Brian Brown had been flying planes since he was 16. He was an experienced pilot, with thousands of hours in the air, and there was no reason to think the flight last May 26 would be any different from all the others. There were no warning signals, no feelings of trepidation or unease as they climbed into the Cessna. That would come later.
Brian, his wife Jayann and their 27-year old daughter, Heather, were looking forward to spending time with older daughter Tabitha, who lived in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was about a four-hour flight from their home outside Sacramento, and with balmy temperatures predicted over the Memorial Day weekend, they dressed for summer and packed lightly.
As a firefighter experienced in rescue operations, Brian liked to be prepared for anything. The bags were stowed, the portable aviation radio was on board and Heather grabbed a blanket in case it cooled down. The take-off was flawless and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Weather reports showed a weather disturbance, but it was headed east and away from their flight path. They expected to arrive in Idaho just before dark.
As they crossed the California border into Oregon and turned east towards the steep Owyhee mountain range that divided Oregon and Idaho, the still air began to rustle. The storm they had been following was making a U-turn. A chill began to creep into the cockpit.
All went black
The sunny summer day and light-hearted conversation turned somber as they got closer to the Idaho border. The desolate mountains in front of them were covered in dense acres of pine trees, still frosted white from winter snows. As they got closer, they could see a storm rapidly rolling over the ridge straight towards them. The blue skies and still air turned dark and gusty in a matter of minutes.
“I believe now that a layer of ice formed quickly on the wings,” said Brian. “The air flow was ripped out from under the wings, which slowed our speed and caused a loss of control. As we hurtled towards the mountain, I realized it was going to be a direct hit.”
“My last words to my wife and daughter were, ‘I’m sorry; we’re probably not going to make it. I love you.’”
Brian pulled hard on the controls in a vain attempt to maintain altitude, keeping the nose of the plane pointed upward. As the plane slammed through trees, the wings crumpled, slowing the impact … but not enough. The soft belly of the plane hit the massive mountain and all went black.
Brian regained consciousness to the screams of his daughter. As his eyes adjusted painfully to the dim light, he understood her horror. The plane was lodged on the side of the snowy mountain. The wings were crumpled. And his wife Jayann, also unconscious, was slowly sliding out of her seat through the gaping hole that once was a door. In slow motion, Brian pulled her back into the plane.
The damage was severe, to the plane and its occupants. Brian assessed the injuries. His head had nearly been scalped when it went through the windshield and back, and he was bleeding heavily. His arm was broken, along with several ribs. Jayann likely had internal injuries. Heather, in the back of the plane, was bruised but alert.
Although the contents of the plane had been thrown around like confetti, Brian found the aviation radio.
“These radios are designed for emergency situations and are very reliable,” he said. “But I couldn’t get a signal.”
As dark descended, temperatures rapidly dropped below freezing. “I knew it was bad and getting worse,” Brian said. “We were dressed for warm weather, not snow. As we huddled together, sharing one blanket, we were happy just to be alive.”
And then they heard a phone ring.
The sound of hope
“When the phone rang, it lit up, and Heather caught a glimpse of the light in the debris on the floor of the plane. She was able to reach it, but not until after it stopped ringing. It was our older daughter calling, checking to see why we hadn’t arrived,” Brian said.
“We were amazed that in such a remote location, we had a bar on our phone … especially after the dispatch radio hadn’t been able to get a signal. We only had about 20 percent battery life, so we had to act fast. Heather called 911.”
With a weak signal, Heather immediately asked if the dispatcher could ping her phone to determine their location.
How did she know to request that?
“I remembered what the AT&T rep at the retail store told me — that if I ever lost the phone, they could ping it to determine the location,” she said. “The dispatcher called back to report that they had used the cell signal to narrow our location to a three-mile radius.”
Soon after, they heard helicopters buzzing overhead. But as the choppers circled and passed over them again and again, Brian realized the pilots couldn’t see the wreckage.
With his wife beginning to show signs of hypothermia, the situation was becoming more desperate. Brian tried to catch the rescuers’ attention, with no luck.
“I used the phone to take a picture of the helicopter overhead, and the pilot miraculously saw the flash,” Brian said. “They circled back and landed nearby.”
Fifteen hours after smashing their plane into the side of a mountain, the family was rescued alive.
“We probably wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for AT&T.”
What happened after the Brown family was rescued?
Nearly 15 hours after the crash, the National Guard took them down from the mountain, one at a time, and got them to a local hospital. Brian received over 100 stitches in his head and his broken bones were set. His nose and teeth were shattered from going through the windshield, and three of Jayann’s ribs were broken from her backbone. Heather was treated for minor injuries.
They are now back at work in Northern California and almost completely healed from the physical and emotional toll of the accident.
Brian is flying again, and has an even greater empathy for those he helps to rescue in his firefighting work. The family has been deluged by the media and approached about a book, and possibly a movie, based on their story. But there’s just one thing they want to say right now.
In Brian’s words: “We probably wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for AT&T. We are so grateful to everyone at AT&T for so many reasons … the fact that we got a signal in the middle of nowhere; the phone that gave us light; the rep that told Heather that you could ping the phone and find its location; the camera flash that caught the rescuer’s attention. We want every employee — from the people in the stores, to the techs, to the service and maintenance people — to know that what they do is important. In our case, it was more than important … it saved our lives. When it really counted, you were there. Our family wants to express our deepest thanks to everyone at AT&T.”
Thank you, Brown family. We’re honored to be part of your happy ending.