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With crash imminent, pilot relied on training and flew into trees

Oct 15, 2013 - By C.J. Baker, For The Associated Press

POWELL -- When he flew out of Cody's Yellowstone Regional Airport on Friday evening, Jim Betzold had no reason to think the flight was going to be any different than the countless others he'd flown over the past 35 years.

"We were doing fine coming out of Cody," Betzold, 61, recounted in a Monday interview. "We got up to altitude and were getting ready to go through the pass (Sylvan Pass), and then the engine lost power."

The pilot checked through his emergency procedures in an effort to get the Piper 180's single engine going at full power again, but nothing worked.

"We were dropping into a canyon" -- the Middle Creek drainage of the Shoshone River -- "too much to turn around and we didn't have any room, so I had to fly straight into the trees," Betzold said.

While that sounds suicidal, he was following a lesson he'd been taught for the small plane: "straight ahead and under control. Land it wherever you have to."

"I didn't ever really want to try it, but I had to," Betzold said of heading into the mix of pine trees. He said trying a landing on the curvy U.S. Highway 14-16-20 could have proven treacherous and attempting to turn could have started a deadly spiral.

It all happened quickly.

There was enough time for Betzold to share an expletive with his passenger and son, Douglas Betzold, but the two had an opportunity for little else before the craft was going down.

"Things are happening so fast you don't really have time to get scared," Betzold said.

The plane shredded in the tall trees, with pieces scattered over a couple hundred yards. Jim Betzold's body also took a beating as the craft fell to a halt: He broke two ribs and his nose, fractured his spine, cut up his knees and bruised his head.

"At least I'm not taking a dirt nap," a sore Jim Betzold laughed on Monday. Douglas Betzold, 25, escaped with cuts and bruises. Both men are from Beluga, Alaska.

They were back on the ground at around 4:30 p.m. Friday, but the two men weren't out of the woods yet.

They had no cellphone coverage in the wilds of Yellowstone, the plane's radio wasn't working and a hand-held radio on-hand for emergencies failed to reach anyone, Jim Betzold said. The plane's emergency beacon was picked up by a commercial airliner, he said, but something didn't work right and the location was off by 50 miles.

"I knew we were going to have to stay the night, because we were hurting pretty bad, bleeding pretty good," Betzold said.

Using their emergency supplies, they built a fire, got some water and took some Tylenol to make it through the night.

Meanwhile, Sharon Betzold, Jim's wife, learned the two men hadn't made it to their destination in the Boise, Idaho, area.

"From my side of things, when I realized Jim and Douglas were 'missing', it was a very long night," she said in an email.

The Park County Sheriff's Office learned of the overdue aircraft around midnight Saturday. A search for the plane began at first light. A Park County Search and Rescue airplane ended up using the emergency beacon to locate Betzold's plane around 9 a.m. Saturday, said Lance Mathess, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

A joint rescue operation was then launched with ground units from the National Park Service in Yellowstone and the county's Search and Rescue team.

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