Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Pilot's Personal Experience of a Plane Crash: February 6-8, 1974

Sachigo, Round, Muskrat Dam – small dots on the charts of vast wilderness but very real and familiar to me and people of Northern Ontario. One to become unforgettable – SACHIGO. It is located 275 miles north of Sioux Lookout and approximately 400 miles northeast of Winnipeg.

I was born and brought up in Canada - a Manitoba farm boy. It was my privilege to have Christian parents. One of my boyhood dreams was to become a pilot. It became a reality five years ago. My first flying job was in the North Woods of Ontario. I became a full fledged “bush pilot”. Sioux Lookout was my home base. It was during this time that I occasionally flew to a nearby Christian camp for fellowship. After meeting a certain counselor, Gayle Riddle, my visits there became frequent - She is now Mrs. Ed Lepp!
It was very cold on the morning of February 6, 1974. On this trip I was doing charter work for the Department of Indian Affairs. We had spent the night in Muskrat Dam Village which was 240 miles north of Sioux Lookout. After the normal winter warm-up procedure, we departed north to Sachigo Lake. Visibility was reduced because of ice crystals but it did not present a problem.

Because of unforeseen difficulties in the school’s water system at Sachigo, I was to fly south to Round Lake and get another department technician, Brian Legros. From there I sent a radio message to Gayle informing her that I would not return that day as scheduled.

Another pilot who was ready to leave for Muskrat Dam asked about the weather. I informed him that it had deteriorated since morning and the visibility was quite poor because of ice crystals and snow squalls. I told him that it might be necessary to fly around some of the squalls but he should have no trouble making the short 35 mile flight. (Muskrat Dam is located directly between Round and Sachigo.)

After loading the plane, Brian and I left Round Lake for Sachigo– 70 miles away. I made a low pass over Muskrat Dam to see if the other plane had arrived. It was parked on the lake by the village. When Sachigo Lake came into view, I knew we were on course. The opposite shore which I was able to see on previous flights was now obscured. There were small islands on the lake, so I knew there would be no difficulty in crossing it.
After reaching the first small island, I realized I was in trouble. Beyond it everything was white - It was like flying in a big milk bottle! The artificial horizon in the plane was not working, so I could not rely on instrument flight. I needed to see something. I put the plane into a descending turn, hoping to spot trees on the south shore, but there was no shoreline to be seen. I was in the dreaded winter hazard called“WHITE -OUT”!

I did not panic. However, at that moment I was flying the plane into the ice covered lake without knowing it. The crash occurred only ten miles from Sachigo village.

The plane crashed at 4:30 pm on Wednesday. Three hours later, I regained consciousness. Upon awaking, I was crying desperately for help. Then I realized what had happened - I had crashed. There was a deathly silence. It was a horrible moment. I did not know how badly I was hurt. The pain was the worst I had ever experienced. My whole body ached terribly and it seemed as if I could not move. The pain in my ankles and my right wrist was almost unbearable.

I managed after quite some struggle to undo my seat belt which had saved my life. I fell into the back of the plane. Being in shock, I cannot remember even thinking about my passenger. The first night I stayed in the back of the wrecked plane. I was conscious enough to realize the need to cover myself in order to keep warm. I was unable to find anything but part of the cloth tent I had used for covering the engine. The other half was pinned underneath the plane. It seemed that the only way to get covered was to roll into a ball. Still, I was cold- extremely cold. It was 40 degrees below zero. I shivered like I have never shivered. The cold and pain were more than I had ever known.

After coming to my senses in the morning, my first concern was for my passenger, Brian. As I managed to sit up I saw him slumped over against the dash. A slight nudge told me that he was dead and already frozen. I looked at my hands. My right hand was frozen solid to the wrist. My left hand was not completely frozen, my fingers and thumb were solid and without feeling. I did not know it at the time but my face had several deep cuts that extended into the hairline. I had lost a lot of blood. My pant legs and long underwear had ripped open at each knee and my knee caps felt frozen. Even though the pain in my ankles was almost unbearable, I made an attempt to stand. I nearly passed out. The broken bones in my ankles came through the flesh, causing
them to bleed. I looked around and realized the plane was completely demolished.

