Sheriff’s pilot says he thought he hit bird

Alan Gordon, who survived a midair collision Wednesday while piloting the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department plane, was flying into the morning sun when he and passengers felt a bump they first believed came from striking a bird.

Tom Haefeli, the pilot of the other plane, was looking out the window toward Grand Mesa to see if he could spot deer when “he looked up and saw a plane approaching head-on,” said Arnold Scott, senior air-safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Scott interviewed both pilots Thursday, and today he is to release a preliminary report on the collision that involved two airplanes and six people, all of whom escaped without injury.

Haefeli, who left Del Norte at 7:24 a.m. in his Cessna 180, felt the collision soon after he passed 10,500 feet in altitude on a descent he planned to level off at 8,500 feet.

Scott said Haefeli told him the collision spun Haefeli’s plane 270 degrees as he pushed the yoke forward to point his plane downward.

Even though the rudder was jammed, he got the wings level and spied a sagebush-studded flat below on which he crash-landed. The plane tipped over as it rumbled to a halt, but Tom Haefeli and his father, John, tumbled out and walked away.

Gordon was flying Deputy Sheriff Lisa McCammon and two inmates, Robert York and a man identified as Cody Northern, a federal prisoner who was being taken to prison in Florence, in the department’s Cessna 210.

Gordon estimated the collision occurred at 9,500 feet to 10,500 feet, Scott said.

Neither plane was equipped with collision-avoidance gear, which is intended to warn pilots when other craft are in the area, Scott said. Both planes also were outside the area in which they would be expected to be in contact with the tower, he said.

Gordon told Scott he was activating his flight plan when the collision occurred, and Haefeli said he was preparing to contact the Grand Junction tower.

Shortly after the collision, Gordon decided to return to Grand Junction Regional Airport because he was concerned the plane might have been damaged, Scott said.

When Gordon lowered the landing gear, a warning light indicated the nose gear hadn’t come down.

He flew past the tower so air-traffic controllers could take a look.

The landing gear resisted efforts to lower it manually, so Gordon had to make a “hard” landing, Scott said, without the nose wheel. Gordon, the deputy and both prisoners all escaped injury.

Sheriff’s officials made no comment Thursday about the collision and said they couldn’t confirm Northern’s identity.

Northern’s wife, Jennifer, however, said he called from Mesa County Jail and said, “I’m just thankful to be alive,” Jennifer said. “I just survived a midair collision,” he told her.

Cody Northern also thought the sheriff’s plane had struck a bird, Jennifer Northern said.

The Haefelis, both involved in the family beekeeping business, were OK after their experience, except for sore fingers on their right hands, said a woman who answered the phone at John Haefeli’s house in Del Norte.

Jennifer Northern, who said she was training to be a pilot, said it was Cody Northern’s fourth flight ever.

She was aware he was to be moved from Mesa County sometime, “but they don’t tell you when,” Northern said, so news of the incident left her shaken.

“You’re supposed to be safe at the jail,” she said.


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