Flight: WY, ID, MT: Emergency Landing in Yellowstone

I spend enough time worrying about a forced landing. I guess the time came to just have one.

The flight was intended to catch some loose ends around Yellowstone. I had the nagging difficulty of finding out that West Yellowstone, MT was closed for 7 months, and Gardiner, MT was out of fuel for months. There was no ethanol-free car gas near Gardiner, so I hatched the plan to take 10 gallons of fuel with me in the cockpit, land at Gardiner, transfer to the wing tank, finish my work, and come home. All told, I had 5 hours of fuel on board.

For the first time in Yellowstone, I filed a flight plan for the flight. It was simply too much flying over remote terrain with a closed park to play the game without it, especially once I found out that West Yellowstone was no longer an alternate. I was literally going into a black hole aviation wise, and at the very least, I intended to be found if something happened.

I went straight north over Madison Plateau, and for the first time, successfully figured out that I needed to call Boise Radio instead of Casper Radio to make position reports. I was successful with a report over Madison Plateau, when I found out that a Center Weather Advisory had been issued for severe turbulence and mountain waves. The advisory covered Yellowstone, though I was on the windward side, and winds were relatively calm. After some back and forth about my imminent death with the flight service briefer, I resumed my flying over dense forest and lakes, continuously tracking tiny little meadows that I might hope to survive landing in if it came down to it.

I made it to Old Faithful and wound around all sorts of hot springs, getting awesome photographs. Unlike the prior flight, I went up to Grand Prismatic, and enjoyed some amazing scenery with cold weather steam billowing off the spring. It was remarkable and I got my best photography yet of that spring to date. Circling a number of times, I had added power to cope with the tight circles and winds as I photographed.

Then I looked at the oil pressure gauge.

Temperatures had spiked from 180 to 210 in a matter of two minutes, and pressure had dropped well into the caution range.

Shit.

Well, that is severely edited.

Increasing temperature and decreasing pressure is normally associated with one thing: loss of oil. Based on my obsessive reading of accident reports, modern engine analyzers that track electronic gadgetry on modern engines before a crash tend to report about 5 to 10 minutes of declining pressure before it hits zero, and the prop stops. The problem was, I had just changed the oil. Did the quick release valve not close thoroughly, and with the now warm oil, it had run out quickly?

I had 5 minutes. And I was 30 minutes from the nearest airport.

For about 6 seconds, I pretended I could rationalize my way out of it. “Maybe it just got hot and I can let it cool down.” Nope. “Maybe I could fly to Gardiner.” And end up an NTSB statistic? ‘We do not understand why the pilot elected to fly over harsh terrain with a declining engine when suitable landing locations were passed over.’ “Either I land now and save the engine and myself, or the engine seizes ($10,000 repair), I crash, and I might be dead. Damn it! We’re going in! This is going to be three days of paperwork landing in a [severely edited] national park!”

I called Boise Radio, advised of the situation and position, requested Park Ranger assistance, and advised I will be landing on a road. The park was closed and the radio call was critical to prevent waiting 6 hours to be found. After confirming the radio reports, I set up the approach and came in for the road.

Ten feet above the ground, I passed a big old bison. He didn’t give a crap that a plane just went whizzing by.

Arguably not my best landing, I applied brakes, came to a stop, cut the engine, and then sat there for a second. The whole affair took two minutes. I was just photographing in flight, and all I hear now is the whistle of wind and silence.

It finally happened. Here I am. And it’s so damn anti-climactic.

Hell, I always wanted to see this section of the park on the ground.

I checked the engine oil and it was full. Something must have been up with the overall flow volume, allowing it to get very warm and lower pressure after an hour of flying. I decided to let it cool down and would check pressure again once temps were where they belong.

I tried to call Boise Radio. No answer. Emergency frequency. No answer. Salt Lake Center frequency (airliners overhead). Nothing. So much for the god damn radio when I need it.

I checked cell reception. No bars. Texted my wife “Can you get this?” She wrote back “Yes” to my surprise. I advised what was going on and to call Flight Service on the phone and advise I am unharmed.

It took 15 minutes for a paramedic to arrive (NOT BAD!)

Park Rangers showed up 20 minutes later to commence the interrogation. After 2 and a half hours of interrogation, discussion, and approvals, I was allowed to take off again. Checking the engine at idle, pressures were up, so I decided to get the airplane out of the park before a storm blew in the next day and entombed it for the winter. I had one hour of flight time before temps got too warm, and Montana was 12 minutes away by air. Montana allows landings on roads legally, so I had a large area of non-emergency surfaces to land on.

I elect to not share the full magnitude of the story, as I have not decided how much I will tell, and what book(s) it will end up in. Needless to say, the interaction with the park rangers was hilarious in retrospect (at one point, I seriously considered refusing to say another word and getting a lawyer).

The flight home was uneventful.

If this happened anywhere else, it would not have been a big deal. Yellowstone, in winter, while it’s closed, with no alternates, while its cold and snowy? That was about as bad as it simply could get.

I have talked to many pilots relaying the story, and every single one of them, from different countries and all levels of experience levels agree that the landing was the smartest thing. Even if the aircraft needed to be disassembled and removed by trailer, it would have been the smart choice on all levels, confirming my ability to still be here and write this blog post.

Grand Teton with Snake River
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Grand Teton with C-130 on approach (I know, I said that happened in the last flight)
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Snake River, under Jackson Hole Airport approach path.
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South side of volcano caldera – Yellowstone. Note mountain waves over the Absarokas.
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Madison Plateau, Yellowstone.
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Shoshone Lake
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Some geyser.
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Same geyser, different angle.
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Last photograph before emergency landing.
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There is the bison. He walked up the hill a bit after the landing.
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Yellowstone…..from the ground.
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Before takeoff.
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Hebgen Lake, Montana.
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Targhee Pass – ID/MT border (MT to the left).
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Grand Teton from the NW.
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