A Student Lost In The Wild

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Today’s blog was going to be a PSA to set straight the horrible thrashing general aviation took at the hands of yet another misguided network news feature.

But, damn it, foiled again. The piece in question ran Sunday night on NBC’s Dateline and chronicled the story of McKenzie Morgan, a plucky 17-year-old student pilot who took a wrong turn and crash landed in the Wyoming mountains, miles from her intended route on her long cross country. You can see it here.

The story is billed as an “investigation,” but it’s really a dramatized rendering that keeps the viewer on the edge of the seat wondering if this kid is gonna survive. Spoiler alert: She does and even gets back in the saddle to earn her private. You’ll have to sit through 20 minutes of overwrought voice-over and interviewing by the ever-unctuous Keith Morrison to figure that out, but once you do, the rest of the story falls together engagingly, if not artfully. It has some terrific aerial footage of mountains and even some nice air-to-air. (Wish they knew about prop filters, however.)

The PSA part I had planned was to take Ms. Morgan’s flight instructor, Bobbi Powers, to task for sending her student into the wild without any survival gear. I intended to use that as a platform for one of my periodic spleen ventings about people not carrying even minimal survival equipment in airplanes. Then I read the accident docket. Stand down, big boy.

Although it wasn’t apparent from the script, probably to heighten the sense of imminent danger, the airplane was equipped. Morgan had water, charts, a GPS, some food and a vest with survival gear Powers had loaned her. It doesn’t matter what or wasn’t in the gear, what matters is the consciousness of recognizing the sort of risk flying over such remote country represents and habitually equipping to deal with it. In my experience, people in the remote parts of the west and northern tier have this consciousness practically ingrained. But humanity is not homogenously perfect (or rational) and gadgets like cellphones and GPS tend to knock the sharp edges off the risk of being in extremis in remote areas. Crash your airplane in the middle of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and that lesson might be learned too late.

So, now comes my periodic reminder to carry some minimal survival gear in your airplane, no matter where you fly it. There are inexpensive commercial survival packages available or you can assemble your own. We’ve published survival equipment articles, like this one on life rafts. The AOPA Air Safety Institute has some materials as well. This stuff is worth more than just passing consideration.

Given audiences' hunger for titillation, the producers exaggerated the remoteness of Ms. Morgan’s plight. By sheer good luck, she was spotted by two hunters on horseback and one of them led her to a trailhead, thence to a clinic for a checkup. She made it home late the same night from a crash that occurred in mid-afternoon. And if you’re a flight instructor who enjoys vicarious angst, I challenge you not to feel it when Powers describes her helplessness and worry when her student becomes overdue. I think most of us have suffered that to some degree. Although I can’t recommend it, there’s nothing to equal it as a character builder.

Comments (26)

"She made it home late the same night from a crash that occurred in mid-afternoon"

So.... this is yet another example that axes and survival gear did not make a difference.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 4, 2017 1:36 PM    Report this comment

That's right - the lesson learned from this story is that you can carry all the axes and survival gear you want, but there is a chance you may not need it.

Posted by: Ken Keen | July 4, 2017 2:35 PM    Report this comment

If I heard the young pilot correctly, she transposed two numbers in her GPS and then followed the GPS in the wrong direction? I recall my long-cross-country as being pilotage and dead reckoning (i.e. take-off and follow a heading and verify with land-marks. She said she was supposed to follow a river and in-fact found a river to follow; however, in the wrong direction. I'm curious why she discarded the heading piece in favor of the GPS. This makes me think of "Children of the Magenta". You can find it on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN41LvuSz10). This, in my opinion, was an excellent lesson to verify and sanity check what you program in that box.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 4, 2017 3:20 PM    Report this comment

The "lesson" is DON'T DO WHAT SHE DID.
Don't bent a perfectly good airplane and you'll be fine.
This is a textbook case of what not to do from start to finish.
7700? 122.5? Instrument cross check? VOR from Cody? Sun position? Compass?????

Axes and guns and rafts and water and food are rather pointless if you choose to crash into a mountain and roll the dice that you'll even live through such an event. Heck, from what I saw in the video, she was too rattled to even use survival and just started walking aimlessly away from shelter into the gathering darkness.

