Midair crash survivor describes harrowing experience
When the Cessna 210 in which she was flying bucked as it approached Grand Mesa, Mesa County Deputy Sheriff Lisa McCammon heard pilot Andy Gordon say he thought he had struck a bird.
Maybe “a big freakin’ bird,” she thought.
A bird of sorts, it turned out. The Cessna 210 struck a Cessna 180 over Whitewater on Wednesday morning, sending the 180 down to crash-land on a sagebrush flat.
Cessna 180 Pilot Tom Haefeli and his father, John, walked away after pulling free from the 180, which tipped onto its back after landing on its wheels.
The sheriff’s Cessna 210, carrying McCammon, pilot Andy Gordon and two inmates bound for prisons on the Front Range, swung back to Grand Junction Regional Airport, where it landed safely without nose gear.
McCammon, 34, has made more flights across the Colorado mountains with Gordon at the controls than she can count.
She described her experience Tuesday at the sheriff’s office.
In the air at 8:27 a.m., McCammon was listening on headphones to the conversation between Gordon and Denver air-traffic controllers as Gordon gave a weather report.
“It was a beautiful day,” she said, but she did note some ominous clouds clinging to the top of the mesa.
Then there was the bump.
Seated on the back bench of the plane, McCammon saw nothing.
“I asked the inmates: What just happened?” she said.
The 210 started to drop, and McCammon said she thought, “This is it.”
Gordon regained control and turned the plane around for a landing back at Grand Junction Regional Airport.
Through her headphones, McCammon heard conversation between the Grand Junction tower and another craft, the one that had collided with the sheriff’s Cessna.
“That’s kind of bizarre,” she remembered thinking.
Thing went to bizarre and then beyond.
Gordon never addressed her directly, but she kept track of what was happening through the headphones.
As the plane approached the airport, Gordon lowered the landing gear, but the nose gear never did drop down.
Unsure whether the wheel might be down, Gordon and the tower agreed he would fly down the runway at eye level so controllers could give the plane a look.
The damage was confirmed, and Gordon and airport officials agreed to a hard landing, one in which he’d keep the nose up as long as possible.
“I’m saying in my head, I’m not sure how this happens,” McCammon said.
Gordon circled the airport a few times before lining up his approach, then opened the door, which was on the left side of the plane, both to increase drag and give the passengers a quick escape route, McCammon said.
With the door open, emergency equipment lining the runway and the plane coming in to land,
McCammon said the scene was “kind of surreal.”
As the rear wheels touched ground, Gordon held the nose of the plane high as long as he could, she said.
Once the plane came to rest, the plane’s occupants exited, and McCammon was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital as a precaution, but she was not injured, she said.
The incident remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The inmates, Robert York and a federal prisoner identified by his wife as Cody Northern of Vernal, Utah, “didn’t say a word” during the episode, McCammon said. “They took it like champs.”
And Gordon, who nursed his craft to safety, showed remarkable skill, she said, adding, “I think he could fly a brick.”