The pilot and passenger of a small aircraft that left Santa Ynez Airport on Sunday morning are lucky to be alive after surviving a plane crash that left the pair stranded for 24 hours in the Los Padres National Forest.
Keegan Bailey, 22, and Clayton Fitzgerald, 18, were rescued Monday evening after Bailey crashed his father’s 1948 Cessna 140 into thick brush in the Los Padres National Forest. The plane went down 10 miles northeast of Figueroa Mountain at approximately 10 a.m. Sunday morning, leaving the battered survivors to wait at the crash site for more than 24 hours before they were located by rescuers from the Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team. Bailey, the plane’s pilot, suffered minor injuries and was airlifted to Santa Maria’s Marian Medical Center in stable condition, while Fitzgerald, his passenger, was extracted from the area in critical condition.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman Sgt. Erik Raney said the two men were very fortunate to have made it through the incident with their lives.
“Anytime you have a small plane crash in a wilderness area, statistically speaking, chances of survival are slim,” Raney said.
The pair took off from Santa Ynez Airport on Sunday at approximately 9 a.m., Raney said, and airport employees reported that the plane was only equipped with four hours worth of fuel. When airport personnel noticed that Bailey and Fitzgerald’s vehicle had been parked overnight and officials were informed that neither of the men had contacted their families or workplaces, the Santa Barbara Search and Rescue Team dispatched a search party to look for the missing plane, Search and Rescue Incident Commander Nelson Trichler said.
“We had a good feeling something wasn’t right, and it was then that we sent out a search team to locate the aircraft,” Trichler said.
A search and rescue team was able to locate the plane near Wellman Canyon in the upper northeastern region of the Los Padres National Forest after private planes directed them to the crash site, Trichler said.
“Friends of the pilot, who knew they were missing, were flying over the area yesterday morning to try to see if they could find them,” he said.
The civilian aircraft was able to locate the crash site before search and rescue arrived in the area because the Cessna 140, like most planes, was equipped with an emergency locator system, Trichler said.
“The aircrafts carry beacons, and when they crash the beacons go off, emitting an emergency signal. This signal is then broadcast out,” Trichler said.
A California Highway Patrol helicopter was the first unit to arrive at the scene Monday at approximately 3 p.m., spotting one survivor moving about the wreckage, Trichler said. Santa Barbara Search and Rescue was then summoned to the crash site, landing a helicopter carrying a rescue team a few hundred years away from the downed aircraft.
“Our personnel hiked up to the crash site, and that’s when we found the second survivor,” Trichler said.
Because the Santa Barbara Search and Rescue helicopter is not equipped with a hoist, Ventura County Search and Rescue dispatched another helicopter to help transport the survivors to the hospital, Trichler said.
“While the helicopter hovered over the site, they were able to lower a paramedic down with a stretcher, and we were then able to tie them to the stretcher and hoist them up into the helicopter,” Trichler said.
Rescue team workers hoisted the stretcher up twice to transport Bailey and Fitzgerald into the helicopter and airlift them to the Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria. The rescue effort, which lasted over two hours, ended at approximately 5:30 p.m., Raney said.
Amy Silva, public information director for Marian Medical Center, said Bailey was in fine condition as of Tuesday afternoon but was still being held in the Intensive Care Unit for an undisclosed period of time. Silva said she could not provide any further details about the medical status of the rescued men.
“I don’t know any details of their condition except that Keegan [Bailey] is doing a bit better than Clayton [Fitzgerald],” Silva said.
Trichler said the rescue required the combined efforts of the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept., Santa Barbara Search and Rescue Team – a division of the sheriff’s dept. – California Highway Patrol, and Ventura County Search and Rescue, contributing a total of 15 search and rescue personnel and three helicopters to the extraction efforts.
“It was definitely a multiple-agency effort,” Trichler said.
The cause of the crash is still unknown, but the National Transportation and Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are currently conducting an investigation of the incident, Raney said.