I wondered how I had lived through the crash. The plane was lying on its side. The left wing was gone and the right one was crumpled. Both doors had been knocked off. The front of the plane was crushed. The engine was pushed back and the windshield was gone. I managed to crawl through what was once the windshield. On the ice, I spotted my sleeping bag about 200 feet away. Farther on, more debris was scattered on the ice. I started crawling toward the sleeping bag. My knees stung in the cold snow and the pain in my right wrist was sharp every time I put weight on it. When closer, I realized my snowsuit was lying beside my sleeping bag.

Somehow I managed to unzip and remove my parka. Getting into the snowsuit was no easy task. After finally getting the snowsuit on, I struggled for nearly 45 minute getting the zipper up. I finally pried it up with my hunting knife. How clumsy it was with a frozen hand and fingers. They just would not co-operate. Then I put my parka on,I was unable to get the zipper up. I was completely exhausted, but I still needed to move the sleeping bag close to the wreckage. I breathed a prayer thanking God for letting me find the sleeping bag and snowsuit. I knew they would keep my body warm.

Crawling back toward the wreckage, I rolled the sleeping bag in front of me, blood was dripping from my boots. I knew then the bones were broken very badly. With my knife I cut the zippered bag which contained the sleeping bag and unrolled it.

I then crawled back into the wreckage. I scratched my thumb on a sharp piece of metal. It made a cut but there was no blood and I could feel nothing. It was frozen solid. I hit my right hand hard against a sheet of aluminum on the side of the plane. My hand sounded very solid and left a dent in the metal. There was an Emergency Locater Transmitter in the plane. I was hoping it was transmitting a signal, but I did not know for sure. I decided to warm the instrument by placing it close to my body.

I managed to get into the sleeping bag. It was not easy. I had a hard time sliding my feet in. They kept bending sideways and giving me pain. The wrist no longer bothered me as badly. The frost must have numbed the pain.It was good to get into the sleeping bag. I hoped it would eventually warm my shivering body.

Many times I asked God to protect me and send someone to find me soon.This was not the first time I had prayed and asked God for help.Very often I had prayed prior to take off. Even though I fully realized I had just experienced a terrible plane crash, I felt I would be rescued.The Lord had kept me alive through the crash. He would send someone to find me. Many verses came to mind “Fear thou not, I am with thee.”; “Be of good courage and He shall strengthen your heart”. I thought of a song Gayle & I sang at our wedding 9 ½ month ago -- “All The Way My Saviour Leads Me.” What would Gayle think if she knew what had happened?

A few times that day I remember hearing planes pass over. I lay beside the wreckage hoping someone would spot me, but the drone of the planes faded in the distance. I dreaded to see the setting sun – it meant darkness and another cold night on the ice. I pulled the parka hood over my head and kept my head in the sleeping bag. The terrible night seemed as if it would never end.

At some point I experienced a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that a Forestry plane landed and pulled up to the Forestry cabin fairly close to me. Two men stepped out of the plane and headed for the cabin. I dreamed they were aware of me, but because their cabin was very small they could do nothing to help me. Why didn't they help me into their cabin? I decide to crawl to the cabin. When I began to crawl I awoke. I sat up and saw the twinkle of lights in the distance. They were the lights of Sachigo village ten miles across the ice. If only I could crawl that far..... I lay back and tried to sleep. It was terribly cold. I was thankful for the sleeping bag which kept me from freezing. My right shoulder was hurting. Either I had hit something hard, or a heavy pipe wrench had struck me in the shoulder during the crash.

The stillness of the night was broken by the howling of wolves. A whole pack was about a mile away along the tree line. I realized I could do nothing to defend myself. I prayed and asked God to keep them away. Soon there was silence. I became thirsty and all I could think of was a glass of water. Many times I stuck my head out of the sleeping bag to lick snow. I was getting hungry. When morning came I would try to get some food out of my ration kit.

Daylight finally came. The sky was clear. It was still very cold and there was a slight breeze blowing. I tried to lift my head but the parka hood was stuck to the side of my head because of the bleeding. My right eye was swollen shut. My head was badly cut. There was a lot of blood on my parka.

I spotted the gas kettle (“blow pot”) close to the wreckage. I must have tried for three quarters of an hour to light it. I had matches in my pocket and managed to light them but because of the breeze I could not get the gas burning. Exhausted, I finally crawled back into the sleeping bag to rest. I was thinking of the long 200 foot crawl to my ration kit and the raisins that would taste so good.

