The Rescue of N827DG
16 December 2019
"Mayday, mayday!" the pilot of N827DG called over the radio.....
The pilot then calmly reached over to the instrument panel and flipped the switch labeled
"FOR AVIATION EMERGENCY USE ONLY UNAUTHORIZED OPERATION PROHIBITED"
to enable the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). The ELT transmits a signal to a satellite which allows Search and Rescue know where to come look in an emergency. Moments ago on this warm, Tuesday afternoon, the single engine of the Cessna 206 had "coughed" and the pilot watched in disbelief as the three bladed propeller on the aircraft's nose stopped spinning. The co-pilot and three passengers later reported that the engine had made a loud "bang" moments before the engine stopped, but the pilot had no recollection of this hearing this sound.
Normally, small aircraft like this would only have one pilot. But on this particular flight, the pilot was completing a "check ride," before being released for solo operations. The co-pilot, being the senior pilot, calmly assumed control of the aircraft while the pilot attempted to restart the engine. Meanwhile, the co-pilot quickly assessed the situation. There where no airports or even airstrips in gliding range of the crippled aircraft. They were going to have to find a safe place to land the airplane in the matter of minutes, while the aircraft circled down from the 7,000 feet above the inhospitable desert. The terrain was filled with thorn trees, volcanic rock, and hidden gullies.
While the co-pilot scanned and searched for anything that might offer a viable landing spot, the pilot briefed the passengers on what to do. The three passengers were all elderly women on their very first airplane ride of any kind. One of the women was being evacuated for medical reasons, and the other two were accompanying her to the hospital. The passengers were in disbelief, stating "this can't being happening." The pilot however was able to reassure them and ensure they were in the proper position for an emergency landing.
A short distance to the south from where the engine had stopped were two lava vents sticking out of the desert floor. Next to one of these vents was a bare patch of ground, which looked like it might be suitable for landing. Looking down, the pilots could not tell how large the vegetation was. Were they looking at small bushes or large trees? The previous day, both pilots had just completed training on emergency procedures with an engine failure. Recalling the training, the pilot used the terrain feature in the GPS radio on the plane to estimate their elevation above the ground. The co-pilot selected a landing area and masterfully brought the aircraft into its final approach, knowing their was no room for error or second chances. Seven minutes after the engine failed, the co-pilot safely landed the little aircraft in the middle of hostile desert, many miles from any civilization or even a road. Both the pilots and the passengers where completely free from any harm. There was a very small dent on the airplane where it had made contact with a bush during the landing.
Meanwhile, back at the hangar in Nairobi, Kenya, the rest of the team went into high gear to rescue the pilots and passengers. A helicopter was chartered and dispatched within an hour. The helicopter retrieved all the occupants, and they were eventually brought to Nairobi that same afternoon, just a few hours later than originally planned.
The people had been rescued from this incident, snatched from the jaws of death even, but their aluminum stead was still sitting in the hot sun and was in need of rescue...
The following pictures tell the remainder of the tale, how N827DG was rescued from the desert.
On Wednesday, a truck was secured from a partner, mission organization to transport the aircraft. Initially, the rescue team was to leave early on Thursday morning, but security concerns delayed the departure. The team did some quick shopping and packed up.
Our caravan now consisted of 1 truck, 2 4x4 SUVs, and 2 motorcycles. We also picked up local who knew the area and tribal dialect to assist with directions and translation.
We drove as far North as possible on the pavement and then turned off onto a small dirt road, about 60 kilometers south of where the airplane was. Initially the road was very distinct and easy to pick out the northerly route.
We stopped at a small community center late in the morning for a snack and some tea. Everyone wanted to look at the motorcycles!
The farther north we traveled, though, the rougher and more desolate the country became. The motorcycles started scouting ahead to look for the best route.
As we dropped down into the Suguta Valley, we left all traces of water behind. The landscape was dry and desolate.
A certain beauty could still be found in the desert with recent rains causing the acacia and desert rose to flower.
We did not have any mechanical problems with any of the vehicles but stopped several times to check on their health.
The process continued until we were completely out of light!
We camped out under some trees close to where the airplane was. Even with the sun down, it was still very warm. Two of the guys graciously set up camp and made dinner while the rest of the crew started the disassembly.
Sunrise Saturday morning
Disassembly continued at first light on Saturday morning. Everyone was motivated to get the job done and get back home.
By 9am, the plane was disassembled and ready to be loaded on the truck. However, we still were not sure how we were going to get the fuselage up onto the bed of the truck, which was about 5 feet tall.
After scouting around on the the motorcycles, a big hole was found that the truck could be backed into with a minimal amount of work.
After backing the truck into the hole, we had a ramp which was not too steep.
After getting the plane to the truck, it was discovered that the wheels where just a little too wide to roll onto the truck, so the tires were removed and hubs installed on the inside to allow the fuselage to fit.
Eventually, we prevailed and the fuselage was on the truck.
Finally, everything was loaded.
It was nearly 3pm by the time we were finished loading. And we had a long way to travel to get back to Nairobi.
We were concerned about mud and flash floods if it rained, but we did not want to navigate rough roads at night either. So we stopped when we came to grassy field and set up camp shortly before dark. We had not traveled very far, but we had left the roughest country behind.
The moon came out and was full and bright. It was beautiful, but we all went to bed early, exhausted from a long, hot day.
On Sunday, we got off to another early start and had an uneventful trip to the pavement. There were a couple muddy patches but nothing to cause worry or concern.
The motorcycle riders beat the trucks back to the pavement (obviously), and we stopped for a much needed cold soda. I'm not sure what was better, drinking the soda or sending the picture to those in the trucks who had not yet made it back to electricity and cold drinks. We arrived in Nairobi late Sunday afternoon.
We took a much needed day of rest on Monday. On Tuesday, the truck brought the plane to the hangar to be unloaded. If only we would have had a chain hoist while we were loading the truck. :)
N827DG now sits in a corner in the hangar. As time allows, we are thoroughly inspecting the entire airframe and will start the slow process of putting the aircraft back together. We found that the engine had broken the crankshaft in two and seized, which is why it stopped running. We are hoping to have the airplane flying again by mid 2020.