McKenzie Morgan, 17, walked away nearly unscathed after crashing a small plane high in the mountains near Meeteetse, Wyo., — not far from the cabin of famed pilot Amelia Earhart — during her first solo flight Tuesday night.
She was flying a Cessna 172 as part of a multi-city training flight out of Laurel ahead of getting her private pilot’s license. She was supposed to return to Laurel on Tuesday afternoon; instead she crashed near Francs Peak, which is the highest point in the Absaroka Range at 13,153 feet above sea level.
Earhart’s cabin sits in the shadow of Mount Sniffel, near the crash site.
After leaving Greybull, Wyo., Morgan became disoriented and started flying in almost the opposite direction of where she needed to be going, she said Wednesday night.
“I kept flying and then I got into some really rugged terrain, like, there are mountains on both sides of me,” Morgan said. “I thought I was going to get speared by trees because I was supposed to be flying at 7,500 (feet). I was now at 8,500 and climbing just to stay above everything.”
She continued on through the valley, which came to an end. She didn’t have room to turn the plane around.
“I couldn’t do it,” Morgan said. A horn went off, signaling that her plane had stalled as she flew over the mountain.
“Right as I got to where I could maybe get over it a gust of wind hit my left wing and blew me over to the left … there was the side of the mountain right there.
“As soon as that wind blew me, I knew I was going down because there’s nothing else you can really do at that point to save it — just try to soften it and make it as light as possible,” she said.
“I was screaming.”
One of the plane’s wheels hit the mountain and the plane flipped and landed upside down.
Thanks in part to her lap belt and shoulder harness her only injuries were some whiplash, cuts to both little fingers and a sprained knee.
Morgan said she tried using a radio to contact someone, but without success. “At that point I gave up trying to contact anybody and started looking for all my stuff that I would need to survive out there.”
She took pictures of the crash, knowing that crash investigators would be able to get the GPS coordinates embedded in the digital photos.
She also took a short video, planning for the worst and apologizing to her family and telling them she loved them.
“If nothing else, I have to try to get out of this so I can see my family again,” she said Wednesday, recalling what was going through her mind after the crash. “If I don’t, I feel terrible putting them through this.”
Two hunters were out scouting the area of the crash at about 6 p.m. Tuesday. The Park County Sheriff’s Office identified them as 26-year-old Nathan Coil of Casper, Wyo., and Joshua Alexander, 27, of Douglas.
Coil called authorities while Alexander headed to the crash site.
“I was like, ‘hey, I just crashed my plane,’ ” Morgan remembered saying to Alexander as soon as she saw him.
“ 'Yeah, we saw that … we didn’t think anyone would survive. We were scared we would have to find a dead body,' ” she remembered Alexander saying. “He basically just calmed me down and said ‘it’s all right, we’ll get you safe.’ ”
She said they hiked for a while, but that when her sprained knee started swelling, Alexander put her on the back of his horse and got her to rescuers.
"Ms. Morgan was one lucky young lady," said Park County Deputy Hayes Randol. "If it had not been for these two hunters being in the right place at the right time, she may still be out there. We're all extremely relieved that this potentially tragic situation had the best possible outcome."
Emergency crews checked out Morgan for minor injuries and took her to West Park Hospital in Cody as a precaution.
Kristie Salzmann, Shoshone National Forest spokeswoman, said that an airplane crew fighting the nearby Hardluck Fire, also burning in the Shoshone, planned to fly over the crash area later on Wednesday to get a better idea of exactly where the plane is.
Whether or not, and how, the plane will be removed will be up to the insurance company covering the crash, Salzmann said.
McKenzie said she feels lucky to be alive — and she plans on getting right back in the pilot’s seat as soon as possible so she can get her pilot’s license.
“I love it,” she said of flying. “(You) can’t let one really bad occurrence tear you down.”
Morgan said she wasn’t sure about what flight restrictions she might face, if any. Wednesday, she worked with Federal Aviation Association officials on the crash report.
“It was scary,” Morgan’s mother, Kristy, said of finding out that her daughter was missing while on a training flight. “You’re blind and you can’t do anything. We were really trying to stay positive.”
But Morgan is savvy, smart, capable and makes good decisions, Kristy said. “We had hope and faith that she would be OK,” she said. “We’re proud of her for pulling out of that.”
For her part, Morgan said surviving the crash has changed her outlook on life.
“Everybody has been saying ‘God has to have a plan for you.' My faith is definitely stronger, for sure,” she said. “I don’t know, I’m looking forward to the future. Definitely not dreading high school as much. Something’s got to happen.”
The Gazette's Zach Benoit and Larry Mayer contributed reporting to this story.