Suddenly, the silence was broken or was I dreaming? I heard a sound that was familiar. I sat up and looked. In the distance was a snowmobile and it was heading straight for me! I had been found! I frantically waved my right arm until the machine stopped 50 feet away. An Indian jumped off and ran to me. When I heard him say“Oh Oh Oh” I knew he probably could not speak English. As he bent over me, I showed him my hands and said “Hands are frozen, feet are broken, and maybe frozen too”. He seemed extremely concerned. The first thing he said to me was “Can I Pray?". I answered “Yes, you sure can”. He knelt beside me and put his hand over me as he prayed. I could not understand, as he prayed in Cree, but a few times he said “Praise God”. Then I asked “What is your name?”. “Johnny McKay”, he replied. “Johnny, are you a Christian?”. “Yes I am a Christian” he said. “Johnny, I am a Christian too". I put my arms out to grasp him as I told him how glad I was he had found me. I was so weak that he had to put his ear to my mouth to hear me. A moment later he was headed to the settlement for help.

Johnny was from the village of Sachigo. The day before, he had flown in from Red Lake after having spent some time in Winnipeg. A strong urge compelled him to get back to the settlement even though friends wanted him to stay longer in Red Lake. Friday morning he started out with his snowmobile and sled to pick up some moose meat. While crossing the lake the sled became unhooked. When he stopped to look for it, he suddenly noticed something strange. Far in the distance he could see what appeared to be a wrecked plane. Then he realized that God had answered his prayer. He, with many other friends, had been praying that the missing plane and passengers would be found. As he headed for the downed plane, he said to himself “God unhooked the sled from my snowmobile so I would see the crashed plane; otherwise I would have missed it”.

As I lay there, I tried to grasp the reality that I had been found by someone and help was on the way. The Lord had given me faith to believe I would be rescued. I had been found by a man who knew the Lord as I did. For the first time since the crash, tears came to my eyes. They were tears of joy and thanksgiving. I knew God had sent this man to rescue me. Now, unaware of my injuries, the cold and my frozen hands, I cried to God, thanking Him for sending someone to rescue me. Johnny and several others were soon speeding back on their snowmobiles. He said the mail plane was coming. He gave me a cup of hot tea. It had a lot of sugar and cream in it. I will never be able to express how that tea tasted. In all my life, I have never tasted such good tea. I drank two and a half cups as fast as they could pour it. The sandwiches which Johnny brought were good also.

The plane circled and landed close to the wreckage. The pilot and passenger picked me up and laid me on the floor of the plane. About noon Friday we left for Sioux Lookout. I did not like the thought of being air-born again especially in another Cessna 185. I can remember sitting up often to peer out the windows. I kept asking the pilot about the weather. Later in the afternoon we arrived the Sioux Lookout Airport. Many friends were there to meet the plane. Among them were my wife and Mr. and Mrs. Cofield from Camp of the Woods. I was taken to the Zone Hospital. The doctors thoroughly checked my injuries.

After this I asked to see Gayle. She entered the room quite composed. It was very difficult for her to face me this way. She tried not to break down at the sight of my frozen hands and cut-up, swollen face. She gave me a kiss, assuring me she was thankful I was alive and would soon receive good care. Due to swollen fingers, my wedding band had to be cut off. I told Gayle, “Don't worry honey. Even though they cut off my wedding ring we'll still be married”. When I started talking about my passenger I began crying and said “Brian didn't make it”.

I can remember Mr. Cofield, a close friend, sitting beside me in the ambulance as we returned to the airport. I cannot remember exchanging any words with him. Many things must have been going through his mind. He too is a pilot, and has done much flying in the North. A nurse accompanied my wife and I as we were flown to Winnipeg in a Cessna 206. It seemed to be a long flight. Again I doubted the weather and kept sitting up to look out. The nurse assured me that the weather was fine. For the first time in three days I felt warm and I asked the pilot to shut off the heat. Earlier the hospital in Sioux Lookout had given me hot sheets. I remarked several times how good those hot sheets felt on my cold body.

