The Amazing Survival of Lauren Elder

26 Apr 19 12 Comments

It been forty-two years since Lauren Elder survived a plane crash in the “Nevada Triangle”, the region in the Sierra Nevada mountains that claimed Steve Fossett’s life in 2007. The Nevada Triangle runs from Las Vegas, Nevada to Fresno, California at its base and Reno, Nevada as the top point.

Lauren Elder’s flight was on the 26th of April in 1976. She was only a passenger, out for a sight-seeing trip, sitting in the back of the four-seater Cessna 182P Skylane. And still, hers is one of the most compelling aviation stories I’ve ever heard.

The 26th of April was a lovely sunny day and Elder was invited to join the pilot and his girlfriend for a fun flight from Oakland Airport to Furnace Creek Airport in Death Valley. Furnace Creek Airport opened in 1942 under the charming name of Furnace Creek Emergency Landing Field. It was abandoned by the military in 1945 and a smaller civilian airfield reopened a mile further west in 1953.

The pilot had 213 total flying hours, 46 on type. He checked the weather, which was warm and clear. They departed Oakland Airport that morning, planning to take aerial photographs around the Sierra Mountains followed by a picnic at Furnace Creek, returning home in the late afternoon.

However, it seems that the pilot did not have any mountain flying experience. Mountain flying is unforgiving. The simple size of the scenery can make it difficult to judge scale and distance. Sierra Nevada mountain range is 400 miles long and 70 miles across with mountain peaks extending to 14,500 feet – the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. Flying in this type of geography is specifically trained because the weather systems and the elevation make it much more difficult than “normal” flying, especially in a small aircraft.

Elder has written a book about her experience, obviously from the point of view of a passenger, but there’s some clear warning signs as she describes her experience in the Cessna.

Kearsarge Lakes Basin by Terabass

The pilot probably planned the trip following Bubbs Creek to Kearsarge Pass, a well-known route that would lead them safely to Furnace Creek, but instead, he flew south-east into an area called Center Basin, which is ringed to the east by three high peaks of 13,000 to 14,000 feet. Between these highest peaks was a ridge of around 12,500 feet.

Wind in mountainous areas causes strong updrafts and downdrafts which will quickly change the altitude of the aircraft outside of your control. Where possible, pilots route through mountain ranges by following valleys through to the other side. But obviously, there aren’t always convenient valleys to take you along your route and it’s impossible to fly in the mountains without ever crossing a mountain ridge. So, those updrafts can be critical to crossing the ridges, because you can ride the updrafts upwind of the ridges, gaining enough altitude to cross to the other side and then lose your altitude once you are safely across. The point is to always have an escape route.

They were clearly enjoying flying the Cessna in inaccessible areas, which is of course one of the great advantages of light aircraft. But Elder writes about how it took her a while to get used to the way the plane was plunging and that she felt a thrill at their daring. That sounds to me like they are riding the up and down drafts of the area and not just to get over a ridge but for the pure thrill of it.

The description of “their daring” makes me wonder if they were suffering from mild hypoxia, which manifests as euphoria and overconfidence. The FAA requires supplemental oxygen for the pilot for flights at 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes and at all times above 14,000 feet. We don’t know what height they were flying at or for how long, but as they were flying towards a 12,500 foot ridge, one would expect them to be higher than that.

However, as they approached the east end of the basin, Elder remembers that the pilot called out, “Get ready for a fantastic view when we clear the crest.” I don’t think Elder understood the import of the statement but it tells us something vitally important about their altitude. If they were safely above the ridge, they wouldn’t have to clear the crest to see the view. If they can’t see beyond the crest, then they aren’t flying above it, they are below it.

Elder remembers that at that moment, there was a sudden downdraft. This tells us a couple of things. The important point is that when wind flows over a mountain, the “upwind” side has updrafts and the lee side has downdrafts. So if you are flying with the wind, you know you can expect wind flowing up as you approach the mountain: just like you, it wants to get over the peak. And if you are flying against the wind, then as you approach the high ground, the wind will flow down.

If they were about to cross a ridge and experienced a downdraft, then they were on the lee side. The ridge was at 12,500 feet and it was a warm day which means the density altitude was even higher. The Cessna 182’s ceiling is around 16,500 feet. On a windy day on the wrong side of the ridge, without being able to see the view on the opposite side as they approached, there was no way they were going to get across it.

Elder wrote that she looked forward to see them flying into a wall of granite. The next thing she knew, she was waking up in a crumpled aircraft on the side of the mountain, a few feet away from the ridge.

