DURANGO, Colo. — In one day, Justin Kirkbride survived a plane crash in Colorado's rugged mountains, walked six hours to summon help, then boarded an Air Force helicopter that crash-landed during the search. But he insists his tumultuous day was no big deal.
"I like to think of them as landings because I walked away," Kirkbride said Thursday.
But rescuers hailed the 31-year-old pilot from Farmington, N.M., as a hero for his effort Wednesday, saying he did all he could to keep the two passengers on the sightseeing flight from suffering worse injuries.
"He really did some heroic things that made an enormous difference in the outcome of this event," La Plata County spokeswoman Joanne Spina said.
Kirkbride's first brush with danger occurred when he safely brought down his single-engine Cessna 172 in a patch of trees after he had trouble controlling the plane.
He then walked six hours to summon rescuers, trudging 10 miles through knee-deep snow and heavy woods in the middle of the night until he reached a ridge where his cell phone worked. Meanwhile, his passengers huddled in a makeshift shelter of plane seats, pine boughs and snow as temperatures dipped into the 20s.
After getting in touch with rescuers, search crews decided they needed Kirkbride on the scene because of his knowledge of the crash's whereabouts. At about 3 a.m. Thursday, he boarded one of two MH-35J Pave Low helicopters from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque that joined the search. A team on the ground was also moving in the direction of the crash.
After the helicopter crew located the wreckage, it spun several times and plunged 70 feet to the ground not far from the Cessna. The helicopter's tail and rotors were damaged, but no one was injured.
"We were so lucky, it's unbelievable," said Keith Roush of La Plata County Search and Rescue. "We broke the helicopter to pieces."
The passengers in the Cessna were rescued with broken bones and scratches. Tommy Robbins, 48, of Kirtland, N.M., was treated at Mercy Medical Center in Durango and released. His brother-in-law, Larry Dimond, 42, of St. Petersburg, Fla., had gone into shock after suffering a fractured ankle and leg. He was listed in good condition Friday at Mercy.
However, the situation could have been worse.
Realizing he was having difficulty controlling the Cessna, Kirkbride guided it down. It slammed into a grove of trees.
"He recognized he was in trouble," said Butch Knowlton, La Plata County emergency preparedness director. "At a point when he realized he had to crash the plane, he did the best he could to get it down."
The National Transportation Safety Board hasn't determined why the plane crashed. Knowlton said the weight of the three men may have been too much for the craft at high altitude — it landed about 9,600 feet above sea level.
Kirkbride insists he wasn't scared.
"I don't think scared's the right word," he said. "There was definite concern. I was concerned for my passengers. As a pilot, that's your No. 1 concern."