Pilot's Three-Day Wait For Rescue Off Glacier

Donald Erbey, the pilot of a single-engine Piper plane, crash-landed on a glacier in Alaska on Sunday. He and his four passengers spent three days on the glacier before being rescued. He tells Melissa Block about the experience.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It was supposed to be an hour-long flight-seeing trip over an Alaskan glacier for a family visiting from Texas. Instead, it turned into a three-day ordeal after their plane crash-landed, and then a helicopter sent to rescue them flipped on landing.

Everyone is safe. And Don Erbey is going to tell us all about it. He was the pilot on the single-engine Piper plane that crashed on Sunday afternoon. Mr. Erbey, thanks for talking to us. I'm so glad that you and everybody else are all safe.

Mr. DONALD ERBEY (Pilot): Yeah, we are, too.

BLOCK: I bet you are. Well, let's go back to Sunday. You were flying over the Knik Glacier - which is, I guess, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. You had four family friends in your plane, and you hit some weather. What happened?

Mr. ERBEY: As soon as I got up to the top of the glacier, there were slight clouds below me, but as I got closer to them, they thickened up. At that point, I had lost visual with the ground. It was basically just a thud-thud-thud, and we were stopped.

BLOCK: Did you pretty quickly realize that everybody was okay?

Mr. ERBEY: There was - no major injuries. First thought - first thought that went through my mind was, my dad's going to be very upset.

BLOCK: Because it was his plane.

Mr. ERBEY: Yeah, I had my plane carries myself and three others. So there was four of them, so I went and asked my dad to borrow his keys, and he just said make sure I put gas in it.

BLOCK: So that was your first thought. What did you do for shelter?

Mr. ERBEY: We just sat in the plane. There was no sense - we couldn't walk anywhere. We were all in summer attire. But thank God, the Lance family all had -at least - jackets on. I would consider it a light jacket but for them, it was fairly heavy.

I had a fleece vest and a short-sleeved T-shirt, sweat pants and shorts. I had a 2:30 tee time that afternoon.

BLOCK: Well, you thought you'd be golfing, not sitting on a glacier.

Mr. ERBEY: I was hoping to.

BLOCK: Well, I've read that four National Guard para-rescue jumpers were dropped in. They had to ski four miles to get to you with survival equipment, but it took them more than 20 hours to make the trip.

Mr. ERBEY: Well, if you ever get the opportunity to fly over a glacier and see what it's made up of, you've got crevasses that can go endless. So to go a mile, they probably walked 15.

The first mile took them approximately four and a half hours, and when that first night, we knew the extraction team was on the glacier, but I knew that 3.8 miles was an eternity. But we all just got as close as we could, and huddled through the night.

I had to put my arms inside my vest against my body and breathe down my vest and shirt just to keep my core body temperature. The outside temperature dropped down to about 25 degrees. I had a thermometer that indicates outside temperature but inside, the plane was never freezing.

BLOCK: What did you think when you saw those four para-rescue jumpers coming to help you there? What did you think?

Mr. ERBEY: Well, we were just getting ready to hunker down again for the second night - probably about 9 o'clock, I believe it was. And I'm cuddling up in the front seat with my head against the window. And I looked up and about 10 yards away, I saw two shadows coming at me. And I just said, thank God.

BLOCK: Wow.

Mr. ERBEY: And they were soaking wet. Their concern was us. But since we were fine, nobody was hurt, we wanted them to get their shelter and get their wet clothes off - because that could be catastrophic.

BLOCK: What kind of supplies did these rescuers have with them?

Mr. ERBEY: They had food and clothing. They've got little stoves. These guys carried 150-pound sleds, 80 pounds on their backs, up 2,500 feet. God bless the para-rescue.

BLOCK: Now, here's the next chapter in this: A Black Hawk helicopter comes in for a landing on Tuesday to try to get you out of there, and it rolls over. That must have been terrifying to watch.

Mr. ERBEY: Yeah. There was whiteout conditions. We had a hole that they could come through. They could actually see the peak. They got a visual on us about a half a mile north of us, and they were approximately 100 feet above ground. In an instant, they were upside-down, and we could see that the skis were pointing upwards. The helicopter was on its top, and the rotors were about, spread out about 80 to 100 yards around it.

BLOCK: Goodness. What were you thinking?

Mr. ERBEY: Well, all of our hearts sunk. I'm a practicing pessimist, but that was too much to bear. It was about five minutes later before they actually made it over to our site, and we just welcomed them to the party, unfortunately.

BLOCK: So by now, there are 12 of you on this glacier.

Mr. ERBEY: Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: Okay, well, some were rescued on Tuesday. You, I guess, were lifted out Wednesday. You know now, of course, about the fatal plane crash that killed Senator Ted Stevens this week. Does it change at all how you feel about flying?

Mr. ERBEY: No, I love to fly. And had it not been for Ted Stevens, we probably would not have had the procurement of those helicopters. Anybody in the military, and especially in Alaska, owe a debt of gratitude to Senator Stevens.

BLOCK: Well, Don Erbey, it's good to talk to you. Welcome home, and thanks so much.

Mr. ERBEY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Don Erbey, talking with us from his home in Wasilla, Alaska.

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