The pilot had crawled out of the plane but his girlfriend was still unconscious. They dragged her out of the plane and Elder collected the fuel dripping from the broken wing so that she could light it for warmth. The girlfriend convulsed and slipped down the slope. The pilot seemed to have given up, telling Elder “I did a dumb thing, really dumb. I should have circled. Should have made another approach to gain altitude. There were downdrafts.”

The point of circling is that you can keep clear of terrain while you increase your altitude. By circling the valley, a pilot can get 1,000 or 2,000 feet clearance before crossing the ridge. But realistically, that’s 14,500 feet and with the high density altitude, he would have already reached the ceiling of the aircraft. Add to that the fact that he was trying to cross on the lee side of the mountain. He knew they were in turbulent weather, which meant that he needed more altitude in order to not be smashed into the terrain by the downdraft as they crossed.

As it was, the Cessna impacted the rock nose first, so it was below the ridge by the time they reached it.

Although in a sense, he understood that he should have had more altitude before attempting to cross high ground, this statement as much as anything betrays his lack of understanding of the situation he was in.

He died of his injuries and hypothermia during the night. The following morning, Elder saw a small plane flying overhead but was unable to attract its attention. She knew she needed to get down the 12,500 foot slope and to safety.

Lauren Elder wrote about her experience in a book called And I Alone Survived which I very much recommend. It’s an amazing survival story of her trek down the icy mountain with a broken arm and shattered teeth, just to be ignored when she reached the town of Independence, as the townsfolk thought she might be yet another drug-addled groupie of Charles Manson, who had recently gone to trial there.

Regarding the flight, the NTSB cited the weather as “high density altitude” and offered the following probable causes:

– continued flight into known areas of severe turbulence
– weather: downdraft, updrafts
– improper in-flight decisions or planning

These days, the causal factors would be more detailed; those points lead to the conclusion that that the pilot continued to fly in dangerous conditions, ignoring severe turbulence. The key point of the report is that the NTSB believes the pilot should have realized that the conditions were bad, that the turbulence during the flight meant that there would be severe updrafts and downdrafts near the mountain ridges, and that a plan to fly over the high ridge at that height was a bad decision.

An easier way to put it might be simply lack of respect for the Nevada Triangle.


Speaking of triangles, I’m excited to tell you that Serial Box have just launched The Triangle, a paranormal mystery created by Dan Koboldt and written by Dan Koboldt, Mindy McGinnis and …me!

You can find out more about Serial Box here: How It Works or you can click straight through the free pilot episode, also known as chapter one. The series is available as text or audio and if you like it, you can subscribe for a 25% discount by using the discount code TRIANGLE25.