As said, it's textbook about what NOT to do as a PIC. It's an embarrassment.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 4, 2017 5:35 PM    Report this comment

The ICAO flight plan that the FAA wants us to start using has survival equipment listed on the form, something the current domestic form does not. Don't be suprised if the FAA then comes up with requirement to have survival equipment on board, just like the ELT requirement!

Posted by: matthew wagner | July 4, 2017 8:17 PM    Report this comment

I better say something before the topic gets changed. Well folks, I'm glad she's alright and that she completed the Private pilot course. Ok Paul, take it away! Happy Fourth of July.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 4, 2017 11:43 PM    Report this comment

My neighbors laugh at me for wearing my survival vest in Tennessee. It only contains a PLB and a Doug ritter pocket survival kit, but Appalachia is remote it that stuff might just be enough.

Posted by: Dick Merrill | July 5, 2017 6:48 AM    Report this comment

After following the 'Berlin Express' P-51 flight to Duxford online via Spot, I think one of those would really be a worthwhile investment if you routinely flew in sparsely populated areas of the Country.

Beyond that, I carry enough survival eqpt to spend a couple of nites waiting to be rescued. Doesn't take much. An orange tarp, throwaway ponchos for every seat, emergency blankets and candles and something to carry water would be a great start and doesn't weigh much. A powerful flashlight and signaling devices plus a hand held. Ya never know ... I took a USAF survival course a long time ago ... learned lots of good stuff. In the B-58A 'Hustler' bomber, the joke was that if you ever unpacked the seatpack survival gear ... you'd need a station wagon to haul it all off.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 5, 2017 9:10 AM    Report this comment

I'll bet the flight instructor will never send another student out ever again solo without a satellite tracking device such as ADS-B. A satellite tracker such as Garmin Explorer, Spot or ADS-B takes away from the drama.

The best survival equipment I can recommend is a 'Helicopter'. Do you really want to build a shelter, snare a rabbit and eat roots after splinting a broken leg?

Technology got you in a bad way technology will get you out. Garmin inReach Explorer has two way texting with rescuers. Plus the instructor could have radio called the cross country student and steered them back on course.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | July 5, 2017 2:16 PM    Report this comment

As I watched the program I jumped when she said "I tried to call my instructor but the phone didn't have a signal". I have a student who relies so much on electronics that when I ask her "what if the GPS goes out?" she replies "I carry another one" so I ask "and if that goes bad?" to which she quickly replies " I have my cellphone". That's when I stop asking because she doesn't want to get the point and believes her electronics will never fail. I can only hope her DPE tells her to put away all electronics before the checkride, and has a Go-Pro recording her reaction !

CFIs have to be sure our students understand at least basic navigation and where the sun goes down before sending them on a long cross county flight SOLO !

Posted by: Carlos Rodriguez | July 5, 2017 4:22 PM    Report this comment

Looking at the charts, from Greybull KGEY you can see how an inexperienced pilot could mistake the Greybull River for the Bighorn River and then follow the Wood River drainage right up into that 12,000 foot box canyon just south of Franks Peak. Wow.

But what seems to have been amiss here is general situational awareness. We have all done it at one point or another. Taking a heading of 210 for a northbound track would for most pilots be considered "wrong" even with a supposed river to follow. For training, we used to stand out on a compass rose and practice walking compass headings. That would be handy for some to get familiar with it....used to be called "boxing the compass". Orienteering practice helps too. Integrating heading, sun and lighting position, and lastly radio aids should round out the awareness part.

That being said, I'm very proud of this young lady for not letting it get her down and finishing her PVT. Good job McKenzie, and you now have experience now that very few of us will ever be exposed to. As they say "It's a license to learn"...

Posted by: A Richie | July 5, 2017 4:34 PM    Report this comment

"Do you really want to build a shelter, snare a rabbit and eat roots after splinting a broken leg?"

That's why typical survival gear for an airplane should be oriented toward immediate first aid, signaling gear and enough stuff to stay alive until you reach help or it reaches you. Sometimes you gotta stop the bleeding yourself...

