Dear Patti, been thinking about you since I crashed at 6:15. Found myself unconscious in the back seat. Basically OK, except for sore back. Hope you guys find me today. I love you, Jim. -------------------------------------
Just before dawn on a stormy morning in mid-April, Civil Air Patrol pilot Jim Powell ran into trouble over the Cascade Mountains and crashed his Cessna 182 into a rocky butte.
A massive search was launched, and Powell's body and plane were found three days later.
What was not disclosed by family and searchers at the time was that Powell had survived the crash. He lived for at least nine hours. During that time he left his cockpit, walked around, tried to build a shelter and wrote a letter to his wife.
The letter, written on the back of a flight manual, read:
Dear Patti, been thinking about you since I crashed at 6:15. Found myself unconscious in the back seat. Basically OK, except for sore back. Hope you guys find me today. I love you, Jim.
Powell wrote down each passing hour on his hand. The last entry read, 3 p.m. Can't see. The 29-year-old Kirkland man died of hypothermia, probably later that afternoon or early evening as temperatures dipped to minus 25 degrees with windchill factored in.
His body, garbed in a nylon flight suit, jacket and loafers, was found frozen under the plane's left wing, his head against his briefcase, which he apparently tried to use as a shield against the elements.
As federal investigators piece together what caused the crash, Powell's family and high-ranking members of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) are doing their own investigating, looking into accusations by some CAP members that the state's Aviation Division delayed the search because of a personal and long-simmering power struggle between the heads of each camp.
CAP members complain the state search coordinator, Brian Holmes, deliberately grounded CAP pilots during the first part of the search.
CAP search coordinator Major Terry Roth said Holmes' decision to ground the CAP planes - CAP claims it had 15 planes ready to go - might have cost Powell his life:
"Brian Holmes fought harder to keep us out than he did to look for Jim Powell. He basically blocked us out. It's like turning away a firetruck on the way to the fire."
Powell's wife, Patti, has retained an attorney and is considering filing a suit against Holmes and the Aviation Division.
CAP members claim Holmes' action is part of a larger scheme to eventually phase out the Civil Air Patrol from air searches.
Holmes and his boss at the Aviation Division, Bill Brubaker, say the search was delayed because of bad weather and that CAP was held back because it was "interfering in the search operation."
They say CAP has made a habit of "mavericking" during searches and that if it had its way, it would take over command of search-and-rescue in the state.
"That search was textbook; there was nothing wrong with that search," Brubaker said. "I stand behind my guy (Holmes) 100 percent."
The conflict ultimately is a turf battle over which agency gets to run the show during an air search. Former CAP Wing Commander Ted Tax describes it this way: "It's about power and control and who's going to get credit."
Patti Powell, a longtime CAP member, describes it more simply: "It's like children playing in a sand box. Someone is playing King of the Hill and saying, `No, I don't want you to play in my sand box today because I don't like you.' "
The conflict between the two camps goes back a long way.
The Aviation Division - a part of the state Department of Transportation - is authorized by law to head air searches.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when a plane went down, the state automatically called the Civil Air Patrol, which is a civilian auxiliary of the Air Force whose primary mission is to conduct air searches.
In the 1970s and 1980s, according to Tax, the state gradually began to exclude CAP, using organizations such as the Washington Pilots Association for searches.
Tax said the change was prompted by two former disgruntled CAP members who switched over to the Aviation Division. One of those, he said, was Holmes.
For the past six years, Tax said, CAP and the Aviation Division have had run-ins during air searches. Tax said CAP pilots were especially upset because they were prevented from searching for one of their own.
Said Tax: "Basically, it's got kind of personal at this point."
A PASSION FOR FLYING
Jim Powell took off from Thun Field in Auburn at about 5 a.m. on Wednesday, April 12. He was headed to Yakima and then to Boise on business.
He was a computer consultant, married, with two young children. A lifelong search-and-rescue enthusiast, he was very popular in the search-and-rescue community.
One of his passions was flying. He got his glider's permit at age 14, his pilot's permit at 16 - even before trying for his driver's license.
He'd been with the Civil Air Patrol since he was a teenager. One of the perquisites of being a CAP member is that he got to fly CAP planes free.
When his CAP Cessna 182 failed to arrive in Yakima, the Federal Aviation Administration notified the state Aviation Division at about 9 a.m. Brubaker assigned Holmes to be the search coordinator shortly thereafter. Holmes put crews on alert.
Brubaker said search planes were ready to fly at 11:50 a.m. but the weather had gotten too bad. There were high winds, snow and ice at the 2,000-foot level, and clouds that made visibility poor - conditions that lasted through Friday.
At about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, Holmes learned by monitoring the CAP radio frequency that CAP had launched search aircraft without his authorization.
CAP LAUNCHED 5 PLANES
CAP, in fact, did launch five planes through its own search coordinator, Roth.
Roth said CAP, in certain emergency situations, can launch aircraft without the state's authorization - a bone of contention with the state.
Holmes ordered the CAP planes down, and kept them down until midmorning Thursday. At the same time, he authorized the three non-CAP pilots who had been on stand-by to begin their search. Ground crews also searched through Wednesday.
"I asked them not to interfere," Holmes said. "The weather was so bad it was a hazard for those people to be out there."
Roth said of the decision, "Jim Powell's chances of survival would have been far greater if more trained personnel had been applied sooner."
Brubaker adamantly defended Holmes, saying Holmes had the authority to call up whatever help, including planes, he thought would do the best job at the time, ". . . and if that hurts somebody's feelings, then tough."
It didn't matter how many planes were ready to fly at the time, Brubaker added, because the weather was too bad to allow planes to launch.
CAP pilots say it is a judgment call whether the mountain conditions are flyable. They contend portions of Wednesday morning and early afternoon were flyable.
On Thursday, Holmes launched the largest search in 30 years, using 65 aircraft and 300 volunteers over 6,000 square miles, centering in the White Pass region. CAP planes and personnel were used.
A CAP pilot, Long Nguyen, eventually spotted Powell's plane Saturday morning after clouds had cleared. The plane had crashed in rugged terrain at the 6,900-foot level of Nelson Butte, east of Bumping Lake.
Powell's body was retrieved and an autopsy was done by the Yakima County coroner, who found that the pilot died of hypothermia, probably sometime Wednesday afternoon or early evening.
Searchers discovered Powell did not have survival gear, which would have increased his chances.
CAP pilots usually bring their own survival kit, which typically includes warm clothing, blankets, fire-starting material and food. Investigators found that Powell had left his survival kit in his car at Thun Field.
"If you're not found in the first 24 hours, your probability of survival goes down exponentially," said Mike Handley, a former CAP emergency-services director. "If we had been able to fly in there a little sooner, perhaps we could have saved Jim."
Meanwhile, the Federal Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and ensuing search-and-rescue effort. That investigation could last anywhere from six to eight months. A preliminary report said Powell's engine might have quit because of ice in the carburetor.
Regarding the power struggle between CAP and the Aviation Division, she Patti Powell said:
"The conflict needs to be set aside. It's been growing over the years, and Jim always said it was going to cost somebody his life."