12 Comments

  • As usual, a very good summary by Sylvia.
    For those who want a bit more detail:
    Aircraft have a ‘ceiling’, the maximum altitude that they can reach and cruise at.Usually published in the manual as “service ceiling”.
    But that is not really a fixed datum point.
    A mountain is. If the map says “12500 feet”, that is what the survey has told the cartographers. Not so with an aircraft.
    First of all, everyone knows that air pressure can vary. On the TV the presenter will tell us where the high- and the low pressure areas will be. Because their locations will have a bearing on the weather pattern.
    But also: if the pressure is low, that means that if the pilot of an aircraft flies into the area of low pressure, the real altitude at which he is flying will actually be LOWER than his (her) altimeter will indicate. It does not react tot the change in barometric pressure unless the pilot dials in the actual pressure in the area. For that (s)he needs radio. In the old days when airplanes were starting to cover distances, the “Q-code” as used.
    the marconist on board would key in “QNH” and the reply would come as “QNH ….(e.g. 1012).
    This was important not just for approach and landing. Crusing aircraft would, under international agreement, use the “Quadrantal rule” which would ensure that aircraft flying on reciprocating tracks would maintain a vertical distance of 500 feet, and on the same altimeter setting.
    So pilots would listen out on “unicom” or ATIS or call the nearest ATC unit for the local altimeter setting. In the USA mostly in inches (of mercury), in Europe and many other countries in “Hectopascals”.
    Nowadays, the quadrantal system is used. Odd or even thousands, depending on the direction of the flight. Ensuring 1000 feet between aircraft on instrument flight rules, for visual flight there is 500 feet in between. For some reason the UK maintained the quadrantal system for flight outside controlled airspace.
    In the USA, once above 18000 feet, aircraft will all set the altimeter to “standard. In inches 29.91, or 1013.2 hP.
    So below 18000 feet all will use local settings. Which means resetting their altimeter regularly during a (long) cruise.
    In Europe, the transition to “standard”, meaning flight level, is made after departure when climbing through the transition altitude.
    When descending, ATC or ATIS will issue a “transition level” that will guarantee a minimum of 1000 feet above the transition altitude.
    The transition altitude is not constant. Take Schiphol, Amsterdam. It is 11 feet below sea level and in a wide area there will not be anything they will hit at 1000 feet. But in Austria or Switzerland it is another matter, of course.
    But there is more to the story:
    Aircraft performance suffers if the temperature rises. the air gets thinner, the ability to “lift” the aircraft deminishes and the engine power also decreases. To an extent, a turbocharger can overcome the power problem, but less dense (in high temperatures) equals the same density as normally applicable at a higher altitude.
    thus: the altimeter (set correctly !) may indicate 12500 feet, but due to the low DENSITY ALTITUDE the lift and power may be equal to, e.g. 12000 feet.
    There are other factors. Which is why many countries require a “mountain rating” for flights in certain areas.
    If there is some significant wind, the air on thee upwind side of the mountain or mountain range will be pushed upwards. Glider pilots know how to use this. But: air that goes UP cools down. So, if it contains significant amounts of water this will condensate and form clouds. It will often rain on the upwind side.
    On the other, downwind, side, the opposite happens:The air will tumble down and warm up. Air on the lee side will warm up more than it cooled on the upwind side, due to the condensation. But near the top so-called rotors may form. Like eddies in the air, sometimes identifiable by “rotor clouds”. Turbulence in these clouds can be vicious.
    The air in the valley on the lee side may be sunny and warm, the so-called “foehn”.
    But a small aircraft, trying to get over the top from the lee of the mountains may be doomed, even a retreat can be dangerous as the aircraft, in an attempt to turn away from the danger, can lose too much altitude in a strong downdraft and still crash.
    As summer is approaching and maybe some private pilots plan a vacation with a light aircraft, to them I have but one advice: Read Sylvia’s article and if you can, avail of an experienced instructor and get properly checked out before you go into the mountains with your aircraft on your own.

  • This reminded me so much of the account given by Beryl Markham in her book “West With the Night”. Writing about flying in Kenya in the 1930s she wrote:

    Near the end of the return trip, flying north toward the Ngong Hills over the Rift Valley, the Gipsy Moth was afflicted with a strange lethargy. I was at the controls and, as the hills (which rise about eight thousand feet above sea level) came closer so that their ravines and green slopes emerged from the lazy haze they live in, I opened the throttle and drew back the stick for altitude. But, it seemed, there wasn’t any more.

    The little plane was doing a respectable eighty miles an hour — hardly record speed even then, but still fast enough to make me appreciate the sad and final consequences of not getting over that close horizon. As I blundered on, the trees of the Ngong Hills began to separate one from another, to stand out individually — even magnificently; the ravines got deeper.

    More stick, more throttle.

    I was calm. Most beginners, I thought, might have got a bit rattled — but not I. Certainly not Tom. He sat in front of me motionless as a drowsing man.

    You can open a throttle just so far and increase the angle of a joy-stick to just such a degree — and if your plane does not respond to this, you had better think of something else. The Moth was not gaining altitude; she was losing that, and her speed. She was heading straight for the implacable hills like a moth hypnotized by light. There was a weight on her wings that I could feel, bearing her down. She could not lift the weight. Tom must have felt it, but he never moved.

    When you can see the branches of trees from a cockpit, and the shape of rocks no bigger than your own hands, and places where grass thins against sand and becomes yellow, and watch the blow of wind on leaves, you are too close. You are so close that thought is a slow process, useless to you now — even if you can think.

    The sound of our propeller got trapped between a wall of rock and the plane before Tom straightened in his seat and took the controls.

    He banked sharply, dusting the trees and rock with blue exhaust. He put the nose of the Gipsy down and swung her deep into the valley while her shadow rode close on the hill. He lost altitude until the valley was flat. He climbed in spirals until we were high above the Ngong Hills, and then he went over them and home.

    It was all so simple.

    ‘Now you know what down-draft is,’ said Tom. ‘You get it near mountains, and in Africa it’s common as rain. I could have warned you — but you shouldn’t be robbed of your right to make mistakes.’ It was a right he protected as long as we flew together, so that in the end I never did anything in a plane without knowing what ight have happened if I had done some other thing.

  • Sorry guys, I see that I made another typo: the modern system of vertical separation is the semi-circular system, though I believe that the quadrantal system is still used in the UK for VFR flights outsdide controlled airspace.

