Here’s a tale of a plane crash rescue. Three planes headed south from Missoula into Idaho en route to Jackpot Nevada on a sunny day in April. When snow reduced visibility, the five people and two flying dogs turned back, forgoing a fun weekend of Blackjack and live music.
Near Lost Trail Pass on the Idaho-Montana border, two of the planes lost radio contact with Tom and Betty Kuffel and puppy Valkyrie. When Tom added power to climb over the summit, carburetor icing stopped the engine.
Looking for a place to land is the first consideration pilots memorize as an engine-out emergency procedure. Tom turned away from the mountain while rapidly losing altitude. His only landing option was a tree-covered mountainside.
Sudden deafening violence at a hundred miles per hour ended any contemplation of death when pine branches cracked open the canopy. A second impact severed a wing, spinning the plane backward and smashing the other wing.
Surviving Despite the Odds
Instead of meeting the end of her life, Betty hung from her harness. She survived. She looked at Tom, who lay partway out of the destroyed fuselage, face down and unmoving in the snow.
Their year-old German shepherd mix jumped over Betty and out through the shattered windshield. She bounded up the snowy slope and stared down on the wreckage.
Tom looked dead. Dreading no answer, Betty called, “Are you okay?”
He turned. His face was bruised and his eye swollen shut. Tom moved his arms and took a couple breaths.
“I’m stuck and can’t feel my legs, but I think I’m okay otherwise. How are you?”
“Not good, but we’re alive.”
Her left foot dangled, pointing the wrong way, and two inches of white bone stuck through her jeans. Both of her lower pant legs were soaked with blood.
Medical school and years of ER experience primed her brain for quick decisions, but she never expected to use them to save herself.
No chest or abdominal pain. No broken ribs. But pain shot through her leg as she grasped her pants at the left ankle, to support the leg, and scooted over remnants of the windshield onto the slope. She needed to get away from the fire hazard of fuel dripping from the broken wing tank.
When wind gusts rocked treetops, dumping snow onto her, she dragged herself about 10 feet from the wreckage, up an incline to lean against a tree.
Bleeding had stopped, but Betty’s feet were numb. She knew realigning the fracture might save her leg, but she had no splint, and they had to get help.
Tom turned on his handheld aircraft radio and heard wailing from the electronic locator transmitter. Betty’s cellphone that dropped calls in town had one tiny bar fading in and out. For a few seconds, she was able to connect with a 9-1-1 operator in Salmon Idaho. With friends knowing their general location, a functioning ELT for searchers to home in on, and if the 9-1-1 operator heard her, there was hope for rescue. But they had to survive till someone found them.
Both pilots and outdoor enthusiasts, the couple had overnighted on the summit of Mt. Rainier, mushed dogs, and flown into unforgiving Alaskan wilderness. But this time, their survival gear, including down sleeping bags and jackets, were strewn in the wrecked plane, out of reach.
They worried about Valkyrie on the loose, but she returned to check on them.
The stubborn rescue dog loved to travel, swim, and play ball, but she had failed doggie obedience school. Valkyrie could run like the wind. She refused dog bones but loved stinky Vienna sausages.
Lying exposed with nothing for cover, shivering, teeth shattering in the early stages of hypothermia, Betty tried to figure out how to set her leg and get warmer. She decided Valkyrie’s thick rug might work to make a soft splint, and she could use a headset to support the foot and wrap the cord to tie the rug in place. After a couple tries, Tom was able to reach them and tossed them to Betty.
She eased an ear cup over each side of the ankle before pulling the bones into place. The pain was excruciating, but the bones aligned. Betty wrapped the leg and tied the cord.
She annoyed Tom with questions, to check his brain function. She wished she had a tent. She recalled the stack of flight navigation maps in his flight bag. He tossed two cushions for her to lie on and then the maps. She tented them into a makeshift shelter as a windbreak.
Betty continued to shake. Tom snagged a couple pair of his underwear from an overnight bag and tossed them to her. Yes, underwear.
At least they were clean. Betty put one pair of shorts on her head and the other under her chin. To her, they felt like warm fur, but at the time she was probably not thinking straight and figured if she died, at least the rescuers would have a good laugh.
When Valkyrie’s worried face poked inside the paper tent, Betty tied a hood cord she removed from her light jacket to the dog’s collar as a leash. She held the dog close beneath the tent for warmth.
In an area where bears were emerging from hibernation and mountain lions roamed, they hoped rescue would come before dark. But the sun slipped away.
Time passed slowly. The temperature dropped, and they weren’t sure they could survive the night. Both fell asleep, and Valkyrie snuck away.
Valkyrie Saves the Day
After sunset, six hours following the crash, they heard voices. “There’s a dog. Follow the dog.”
Valkyrie ran down the slope toward them, followed by a line of rescuers, joyous they had found survivors.
In a blur of activity, chainsaws cut Tom from the wreckage. Rescuers splinted limbs, placed warm packs around the couple’s necks, and laughed when Betty ask them not to tell anyone about the underwear.
Rescuers hoisted the pilots on backboards in wire baskets, up the slope to a logging road where a snow mobile with a sled waited to carry them to ambulances.
Tom went first, and, while Betty waited her turn, she hugged Valkyrie’s quivering body and held tightly to the cord.
A planned helicopter rendezvous for transport to St. Pat’s Hospital in Missoula meant Valkyrie couldn’t come. A rescuer vowed care for her, but when a snow mobile engine revved, the dog bolted away and disappeared in the forest.
After multiple surgeries, Betty and Tom were stabilized, but heartbroken. Valkyrie was missing. A Missoulian news article with a photo of Valkyrie and her story drew people from miles away, carrying Vienna sausages in search of the young dog.
Close friends and strangers came to help with the rescue. They recorded Tom and Betty’s voices calling Valkyrie and distributed copies to fellow volunteer searchers.
After Valkyrie had been missing for nine nights, volunteer Vara McGarrell was playing ball with her own dog, Chigger, in a parking lot about a mile from the crash site. The tape of Tom and Betty’s calls was playing in her car. Valkyrie emerged from the trees.
Vara rushed to her car and turned up the volume.
Valkyrie was drawn to the car, but she was too weak to climb in. Vara lifted her in and closed the door with Valkyrie safely inside. Later that day, joyful reunions occurred, which included sneaking Valkyrie into the ICU for a visit with Tom.
The remarkable story of the lost flying dog continues to this day. Valkyrie is now 18 years old. Her vision and hearing are dim, but her spirits are bright. She is enrolled in a dog longevity research project and will contribute to helping other dogs live long happy lives.
Vara still drives hundreds of miles to visit Valkyrie, to bring her Vienna sausage treats. When you hear the thundering music “Flight of the Valkyries,” remember a dog named for the folklore tales of Valkyries carrying dead heroes to Valhalla.
We were sad to learn Valkyrie passed away Feb. 27, 2021. She lived a long, happy life and will be greatly missed. She was a flier and a survivor who led rescuers to her family.