AMERICAN FORK CANYON — A flight instructor and a student survived a helicopter crash into a mountainside near Tibble Fork Reservoir on Monday.
Rescuers say not only were the victims lucky to survive the crash, but they were fortunate to have cellphone service and to be found so quickly.
Pilot Gregory Walther, 28, of West Valley City, and his 24-year-old student, Terrance "Bud" Oakley, of Sandy, were on an instructional flight from Heber City to Salt Lake City. The training flight was operated by Upper Limit Aviation, according to the Utah County Sheriff's Office.
About 8:20 a.m., Walther called 911 to report their Robinson R-22 training helicopter had crashed.
"The pilot reported that they had been flying low to the ground, that a gust of wind or a current actually grabbed the plane, kind of sucked it into the earth, and then it rolled," Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Yvette Rice said.
Fortunately for the victims, they were able to get cellphone service in an area where service is normally spotty and call 911.
"It's really phenomenal," said Lone Peak Assistant Fire Chief Spencer Edwards.
The second stoke of luck was the fact searchers were able to find them within 45 minutes.
Rice said the helicopter crashed in a very steep, rugged and remote area near Silver Fork Flat. It's an area accessible only by horseback or hiking and one that few people ever cross.
"Even when we flew over and knew where they were supposed to be, we could barely see the helicopter tucked in against the granite where it landed," said Lone Peak Fire paramedic Steve Allred, one of the rescuers.
Walther suffered a compound fracture to his wrist, Rice said. Oakley suffered a cut on his head and reported rib and leg pain.
"The helicopter is in a ball. It's pretty amazing that anybody made it out of that thing alive," Allred said. "They kept commenting they didn't know how they got out of this. They're pretty fortunate."
Both were carried on backboards over rugged terrain to two waiting medical helicopters. Allred said it wasn't easy.
"It was dang high and it was hard," he said. "The air gets thin up there."
Even though their injuries were not considered life-threatening, the men could have been in much worse condition had they not been found so quickly, officials said. And if not for the cellphone service, Rice doubts searchers would have found them in a timely manner.
"It's pretty amazing that they'd survive the initial impact of a crash," Edwards said. "And then for the helicopter to roll down the hill, and then for them to self-extricate, get themselves out of that helicopter is all pretty remarkable."
For Upper Limit Aviation, it was the ninth recorded crash since 2005. None of the previous incidents involved serious injury.
• In July 2012, an Upper Limit instructor was unable to regain control of a helicopter after a student attempted some type of manuever at Skypark Airport in Woods Cross. The helicopter skidded about 84 feet and rolled several times. There were no injuries.
• In April 2011 at South Valley Regional Airport, a helicopter lost power on the way back to the airport during a lesson. The instructor made a hard emergency landing, seriously damaging the aircraft and leaving a student pilot with a minor head injury, police said.
• In March 2011 at Tooele Valley Airport, a Bell 206B made a sudden move to the right and plunged to the ground during training. The pilot managed to slow the descent just before impact, but the crash was hard enough to break the tail rotor.
• In February 2009, a 21-year-old instructor was flying members of her family in an R-44 helicopter in the Francis Peak area near Bountiful. While trying to reverse course downhill after making a low pass over a ridge, she crashed and rolled the aircraft, severing the tail boom.
• In May 2008, a 32-year-old flight instructor prematurely started a maneuver, leading a student to improperly press an anti-torque pedal, causing the R-22 to crash.
• In June 2007, a 21-year-old flight instructor on a cross-country training flight with a student crashed in Park City while demonstrating an emergency maneuver, bending an R-22's support tube and fuselage.
• In April 2006, a 40-year-old instructor and student landed at the Tooele airport, then took off again to resume their lesson. The Robinson R-22 helicopter got no more than 70 feet in the air before crashing back to the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board noted a "failure to maintain control" and gusty winds.
• In September 2005 near Jackson, Wyo., a Robinson R-44 from Upper Limit crashed. There were no injuries.
Scott Banning, assistant chief flight instructor at Upper Limit, said the company is conducting an internal investigation and is "working closely with the NTSB and the (Federal Aviation Administration) to determine the cause of the accident."
In a 2011 Deseret News article, company officials said it would not be fair to associate some of the earlier accidents with the flight school because they did not involve students.
The NTSB will investigate Monday's crash, though Rice noted gaining access to the crash site wouldn't be easy.
Contributing: Sandra Yi