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 5, 2017 4:56 PM    Report this comment

I stand corrected...the accident report shows a radar track that indicates she in fact did not go up the Wood River canyon, but instead stayed with the Greybull River all the way which also winds up in a nasty box canyon just south of Franks Peak.

Another link in the chain that may have contributed was the plan to "follow the water that passed right by the runway" to get her initial departure started from Greybull KGEY. It's not that this is a bad plan, but when the NOTAM closed Rwy 16-34 (which paralleled the flight-planned Bighorn River) she had to use 7-25 instead. Launching to the west on 7-25 puts you in the direction of the Greybull River which leads up to the canyon. If the runway had not been closed that day we might not be talking about this today, but like is often said, accidents are rarely single events but a chain of events leading up to the accident. This is just one of the links. It's a fascinating story we can all learn from.

Posted by: A Richie | July 6, 2017 9:41 AM    Report this comment

Compass heading. Clock. Groundspeed. Got me across the entire country, more than once. No magenta lines. WTF are instructors teaching students these days?
I'm happy for the survivor. But Dumb Shit Luck is too unreliable to be part of any Plan or Method. How often do students - even "naturals" - check their heading, anyway? Seriously.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 6, 2017 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Check, cross-check, and check again...oh, and always leave yourself an "out".

When LORAN first came out in GA airplanes, I was horrified (and still am) at the folks that would punch in some destination coordinates and take off. No charts, no briefings. I only can hope that those folks have retired from flying today.

Posted by: A Richie | July 6, 2017 10:21 AM    Report this comment

"WTF are instructors teaching students these days?"

As the saying goes, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink". Some students just don't listen to their instructors, and if the instructor insists, they may do as they say, but only while the instructor is still on board. That's partly why the solo flight requirement exists: so they can learn what is important and how to deal with matters on their own.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 6, 2017 11:42 AM    Report this comment

Yes, and some students listen perfectly but make...surprise!...mistakes. They're uncertain, they get rattled and do all the stuff people just trying to learn things sometimes do. One hopes if they survive it, they go on to become great pilots. Hard for some of us to understand because so few of us have made mistakes. Some of us have made none, right?

This has been going on in flying since I've been involved in it and I'm sure it went on from day one, before I was ever involved in it. Unless there's a pattern of stupidity and incompetence on the part of the instructor or the student, I fail to see the benefit of asking "what are they teaching today,' because the answer is the same as it always was.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 6, 2017 12:17 PM    Report this comment

"I fail to see the benefit of asking 'what are they teaching today,' because the answer is the same as it always was."
I'm not so sure about that. Dead reckoning, charts, and plotters seem to have become historic curiosities. And "whiz wheels?" Fuggetaboudit.
It seems to me that it doesn't matter much how many hand-helds and spare batteries you have in your flight bag, if you're able to fly a heading that's 180 degrees away from your intended destination.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 6, 2017 12:49 PM    Report this comment

Wonderful story at many levels with a fantastic outcome. I'm sure everyone involved has scoured their respective areas of thought to improve upon for the future.

I don't get that far north too often, but I can attest to the idea that inter-mountain flying even in the SW can put the sun where it shouldn't be, terrain higher than expected for density altitude, and winds blowing opposite from briefings just enough to confound our best efforts to navigate. Mountains seem to move and rise and fall on their own. There are wreckage piles everywhere from confident, it-can't-happen-to-me-aviators and their loved ones.

I'm sure some feel 'Pfftt! - she should have...but for me, she survived to learn from it and completed her PPL. The best outcome possible.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 6, 2017 1:41 PM    Report this comment

" It doesn't matter what or wasn't in the gear, what matters is the consciousness of recognizing the sort of risk flying over such remote country represents"

Let's be fair on the subject of risk.
Choosing to fly over such country is LESS dangerous than choosing to aimlessly limp through the high mountains at night. Her numerous flying mistakes did not kill her but her decision to hike out (if not stopped) certainly would have. The lesson is don't compound mistakes and hugs are no substitute for rational decision making.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 6, 2017 1:55 PM    Report this comment

This caps it. The story ended well. "I was up in the air two days later, fighting to get my license, which is what I wanted," she said. "In March, they filmed my solo cross-country flight. I had to do another one, since my first one didn't go so well." NBC's Dateline.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 7, 2017 1:40 AM    Report this comment

"Let he who has not sinned..."