After arriving at the Winnipeg hospital I remember my parents, my brother-in-law, and uncle and aunt meeting me. This was the beginning of a long stay in the hospital. After being exposed to warmth, my hands turned completely black. They had been frozen and were now dead. My ankles were very swollen and so badly crushed that the doctors did not know where to begin. My body had bruises all over it. My right eye had turned black and there were severe cuts on my face. There were no operations for two weeks. During this time my body itched badly. I was constantly asking either my wife or a nurse to scratch me. I was informed that the itching was caused by the frost coming out of my body. During the next three months I underwent several operations on my ankles and feet. Tests proved that there was absolutely no circulation or life in my right hand. It was amputated at the wrist. The fingers and thumbs on my left hand were also removed leaving only short stubs.
It was very difficult for us to accept the fact that I would lose my right hand and part of the left. Why would the Lord allow something like this to happen to me? What could I do? Never again could I play the violin. My last oil painting was completed two days before the crash. Would I be able to paint? There were so many things that I did with my hands – now what? Would all things really work together for good? Gayle and I would have to continue trusting our Lord for all of these things. Now I was completely dependant and disabled. With both feet in casts and my arms wrapped I could do nothing but lie there and wait. In the hospital I ate just as much as usual. Gayle fed me all my meals except breakfast. The Lord was very close to us while I was in the hospital. I know that we would not have been able to accept my condition if we had not been trusting Christians.

Almost every day I had visitors. Hundreds of cards and letters came, some from people I did not know but who had read or heard about the accident. Gayle came to the hospital everyday and spent the entire day helping the nurses care for me.

At the end of April I was released. I was able to sit in a wheelchair. It was more difficult after being released. It was good to be out, but for one who is usually busy, it was very hard to do nothing but sit. It was even more difficult when I went home to my parents' farm. Again, I could only watch as the spring work was being done. While I was without my artificial right arm I decided to take my dad's standard shift, half-ton truck for a drive and see if I could handle it. I drove to town and back. Driving the truck gave me needed confidence. I was already driving the car, which did not present much of a problem. I still had enough length left on my forefingers, middle finger and thumb to be able to grab something like a steering wheel.

After being away from the hospital for a few weeks, I was admitted to the rehabilitation center in Winnipeg. I spent nearly three months there. It was a long three months, but every week there were slight improvements which gave me encouragement. Finally, the cast on my right foot was removed and I could put on a shoe. It felt good to have at least one foot in a shoe. I had to relearn how to walk. It was difficult because of the type of crutches I had to use. The left crutch was the usual type but the right one had to be built to fit the artificial arm I was now wearing. It was clumsy but at least I was walking. I carried the cast on the left foot for eight and half months before I was free of it.

While in the hospital I told Gayle that someday I would like to go back to the North and thank the man who had found me. Exactly a year after the crash, Mr. Cofield flew me to me to Sachigo Lake village. I saw Johnny McKay and the people there who had prayed for me. It is a story in itself - an experience I will always remember. It is a wonderful thing to share the same Lord as the Indian Christians of the North.

It has been a year and a half since the crash. Gradually I am doing things I thought would never be possible. I have learned to paint with my left hand. I still have an interest in airplanes, and will soon be taking a flight test for a private license renewal. I have had many opportunities to tell my story in schools, churches and villages.

Although it has been a long, difficult journey, we know the Lord had a purpose in allowing the crash. It did not just happen. He has something special for us that could not be achieved any other way. We have fully accepted this as a master stroke of the Great Artist. He is working on the “canvas of our lives” to complete a finished product for His glory. “For we are his workmanship”. Ephesians 2:10
Dad lived another 37 years after the crash. He and mom celebrated their first wedding anniversary in a rehab center in Winnipeg and they went on to have four children together after the accident. Dad lived a full life despite his physical disabilities and never let his injuries dampen his enthusiasm. He had a fantastic sense of humour and lived a life of joy. He met life’s challenges with an amazing attitude, rarely complaining about the limitations his limbs imposed on him and the chronic pain his pinned ankles inflicted. Dad mainly worked as a farmer after the accident. He continued to fly with a private licence and also taught flying. He also taught himself how to paint with his fingerless left hand and was an avid photographer.

Sadly he died of colon cancer February 13, 2011. We mourn our great loss but we are confident that he is alive and well with his Creator. We eagerly anticipate the day when we will be reunited with him in perfection.
Dad loved Jesus, people and flying, so after he died we created the 'Ed Lepp Aviation Memorial Fund' through SAM Ministries, Canada: http://samministries.org. This fund has helped build an airstrip to serve the people in rural Mozambique, Africa. We were able to travel there in October, 2011 and thought it fitting to bury his hook in that landing strip.