A pilot flying an experimental aircraft low over a popular rafting section of the Colorado River last week got a much closer look than he intended. A federal investigation confirmed Aug. 7 that the pilot hit power lines, lost control of the aircraft, smashed into the canyon walls and ended up in the river. The pilot, Guy Buchanan, 59, was the sole occupant of the small-engine plane. He sustained minor injuries and was rescued by two passing rafters.
The crash occurred on Tuesday, July 31 on the Ruby-Horsethief stretch of the river near the Utah-Colorado border. Buchanan left Grand Junction Regional Airport headed for Cedar City as part of his trip from Wisconsin to his home in California. In a report issued a week later by the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot is quoted as saying he elected to fly at a low altitude over the Colorado River. While flying about 500 feet above ground level, Buchanan passed a group of rafters and then “dropped [the airplane] low to the river.” The report continues, “Shortly after descending, the airplane’s empennage struck a wire that crossed over the river.” The investigation also noted, “Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and the flight was operated on a visual flight rules flight plan.” In aviation, visual meteorological conditions mean there is sufficient visibility for a pilot to operate an aircraft without relying primarily on instruments for maintaining separation from the terrain.
Just before the accident occurred, Max Meneley and Michelle Wilk from Gunnison, Colo., were enjoying a relaxing float down a lazy section of river when they noticed a small plane overhead. About 20 minutes later, they rounded a bend and were shocked to see the crumpled, partially submerged aircraft on the riverbank. According to an article published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the rafters saw Buchanan was bleeding but walking around and wading into the water to collect his belongings. The rafters reported that he remained lucid throughout the rescue.
Once the pilot was stabilized, Meneley used a beacon to make an emergency call. Several miles of river remained between the May Flats Campground, close to the crash site, and the boat ramp. The rafters rowed hard to get to the nearest takeout at Westwater, Utah as quickly as possible. Emergency personnel were waiting at the boat ramp, and Buchanan was taken to a hospital by a medical helicopter.
A report by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office states that deputies took a boat up river to secure the Kitfox IV aircraft. However, actually removing the plane will be the responsibility of the owner and his insurance company. As of Tuesday, Aug. 7, Megan Terlecky, spokesperson for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, was unsure if the plane had been removed from the river. It may prove difficult, because the crash site is only accessible by water.