  • Adam,
    Thanks for that. A nice story and a very good illustration of what could have happened.
    The Austrian airport of Innsbruck had (probably still has) a very steep approach and actually the Jeppesen charts said that a pilot’s first approach should be made in VMC, visual weather conditions.
    Of course, when my boss wanted to go skiing it was totally “socked in”., the company still operated the Cessna 310 PH-STR. This was before they bought the Citation.
    The approach was to be on the VOR-DME. If I remember correctly, it was a 5 degree descent. Check distance vs. altitude constantly and mind the warning not to divert to the left of the beam.
    At the missed approach point, provided visual contact was made with the ground, the pilot was to make a prescribed 180 degree turn because the runway would be behind him /.her.
    In case of a missed approach, the pilot would have to climb in a sort of holding pattern because of the high terrain.
    It all went according “to the book”.
    When I returned a week later to collect the boss it was beautiful weather.
    And I must admit that I was more than a bit unnerved.
    The initial approach altitude seemed so close to the skiers that I could nearly touch them. It must have been 1000 feet, but in the clear air it seemed very close.
    But what was more scary was the sheer wall of the mountain, seemingly at my left wingtip.
    The pilot of the Gipsy Moth was lucky that she had an experienced pilot with her. Because in the rarified air the stall speed also increases. This is not noticeable on the airspeed indicator, but that aircraft probably had a crude vane rather than a pitot tube. The Tiger Moth used to have them too, mounted on the strut. I still have one. The Dutch authorities mandated the pitot tube ASI.
    The Gipsy Minor engine delivered only 90 HP. The Gipsy Moth was a sort of prototype for the Tiger Moth: the RAF required that both pilots had to be able to bale out with a parachute. The Gipsy Moth had the top wing above the lower one and sat over the front cockpit. So the top wing was moved forward. But now the centre of gravity was way out, so the tips were wings were put rearward in a “V”. But the tip of the lower wing, moved rearward, now came too close to the ground, so that wing was given a dihedral, an upward “V”. And so with some trial and a little bit of error the Tiger Moth was born. A nice aircraft to fly. Difficult to fly properly but very forgiving. An excellent trainer, in other words. But climb performance? Poor enough, although with the low climb speed (about 40 mph) it would have been able to make a steep turn without problem.

  • It sounds like the pilot was technically legal wrt oxygen if he was flying below the 12,500-foot-high ridge — that may have been \why/ he was staying low — but it’s unclear what kind of margin the 12,500/14,000-foot requirement has wrt density altitude. (i.e., if the air is thin enough to make flying difficult, it could be short enough of oxygen to make piloting difficult.) The NTSB report probably didn’t want to speculate on this as a contributing factor.

    I question “as the townsfolk thought she might be yet another drug-addled groupie of Charles Manson, who had recently gone to trial there.” Manson was tried in early 1971, in Los Angeles County, over 5 years and 200 miles away; if that’s what Elder said, she may be guessing. Such a small, isolated community might have always been suspicious of outsiders, or there may be some other reason they didn’t help.

    • CHip, this came up on a different post about mountain flying and I am pretty sure we came to the conclusion that density altitude does not affect people/hypoxia… it was just the description of the flight as a roller coaster and that they seemed to be having such fun with it that made me wonder if that had played a roll. It’s very hard to make sense of what they were doing there (rather than the main pass) and what he was planning with only her recollections from the backseat, but I found it interesting to try to piece together.

      Interesting point re: the townsfolk! Yes, that’s what she wrote but you are right, the timing is completely wrong.

  • Altitude does not affect people in the same way. I have been ordered to fly at 15000 feet (5000 metres) across the German Democratic Republic, or risk interception by a Russian MIG. Our aircraft was a Cessna 310Q, not pressurised and we did not carry oxygen. We stayed at that altitude for nearly two hours. My boss was looking at his fingernails from time to time to check that they did not turn blue. Eventually Ivan, or Boris, or Yuri – I forgot his name, but I never will forget the small of his breath: cigarette smoke with a strong dose of garlic and vodka – told us that we were allowed again to descend to flight level “tree tousant meters” or .9000 feet. I don’t think that we were unduly affected.
    We cruised routinely at FL 090, sometimes as high as FL 110. After that episode across Eastern Germany and Poland my boss bought a portable oxygen bottle, just “to be sure to be sure”.
    A few years ago now my wife and I were on a holiday in Peru and stayed in Cusco for two weeks. The town is at about 11000 feet above sea level, but the surrounding area can be a good bit higher. I did notice that I got out of breath a bit more quickly, but suffered no ill effects. We walked a lot in the town and surrounding area. We drove across the Andes on a visit to Lake Titicaca. The lake is at 12500 feet – I just looked it up – but the road to the lake was at 15000 feet for quite a distance and we were fine.
    Yet, visitors to Cusco are warned that they may suffer from altitude sickness. I suppose that people who smoke will be affected sooner, I don’t smoke and never have,
    And btw, I have had a rapid decompression in the Citation twice. the first time we were at FL 390, the second at FL 410. We had ample time to react and make an emergency descent.
    I think that density altitude does affect people, so yes it is my opinion that it can cause hypoxia. But the difference between the altitude as indicaterd on the altimeter and the density altitude is not really significant medically. But it IS when we are talking about performance and the question: are we going to hit the mountain or get over it?
    Mind, this is only my opinion and not a medical fact.

