Chills ran up my spine when Gene Forsberg’s call jolted me late on the afternoon of December 29. “Uncle Jay, we took our Varsity Scouts and Explorers on a snowmobiling outing today. One of the boys is lost in the mountains about ten miles east of town. We’ve scoured the whole place. Can you fly me on a search?”
There wasn’t enough time or light. “Gene, get to the Logan Airport as fast as you can.” Despite fearful conditions and odds against finding the boy, we had to try.
Fourteen-year-old Val (not his real name) was on his first snowmobiling adventure when he disappeared. He did not have enough experience, equipment, or training to survive the night.
I bolted from my office, rushed home, jumped into search clothing, grabbed survival gear, and sped to ready a plane. At the same time an adult assistant and three Explorers roared out of the small town of Paradise, Utah, at full throttle into the adjacent mountains to resume the search for Val. This gritty crew had refueled, obtained food and additional equipment. They had no radio to communicate with the plane but would try to coordinate with us.
Already it was 4:25 P.M. when we lifted off the runway to search 20 miles away. A gloomy overcast blanketed the sky and hung around the mountain tops. It was seven days past the shortest day of the year. Darkness was settling. It was bitter cold—certain to be 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero or lower in the northern Utah mountains during the night. We headed for the 8,500-foot level to begin—and tried not to think of what would happen if we were unsuccessful.
The plane swiftly covered the area where the group had done most of its snowmobiling. The search widened as we failed to detect anything promising. Heading east I dropped the plane to a lower level. Val might have gone into Ant Valley. Nothing! Anxiety increased as we looked over the vast expanse. Where could he be? We climbed back to where our exhausted ground crew had rendezvoused. They did not want to risk losing another in the darkness.
We flew south. It soon would be too late. Almost despairing—all choked up and with tears welling—Gene and I couldn’t talk. We needed help. I silently prayed, “Dear Lord, you know how perilous this is. Please direct us to the boy.”
Seconds later I banked the plane left. We were looking out my side of the cockpit into a deep ravine. Gene yelled, “I think I saw something move by those dark trees in the bottom!” We held our breath as I wheeled the plane around and dove in to the head of the ravine. Even though I was concentrating on the flying, out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark figure with wildly waving arms, now out on the open snow. “That’s him!” Gene joyously shrieked as we blasted by.
I breathed a prayer of thanks. “You’re not the only one who was praying,” Gene said. What a wonderful feeling we experienced. A second pass was made down the ravine to assure Val that help soon would be on the way. We lost no time flying the four miles back to our waiting crew.
To impress them that Val had been found, and provide direction, I swung around and approached from the north. This course was straight from the plane—to the snowmobilers—to Val. While I rocked the wings and Gene switched the landing light on and off, we dove into and pulled up from the dark hollow where they kept their vigil. We continued about a mile toward Val, then banked around to return.
Three of the snowmobiles were moving south through the timber, their headlights sparkling like diamonds. The fourth remained stationary and dark. The crew should know now that Val had been located. But how could they find him without some kind of instruction? I handed Gene my pen and orange-vinyl hunting cap. “Write on it and tell them what the score is.”
A blast of icy air hit us when I opened the cockpit window. Into the hollow we dove at 160 miles per hour. I pointed the plane about 45 feet to the right of and 100 feet above the lone snowmobiler so I could see when to drop the cap. As he disappeared under the wing, I let it go. After clearing the hollow I looked back. There was no movement.
“Looks as if I’ve lost my cap,” I said to Gene. “He must not have seen it. He’s not moving.” A moment later the headlight was on and the snowmobile joined the others. It was so dark hardly anything could be seen.
We circled above Val, providing the plane’s lights as a beacon. The snowmobiles were closing the distance fast, flickering lights marking their progress.
We had taken off with a minimum fuel load so we could climb and maneuver more easily. The gauges showed little left. Considering this, and that the snowmobiles were within one-third mile from Val, I peeled off toward Logan and home. I had not anticipated what difficulty this would cause. The rescuers were then totally without direction. They could see only what was illuminated by their headlights. Was this whole effort going to end in disaster?
The following afternoon, Gene walked into my office, grinning widely, my “lost” cap in his hand. One of the snowmobilers had left the cap at Gene’s home. I then learned what he had printed on the visor:
“OK FOLLOW US HE IS IN RAVINE FOUR MILES SOUTH.”
Gene didn’t know how the rescuers got the cap. I had to find out. I contacted the snowmobiler to whom it was dropped.
“Did you see me waving the cap as the plane approached?” I asked.
“No, I was facing away from you trying to get my engine started.”
“Had it been hard to start?”
“No, it hadn’t given me any trouble before.”
“I couldn’t see you move to get the cap. Where did it land?”
“Right on top of my head!” he blurted out. “It sure shook me up when it slid off by my foot!”
“You really hustled to catch the other guys. How did you get the engine started?”
“Just gave the starter rope another pull and it fired up,” he answered.
Experience in searches and drops during 40 years of piloting has proven to me that, conditions at best, scoring a hit on one man’s helmet was next to impossible.
We often have wondered what the outcome would have been if the engine had started earlier, and the searcher had gone without the cap. Not knowing that Val was in the ravine, the crew likely would have wandered in agonizing frustration. His friends found him pretty well shaken (and, oh so happy they had come) about an hour after the plane left.
We are most grateful for our Heavenly Father’s guidance, and that the cap landed precisely where it needed to—to save a precious life.