Small planes are scary stuffBrowsing through my most recent Grand Slam Club archives, I was shocked to read that Cam Lancaster of Nahanni Butte Outfitters in Northwest Territories, died in a plane crash on Aug. 21st. I met Cam 10 years ago on a Dall sheep hunt where his twin brother, Clay, was my guide. Cam was 36 and left a wife and four young children.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
Browsing through my most recent Grand Slam Club archives, I was shocked to read that Cam Lancaster of Nahanni Butte Outfitters in Northwest Territories, died in a plane crash on Aug. 21st. I met Cam 10 years ago on a Dall sheep hunt where his twin brother, Clay, was my guide. Cam was 36 and left a wife and four young children.
It occurred to me that I have personally known a number of men who died in light planes and helicopters. And that is the reason why, like horses, I regard light planes only as necessary evils to get one into the backcountry.
In British Columbia’s Stone sheep country, I knew outfitters Lynn Ross, Frank Stewart, and Gary Powell. All were killed in light plane crashes.
I knew Jim Ford, Montana Fish,Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor and sheep aficionado, who was killed in a plane crash in western Montana as he was spotting sheep from the air.
One of the young guides on my very first sheep hunt for Rocky Mountain bighorns in Wyoming was later killed in a plane crash. So was another young fellow who was a friend of an acquaintance of mine who lived in Alaska. He and two friends flew in to an area of the Alaska Range and hunted Dall sheep. The hunter who got the only sheep had to depart for Anchorage for an appointment. He crashed into a ridge and the wreckage was found several days later.
In the early 1990s, a young, personable fellow stopped by the office where I worked and asked if anyone in the building was a sheep hunter. The ladies at the front desk directed him to my office. He attempted to book me on a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska for $5,000 — a paltry sum these days — but at the time I couldn’t afford it. Within a year I read where he and his partner were killed in a plane crash in Alaska.
A friend of mine is retired from 32 years as a mule deer research biologist. He once showed me a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings of small helicopter crashes of New Zealanders who contracted with western wildlife agencies to perform net-gunning on big game animals — mostly bighorn sheep. The chopper zooms in on the animals, fires a net-gun that tangles up the sheep, then the chopper lands, and the crew moves the animals to wherever they have determined. That’s when things go right. When things do not go right, someone usually dies.
Ironically, the man who owned the very company that my friend employed all these years was killed last summer in Utah along with his 32-year-old son, when their small helicopter crashed on take-off. I didn’t know the son, but I knew the father and had visited with him on several occasions.
So why do these crashes happen? Well, if you have spent any time in Alaska or northern British Columbia, you know that it can be a brooding country of shifting winds, downdrafts, rain and fog. Many things can go wrong, and when they do, a pilot only has a couple seconds to make a decision to avoid a disaster.
Alaskans don’t like to talk much about plane crashes, but there are dozens that occur each year in that state. Several times I have flown in planes across Cook Inlet and through the pass in the Alaska Range to Lake Clark and Lake Illiamna to get to caribou country. Here and there through the pass you can see the wreckage of planes. It gives one an eerie feeling while the wind and drafts are buffeting your plane, making it heave up and down 15 or 20 feet.
Part of the problem I suspect is the daring and the nonchalance of the pilots, too. I have known young pilots who think no more of flying around in the mountains in Alaska than I would to drive my pickup into the next county. Six years ago at the conclusion of a Stone sheep hunt, I got flown from a remote lake in the Pelly Mountains of the Yukon out to the town of Whitehorse. I mentioned to the young German pilot that I didn’t think I could ever feel entirely comfortable flying an airplane.
“Most people go whizzing down the highway in a car, passing within four feet of oncoming traffic, and they don’t think a thing of it,” he replied. It’s all what you get used to.”