I did something like this once, putting in the identifier for the Columbus, GA VOR (CSG) instead of the airport (KCSG) on the text-only GPS on my long solo cross-country. It was a hazy and cloudy summer afternoon and I was having trouble finding my visual landmarks; I was using the GPS to assist. As it turns out, the VOR is several miles from the airport--7.1nm, according to the map--which was greater than the visibility. Talking to Approach got me straightened out.

I learned a lot more from this little "getting lost" experience than I would have from a "paper, only paper, and nothing but paper" teaching approach. Let's face it--GPS isn't going away short of a global catastrophe. Almost everyone is going to use it. The question is, do we teach people to use it *responsibly*, or do we just pretend like it doesn't exist and expect them to figure it out on their own? Anecdotal evidence from college students and alcohol seems to indicate that the latter approach doesn't work...

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | July 7, 2017 9:10 AM    Report this comment

"Mom, put down that rock!"

I think we can all admit to becoming temporarily distracted or temporarily lost; but we need to to teach new students what we have learned (and the difference between being a PIC and being a driver). Making this video available to all instructors can serve that purpose perfectly and it's on a student's own level. Instructors can stop the video at various points and discuss with students the options that would have ended the problem at every stage. You can't teach responsibility unless you give examples of the consequences of making bad choices.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 7, 2017 11:21 AM    Report this comment

RE navigation mistakes: verify. re-verify. Be suspicious. You made a mistake somewhere. Find that mistake! Use a paper chart with a big line drawn on it!
RE the TV show. What hideous melodrama. It is emotionally misleading for the public.
I think most people writing here would agree, "The student pilot and her instructor both flunked situational awareness, and we're glad the outcome was good anyway. We hope they both have a new attitude about situational awareness now." But the TV viewer is going to think, "Flying is so dangerous, that girl was so lucky." Which further marginalizes flying.
I wish it were just expected that you spent some time in the pilot's lounge doing a paper flight plan, because you wanted everyone to SEE you doing the paper flight plan?

Posted by: John Schubert | July 7, 2017 12:25 PM    Report this comment

I just opened the June issue of Sport Aviation and found an interesting article and statistic on safety and survival times. I know it's poor etiquette to refer to other publications but the slide was noteworthy to me.

The article first talks about the Stinson 108 crash with four pax, full fuel and in a 9,167' density altitude in Idaho. They stressed use of a Koch chart for performance degradation. Then they digressed into survival issues stressing survival preparations along with survival times.

The slide included in the article was what caught my eye. It's on pg. 42. It gives times before rescue that one might expect to have to survive for IFR, VFR and no flight plan incidents. For IFR, it takes an hour to activate a search and ~3 hours to find. For VFR, it takes 4 hours to activate and ~37 hours to find. For no flight plan, they give question marks ... unknown. Finally, they say there's a 60% survival rate within the first 8 hours and 1% survival rate after 51 hours. Good gouge!

I think it's time that I add a folding papsan chair, a cooler full of beer and a battery powered TV and DVD player with good movies in my survival gear in the back of my Cessna ... (connect the dots).

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 8, 2017 10:58 AM    Report this comment

Human error causes most accidents so the fact this student was done in by a series of mistakes is not surprising. What is surprising is how many mistakes she made and still managed to survive. Especially the last big mistake she made - leaving the wreck site and trying to hike out - which would almost surely have been fatal if she had not managed to crash almost on top of an experienced outdoorsman riding his horse! What are the odds? She should surely have purchased a lottery ticket at the first opportunity after her rescue.

In the spirit of just not picking on the folks involved and offering positive suggestions; I recommend instructors not send their students on solo XC flights unless the instructor has flown that same route with the student. This way you can not only confirm their ability to use whatever navigation equipment (VOR/DME, GPS) they have available, you can also look out the windows and have the student identify the landmarks along the route and confirm them with their map, paper or moving. That practice would have surely prevented this accident. I use it with all my students.

As for the TV show, what can you say - overly dramatic, misleading, bad for aviation.

Posted by: ROBERT W LITTLEFIELD | July 10, 2017 2:07 AM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?


Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration