The story of how Billings teenager McKenzie Morgan walked away from a plane crash in the remote mountains of Wyoming will be featured during a segment on Sunday night's episode of "Dateline," NBC's long-running television newsmagazine series.
"It's kind of unreal," said Morgan, 18. "It's such a big thing to be a part of, and I never imagined my life would take that kind of turn. It doesn't happen to people where I'm from. It's crazy."
In the segment, titled "Into the Wild," correspondent Keith Morrison details how on Aug. 20, 2013, Morgan crashed high in the rugged Absaroka Range near Meeteetse, Wyo., during her first solo airplane flight and walked away with minor injuries before hunters scouting the area found her several hours later.
"I was tremendously impressed with her," Morrison said in a telephone interview with the Gazette. "She’s an intrepid young woman."
Morgan, a 2014 Billings Senior High graduate who recently moved into the dorms for her freshman year at the University of Montana, was 17 and working to earn her private pilot's license — a goal she's since accomplished — when she became disoriented during her multistop training flight that started out of Laurel earlier in the day.
The plane crashed on Franc's Peak and flipped onto its roof. Morgan managed to scramble out but didn't have any way to call for help.
Two area men — Nathan Coil, of Casper, Wyo., and Joshua Alexander, of Douglas — were scouting the area for the upcoming hunting season and saw the plane crash. They later helped to rescue Morgan.
Morrison said that the unlikely "two needles in a haystack" circumstances that led to the crash and the hunters happening to be in the area combined with Morgan's determination to become a pilot and the rugged wilderness make for a compelling story.
"Everything in it was just way outside the boundaries of normalcy, and it happens to be an absolutely stunning part of the globe," he said.
He also noted "the lingering respect I have for this young woman" after doing the story.
Morgan said that crews from Dateline started working on the story in November, conducting numerous interviews and eventually getting footage of her flying again and eventually earning her pilot's license in March.
"I was up in the air two days later, fighting to get my license, which is what I wanted," she said. "In March, they filmed my solo cross-country flight. I had to do another one, since my first one didn't go so well."
Subjects in the piece also include Gazette photographer Larry Mayer, an experienced pilot who helped to organize the search for Morgan immediately after the crash.
Morgan said she plans to watch the piece on Sunday at her grandparents' house outside of Missoula with friends, family and her flight instructor.
Two days after the one-year anniversary of the crash, she said it changed her for the better, giving her a new outlook on life.
"Looking back, it's brought me closer to my family," she said. "It's taught me to value every day more because anything can happen."