The U.S. Coast Guard crew that found the downed plane on the Big Island talked to the media yesterday at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point. Rescue swimmer Roger Wilson, left, and co-pilot Lt. j.g. David Smith showed off the rescue basket aboard the aircraft that they used to hoist the victims up into the hovering aircraft. Other crew members not pictured are pilot Lt. Tom Meyer and flight mechanic Ryan Phillips.

Rescuers tell of finding
crash victims

Bad weather and ineffective
equipment complicated the hunt
for the downed plane

HILO >> Peering through the dark, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Roger Wilson searched the rugged lava of a Big Island mountain for the missing pilot.

He had already found the two passengers of the crashed tour plane, critically burned but alive, and now sought the pilot who had left the group in search of help.

As he waved his flashlight near a ravine Sunday night, he heard what he wanted.

"I could hear the pilot screaming and crying," he said.

"She was in a ball. She was trying to keep warm," said Wilson.

The pilot had burns to her face, right arm and hand. Wilson took off the T-shirt he wore under his flight suit to help keep her warm and carried her out of the ravine, some 150 yards deep and 300 yards from the wreckage.

"I couldn't believe anyone survived that crash. It was amazing," said Wilson. "The plane was completely burned."

The three survivors remained in critical but stable condition after the four-seat plane crashed on a lava field about 25 miles south of Kona.

The victims -- the female pilot and a couple visiting from Ohio -- were taken to the Queen's Medical Center with severe burns a day after the Island Hoppers' Piper Warrior went down shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday.

The couple was identified by their son as Dallas and Catherine Ratcliff, of West Portsmouth, Ohio. Rick Wilson, of Dayton, Ohio, told the Portsmouth Daily Times that his parents were in Hawaii for a two-week vacation. The pilot's name has not been released.

Hawaii County Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira said local emergency services received a call at 4:46 p.m. Sunday from a woman on a cell phone who said her small plane had crashed. She reported that all three victims were alive, conscious and out of the plane but had severe burns.

Four search-and-rescue aircraft -- the county's two helicopters, along with a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter dispatched from Honolulu -- searched for the wreckage in rainy conditions. A total of 11 firefighters, police officers and forestry workers searched from the ground.

Rescue efforts in low visibility were further hampered because there was no signal from the downed plane's emergency locator transmitter.

Oliveira said the two county helicopters were called back as darkness fell about 7 p.m., but the Coast Guard aircraft kept searching. Shortly after 9 p.m. the Dolphin crew spotted the wreckage about 4 1/2 miles mauka of Highway 11 above Milolii.

Coast Guard Lt. Thomas Meyer, air commander for the HH-65 helicopter, said the crew passed over the site about four times before spotting Dallas Ratcliff waving his shirt in the air as he stood on the tour plane's tail.

Wilson said Catherine Ratcliff suffered first- and second-degree burns to her body. The Coast Guard first hoisted her in a metal-grid basket about 80 to 100 feet to the helicopter and then hoisted her husband.

Dallas, 60, and Catherine, 50, were initially taken to Kona Community Hospital, then airlifted to the Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu early yesterday morning.

Wilson, Meyer, his co-pilot, Lt. j.g. David Smith, and flight mechanic Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Phillips encountered a few problems during the rescue.

The radio between the pilots and Phillips, who operated the rescue hoist, failed while they picked up Dallas Ratcliff.

The pilots also had to release 300 to 400 pounds of fuel to enable the aircraft to hover over the crash site and pick up the two passengers.

"It complicated the situation a little bit," Meyer said, adding that the task limited the amount of time they could hover over the wreckage because they needed enough fuel to reach Kona Airport.

The helicopter refueled at the airport before it returned to pick up Wilson and the pilot.

Meyer said their night-vision goggles were not working effectively.

"Night goggles need to have a source of light to be effective," said Meyer. "We had a low, overcast layer. ... The moon hadn't come up initially. We were in such an unpopulated area."

"The winds and clouds were moving in and out of there quickly," Smith said.

He noted that it was less than 50 degrees at the crash site.

"We were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he said.

"We can't take all the credit because this was a massive team effort," he said. "There were a lot of people involved that were all doing their job very well, and that's what attributed to the success of what happened."

Wilson said the pilot told him the tour plane crashed due to a severe downdraft.

Fire Chief Oliveira praised the pilot's skill in making an emergency landing on the jagged a'a lava about 4,000 feet above sea level.

"My crew said it looked like she was able to really slow the plane down and make a cushioned landing under very difficult conditions," said Oliveira. "The aircraft was basically intact. There was not a horrible impact, and it could have been a lot worse."

The plane is owned and operated by Island Hoppers, an air tour company and flight school operating out of the Kona and Hilo airports. Until this accident the company claimed an unblemished safety record.

Island Hoppers suspended its tour operations yesterday.

"We've logged over 60,000 hours since 1986, and this is our first accident -- not even a scratch," said Phil Auldridge, Island Hoppers' president.

Star-Bulletin reporter Rosemarie Bernardo, freelance writer Peter Serafin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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