service ceiling 14,700 (100ft/m under “normal conditions”). I guess the pilot found out the true service ceiling on that hot July 4 day with the plane loaded as such

    • Except you can see the flight on ADSB exchange, flightaware and other flight tracking sites.

  13. Yea. Something looks phony about it. And it looks controlled all the way with no effort made to get some altitude. Lots of speed at that point. Doesn’t look like a spin or spiral recovery, but a deliberate maneuver. Maybe doctored RC. Just don’t know.

  14. The only link I see is to someone on Facebook. Despite a pervasive misconception, not everyone in the AvWeb world feels the need (or has the time) to waste on such low signal/noise fora.

  15. Looks like the wind was right to left from the hikers shirt. That would put the area of the ‘event’ in a down draft. Imagination is good if you use it to look at alternative futures.

    • So true. Looks like he did imagine the possibility that a wingover turn retreat might be necessary but cut the distances too short. Bet he won’t do that again!

  16. I’m trying to image the flight planning process on the ground that asks, “Should we fly through this mountain pass at 12k’+ on a warm day in 152?” How does anyone with a pilot’s license look at that scenario and say yes?

  17. Looks like a canyon turn almost gone horribly wrong. I imagine his tires were spinning after brushing the ground. But given today’s click-baity videos, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was fake.

  18. I fly that same airplane, N65440, regularly. The flight school removed the passenger seat to lighten the load, so it’s a single-place airplane. It has okay climb performance, but not enough to safely take it over the divide on a hot summer’s day, accounting for the potential of downdrafts. That was reckless, and I hope that pilot is never allowed to fly the school’s airplanes again.

    • Actual data and experience. Thank you. I’m glad that my worst mistakes were before phone cameras, ADS-B, and the interweb. That said, I’ve not (to date) put myself into quite that bad of a situation, let alone turned around and tried it again having barely survived the first f-up. I think this goes beyond a standard deviation of “everyone makes mistakes,” i.e., reckless.

      • Idk, id kinda like to see a video of a late June mid-day takeoff I made from KSEZ. Cameras weren’t that common in 2002 but I’m certain I descended below field altitude.

  19. Gentlemen, it’s amazing because it’s a model RC plane, not an actual passenger aircraft. No markings, no N number, looks very small against the terrain, but most of all that recovery that close to the ground just isn’t realistic especially given the altitude.

  20. The subject airplane has rounded wing tips. If a Cessna it is a ragwing 120/140. If an RC plane it was flown by a better, or luckier, pilot than I have known and I started RC in th’ 50’s.

    An ol’ Alaska pilot, 40’s vintage, taught me mountain and fjord flying. Fjord turns were almost always wx related, not performance related. The idea is simple, the execution takes skill. The turn back needs to be completed over the deepest part of the valley or over water in the fjord. Climbing over rocks, drop the nose and start the turn. The airplanes I flew seemed safer with slight increase in air speed. Over water in a fjord and in level flight start the turn, maintain airspeed. Altitude and width both factor into the decision.

    The Alaska custom those days was to fly up the right side of the valley remembering to keep the right wing tip out of the rocks. Hope that is till the custom.

  21. I have taken a 152 to 13,500′, but it is an exercise in patience and really knowing how to manage your mixture to eeek out every ounce of power to do it, and I certainly would never try crossing the mountains in one because there is absolutely zero excess power available. Most of my hours are flying in the Rockies and I can say that we would see three kinds of people. 1. Low-landers coming up and wanting to see the mountains from the air, but who struggle understand how their airplanes perform at higher altitudes (I’ve talked about that in my safety video about flying in-and-out of Angel Fire), 2. New mountain fliers who get cocky in their skills and think they can do things that get close to getting them killed (the “almost bends metal in the Dunning-Kruger Effect chart), 3. The small number of mountain pilots who make it through their own screw-ups and really know what to do, and more importantly, what NOT to do.

    I would like to think the potential spin in this case was an intentional emergency canyon turn, but if you are looking that you need to do it, you would typically do that to the left to utilize gyroscopic forces to help pull you around. In this case, I’m guessing it was an “oh $h!t, crank the ailerons and maybe jam the rudder to the floor”…then once straight-and-level going back down the pass, go ahead and pull those pants off and chunk those nasty underwear out the window.

  22. I took a C-150 to 12,500 feet over the Mississippi River when I was a student pilot…..before I knew a 150 couldn’t go that high! It was light, evening winds in early April.

  23. This guy came within a second of ending it all. In the comments on both Avweb and Facebook there are some who say it was an RC plane, it wasn’t. I tracked the plane on Flightradar24 using the Playback feature, as others in the comments did. It was N65440 a Cessna 152, left BJC July 4, 2024 about 15:40 UTC and made two turns at the Devil’s Thumb pass area at 16:26. He then did a 180 from his previous course and flew about a third of the way back toward the airport, probably scared half to death! Then he turned around again and flew over Rollins Pass at about 16:46 UTC.

  24. Once upon a time, I taught mountain flying for CAP Rocky Mountain Region. They had a syllabus extracted from Sparky Imesen’s Mountain Flying Bible, https://www.mountainflying.com/Pages/mountain-flying/box_canyon_turn.html and Sparky himself.
    https://rmr.cap.gov/missions/mission-support/operations/mountain-training/mountain-flying-training
    One of the tasks was a blind canyon course reversal. It was simple: Full power, pitch up (I forget how much – maybe 10D?), 50% flaps, and when the stall horn began to honk, use only the rudder to reverse course. NO AILERON, which kept it simple because there is no adverse aileron yaw. No yaw, no spin. IIRC, the metric was a recovery in the opposite direction with no more than 500 ft altitude loss. With a little practice, the average pilot could do it to the left using P-factor with no altitude loss.
    Of course, we practiced it on the prairie. In the rock pile, we never tried to outclimb the terrain. We started our search patterns high and worked toward lowering terrain, paying attention to wind patterns in water, grass, trees, snow, smoke and the plane (GPS vs IAS is a huge hint) to judge where the downdrafts lurk. And always have an exit strategy toward lowering terrain or better weather.

  25. I didn’t see a spin but rather what might amount to a kind of a split S in order to avoid the ridge. Most definitely not an RC plane!

  26. I’m a CAP mission pilot, mountain qualified. I tend to agree with spencer_hamons. it might well be a canyon turn, but not a well-executed one. The nose-down attitude and altitude loss are pretty extreme, and you really shouldn’t lose altitude if you do the turn correctly. You also should be doing that turn a LOT further from the mountain. It does look like he was together enough (or lucky enough) to get the wings unloaded before he lost it, but that was close.
    Based on the earlier unzoomed footage, it really doesn’t look like a model, but like the real thing. Also, it’s not the most detailed video, but I’m seeing a white aircraft with a swept tail, and I think the wingtips look more straight than rounded, consistent with a C-152 or C172.
    I’m surprised he didn’t go back home for some clean undies…

  27. Many years ago, I lived in Colorado, and periodically did mountain flying. Pilot’s familiar with mountain flying told me stories of pilot’s – with no mountain flying experience – flying into a box canyon with fatal endings. Why? They didn’t have the turning radius to turn around, or enough horizontal distance to climb out of the canyon. When a trained mountain flying pilot realized they didn’t have enough width to turn around or horizontal distance to climb above the canon, the only option left was a ‘stall’ with full left/right rudder. The aircraft would pivot, and the pilot could then fly out the canyon the way they entered the canyon. This procedure is TAUGHT for those pilot’s wanting to learn how to safely fly at lower altitudes in mountainous terrain. I wonder if the aircraft in the video was performing that maneuver? It was obvious from the video, the aircraft was too low to climb out of the canyon.

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