  • Yes, the range of effects of altitude is very wide; some years ago a conference of convention planners that I occasionally go to was in Colorado Springs (altitude ~6600 feet), where some people were complaining bitterly about symptoms. (Late hours, not getting extra water, and physical condition may have affected this.) I also note that being OK on the ground is not comparable to being OK in the sky — for one thing, there’s a lot less distance to fall — and that (IIUC) part of hypoxia is not realizing how badly one’s capacity is diminished. (I’ve read of pilots being shown embarassing videos of themselves in low-pressure chambers so they can see they weren’t as OK as they thought they were.) The difference between routine flying and handling a sudden emergency could show this up.

  • Chip,
    I cannot disagree with you, but on the other hand, on our car trip across the Andes, at 15000 feet, we got in a thunderstorm. I do not think that we could have avoided it, there was no way other than continue and hope for the best.. It did not seem to be too bad, but suddenly our vehicle was struck by lightning. I am absolutely certain of that because the lightning and thunderclap were simultaneous and blue light of the flash was all around us.
    I also, even when looking back, am convinced that I was and remained absolutely rational. But yes, you are also right when you mention that it is hard to be a judge of your own behaviour at higher altitudes yourself.
    But we went for walks in Cusco (11.000 feet) and took several bus rides to the country, some places were at about 12000 feet and we went for walks there without ill effects. One of our group, an old friend of my wife, did suffer from altitude sickness and she could not accompany us on most trips.
    So I still am of the opinion that people are affected differently. And I also think that smoking will have a negative influence.

  • I discovered that I made another “typo”. Surprisingly it seems that nobody noticed.
    When the density altitude is high, of course this means that the loss of performance of an aircraft will equal that of a HIGHER altitude.
    So: the altimeter (not electronically corrected which is one of the technical requirements for flights in RVSM airspace – above FL 280) may indicate, e.g. 12000 feet but the performance may correspond to an altitude of 12500 feet.

  • I introduced “RVSM”. Maybe I should explain.
    Because of the reduced accuracy of (standard) altimeters at high altitudes, the vertical separation of aircraft was increased.
    So: Flying eastbound at FL 090 meant that aircraft in the opposite direction would fly at FL 100 or 120. Aircraft would follow “Airways”, determined by mainly VOR/DME. There were exceptions to the odd/even rule: e.g. if the respective airway meandered it could be that the assigned level would deviate, but in general this rule applied.
    But once above FL 280 the rule changed: For safety, it was deemed desirable to double the vertical separation. So: flying eastbound it was still possible to fly at FL 290, but the reciprocal would be FL 310. So for eastbound flights the next level above FL 290 would be 330. Then 370, with 310, 350 and 390 reserved for the opposite direction.
    With increasingly sophisticated navigation systems, like Decca, VLF/Omega and FMS systems that could determine their position according to waypoints (on the horizontal grid expressed in latitude and longitude), and the increasing demand for flexible routing as aviation expanded, especially in the upper atmosphere the old airways became increasingly redundant. But as demand for more space increased, and with increasingly accurate systems both horizontally by GPS and vertically by computerised systems that were able to compensate for air density (true data are calculated using a so-called “Rosemount Probe”), it was also decided to introduce “Reduced Vertical Separation Minima” or RVSM. For an aircraft to be authorised to fly in RVSM airspace, essentially meaning above FL 280, it must carry the technical equipment and be RVSM approved, the crew must be RVSM certificated AND the operator must be RVSM approved. The latter obstacle is a fairly complex bureaucratic process (the operator must submit a manual for approval) but there is a way around it: FL 430 is above RVSM airspace, so aircraft that carry the equipment but do not have the approval (yet) may request a non-RVSM climb to FL 430. But for this, the aircraft must be able to make it direct, in a reasonable time without a so-called “step”.
    Complicated? Ya betcha !

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