Palmer pilot says crash came 'really fast'

Both Don Ballard, 32, and his 16-year-old daughter escape injury

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009

JACKSON, Wyo. - The pilot who survived a crash with his daughter on a Wyoming mountain pass said a downdraft forced him to crash land their small plane.

Both 32-year old Don Ballard and his 16-year-old daughter escaped serious injury in the crash Monday near Togwotee Pass in northwest Wyoming.

Ballard, of Palmer, said Tuesday he was flying west over the pass when the downdraft blew his four-seater down toward a ravine. Realizing he wouldn't be able to fly the plane over the ridgeline, he tried to slow the craft down as he prepared to crash land.

He said he aimed for the thinnest trees he could find as the plane barreled toward the forest. The pass reaches 9,658 feet.

"It happened really fast," Ballard said. "There was not really any time (for anything) except to think about the best way to get us down."

The plane, a single-engine Piper built in 1972, crashed into a tree about three quarters of a mile southeast U.S. 26. The impact ripped off the left wing, sending the plane nose first into the snow.

The plane lodged up to its cockpit windows in the snow, leaving its tail jutting up at a 45-degree angle.

"I'm just thankful to God that we made it out alive," Ballard said. "I know there aren't too many people whose story starts like ours did that are able to talk about it afterward."

Ballard said his daughter was in a lot of pain after the crash, but the two decided they had to get out of the plane after they started to smell gas.

The impact of the crash combined with the snow piled on each side of the plane sealed the doors shut. Ballard and his daughter broke a window and climbed out.

They pulled some survival gear out and began to search for a spot where they could get cell phone reception and make a call for help.

"I think that beep from my phone telling us we had a signal was the happiest sound of my life," Ballard said.

At about 3:30 p.m., Ballard got through to Teton County dispatchers, who told him rescue teams already were looking for him and his daughter.

Rescuers reached the pair on snowmobiles at about 6:30 p.m.

His daughter was treated for neck and back pain, but Ballard refused medical treatment.

The two booked a flight back home to Palmer on Tuesday evening.

"After an event like this, the only place I want to be is at home with my family," Ballard said.

Ballard said he most appreciated the 36 volunteers from Fremont and Teton County Search and Rescue teams.

"They were just incredible, top-notch," he said.

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