Aspen rescue still vivid in veteran’s memories
Gene Cothran is a retired Air Force helicopter flight engineer with 110 combat missions in Vietnam and numerous civilian rescue operations in the U.S. under his belt. But it is the rescue of four people from the wreckage of an airplane in the Aspen-area backcountry in November 1977 that remains one of his most vivid memories from years of service.
More than 37 years after the rescue of the Cameron family and friends, Cothran can still describe the operation in meticulous detail. It was memorable in large part, he said, because the HH-53B helicopter used for the operation was running low on fuel, darkness was setting in, they were flying among the high peaks between Mount Daly and Mount Sopris, and they knew they needed to find the victims, who already spent two nights out after the crash.
But most of all, time hasn’t fogged his memory because he can still see the face of Lynda Cameron, then a 15-year-old girl who had lost her father in the crash and was huddled with her mother and brother, the pilot and two friends awaiting rescue.
Among his many duties on the helicopter that day, Master Sgt. Cothran hoisted the cable that brought the litter back into the helicopter as it hovered above the airplane wreckage. They were brought up one by one. Since the rescue had to be expedited because of the disappearing fuel and light, no tag line was used to prevent the litter from spinning. The victims were just happy to reach the helicopter.
“I’ve had many peacetime and Vietnam rescues, but can still see the smile on her face as I brought her in the door,” Cothran said of Cameron.
Cameron, now a successful businesswoman who lives part time in Snowmass Village, gave Mountain Rescue Aspen a donation in excess of $1 million in 2011 to help the organization build its new headquarters and training facility at the Aspen Business Center. It is named in honor of her father, C.B. Cameron.
Plane crashes after snow squall
The Cameron family and their friends departed Aspen on Nov. 27, 1977, after a ski vacation, and hit a snow squall at dusk. The pilot apparently became disoriented upon takeoff and flew up the Brush Creek drainage toward Snowmass Village, according to a prior account given by Dick Arnold, the Aspen airport manager at the time and a member of Pitkin County Air Rescue and Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Arnold said the airplane eventually hit a ridge between Haystack Mountain and Mount Sopris. The air-traffic-control tower alerted him to a crash, and a limited air search was started that night. Ground teams, fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter also searched in vain Nov. 28.
Rescuers requested assistance that day from the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The operations officer picked a highly experienced crew for the assignment. A crew of three along with two pararescue personnel headed to Aspen in a HH-53B helicopter, a workhorse in Vietnam known as the Super Jolly Green Giant.
Cothran flew in special operations and air rescue during three tours in Vietnam. His saw his first combat in 1967 at age 20. He went on to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and five Air Medals for his years of service.
The HH-53B helicopter was piloted by Maj. Donald Backlund, who had received the Air Force Cross in May 1975 for his role in the rescue of the SS Mayaquez. The co-pilot was Flight Lt. Chalmers, an exchange pilot from Australia, according to Cothran. He remembers the pararescue men as Master Sgt. Kraft and Sgt. Hicks. As far as he knows, he is the last surviving member of the team.
Perils of the operation
They landed near dusk at the Aspen airport Nov. 28 and were briefed for their mission the next day. The search resumed but was again in vain Nov. 29 until rescuers spotted two separate walkers in the snow. A friend of the Cameron boy had departed the crash scene Nov. 28. When he didn’t return, a friend of Lynda Cameron departed Nov. 29.
“Late in the afternoon of 29 Nov., we received a call that a French Allouette helicopter had spotted a walker in the snow,” Cothran wrote in a timeline of the rescue that he prepared for The Aspen Times. “We were directed to the crash site at Haystack Mountain.”
Finding the crash site wasn’t easy. The downed craft was white and relatively intact, according to Cothran. It was a speck in vast, white terrain at 11,800 feet in elevation. Once found, they determined they had to perform a hover that would prevent sending snow and debris into the rotor, so they remained 100 feet above the site. The pararescue team was lowered down with the litter to assist a ground team that Cothran recalls had reached the site.
Cothran and his team knew nothing about the possibility of survivors, the ages or the names of the parties in the crash. They were relieved that people were alive.
To the best of Cothran’s recollection, Lynda Cameron was the first of the victims raised to the helicopter. After they were all secured within 25 minutes, the Super Jolly Green Giant climbed and headed downhill to the airport in approaching darkness. The HH-53B had refueled in air earlier in the day, but it still burned a lot of fuel during the operation. On their final approach to the Aspen airport, the low-fuel caution light came on for engine No. 1. As they touched their gear down and started to taxi in, the low-fuel light came on for engine two. That meant only 12 to 15 minutes more of flight time, he said.
“It was dark when we landed in Aspen,” he said.
‘That Others May Live’
In a telephone interview from his home in Spartanburg, S.C., he said his team was prepared to continue searching the night of Nov. 29, the third night out for the victims in frigid conditions. The crew was accustomed to difficult searches — plucking hunters off snow-covered peaks, rescuing secluded ranchers with medical emergencies and crash victims in national parks.
Once they spotted the wreckage, they were determined to complete their mission, despite the disappearing fuel and logistical challenges.
“There wasn’t no way,” Cothran started before pausing and obviously choking up. After a second, he continued, “This was a good one. We wouldn’t have left them on the mountain.”
His Air Rescue Service patch features angel wings surrounding a globe with the motto, “That Others May Live.”
Cothran, now 68, retired from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant in 1985 after 20 years of service. He said he never talked to any of the Camerons after the crash, but he received a handwritten letter from one of Lynda Cameron’s grandmothers, thanking him for his role in the rescue. His memory of that letter and the mission led him recently to search the Internet for information about the operation. He found an Aspen Times article about Lynda Cameron’s contribution to Mountain Rescue Aspen in 2011 and some of the details about the rescue. That brought back memories from one incident in a memorable career.
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