by Clint Boehler
HUERFANO- Huerfano and Custer County Search and Rescue personnel and Civil Air Patrol Squadrons were summoned out around 3 pm on Sunday afternoon after receiving information that an airplane may have crashed in one of the counties.
A 1997 model Piper Turbine Malibu, bearing registration number N727MC, was on a flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Pueblo, Colorado. While cruising at 20,000 feet, ATC (Air Traffic Control) received a distress call from the pilot stating he could not hold altitude and was descending over the Sangre de Cristo mountains about 50 miles west of Pueblo. The Malibu was losing altitude at a rate in excess of 1600 feet per minute.
Denver ATC tracked the Malibu and lost radar contact when the aircraft descended below its range. ATC computed a speed, heading and descent trajectory and identified four possible areas for a crash, two in Huerfano County and two in Custer County. According to Capt. Robert Pruiksma with Custer County Search and Rescue, terrain in the search areas averaged 10,500 feet and was heavily wooded. An aircraft could be swallowed up in the trees and be very hard to see. Searchers were further inhibited by snow showers, fog and low visibility.
Kirtland AFB in New Mexico launched two Blackhawk helicopters and Civil Air Patrol was able to provide one airplane to aid the search, however, the visibility was too low for object identification. However, N727MC was equipped with an ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) that since 1973, has supplied location information for downed aircraft. The helicopters were able to provide coordinates for the signal and direct ground crews to the area. Poor weather required the search to be called off for the night and resumed the next morning.
At approximately 3:30 pm on Monday, while Huerfano Search Coordinator Deputy Joseph “Gunny” Albano worked with teams on the Huerfano County locations, the aircraft wreckage was located by search personnel just into Huerfano County one mile east of Blueberry Peak.
According to Lt. Col. Mike Daniels, a spokesman with the Colorado Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, rescuers found the aircraft wreckage containing the pilot/owner of the plane, 66 year old Dr. Michael Welton of Waterloo, IA and his passenger Roswitha Marold, a retired businesswoman also from Waterloo. Both occupants were pronounced dead at the scene, and the severity of the wreckage, poor weather and remote location required waiting another day before the bodies could be removed. Dr. Welton was an experienced pilot holding a Private Pilot license with an Instrument Rating.
Weather at the time had caused two other aircraft to deviate from the same course and make precautionary landings at nearby airports. Severe ice is being looked at as a contributing factor. While the Malibu is equipped for flight into ice conditions, no aircraft is authorized to fly in severe conditions.
Search personnel credited the ELT signal with aiding a quick find. ELT’s have been required on most aircraft since 1973, following an Alaska accident in which two congressmen disappeared and the wreakage has never been found.
The accident is being investigated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and the final results will not be available for several months.