April 28, 2020
Pilots often buy inReach® devices for the two-way satellite
communication or SOS functionality, sometimes with the thought of a worst-case
scenario — an in-flight
malfunction or a crash — in
mind. But in Alaska, anything can happen. And on a cold day in January, that
was the case for Chad Lewis.
No stranger to flying, Lewis got his pilot’s license before
he even had his driver’s license. His first job was at an airport. And he ultimately
moved from the East Coast to settle in Alaska because of his love for
“I’ve just always loved it,” Lewis said. “And of course that
romanticism of Alaska bush flying is what drew me here originally.”
Many years later, Lewis uses his Supercub for recreational
flying and to get to remote portions of Alaska.
In early January, however, Lewis found himself in a
It was his last intended landing of the day, and Lewis found
a spot that looked good to stop. It was a bit of a swampy area, and he knew the
snow would be deep. He did several passes to check out the location and made
some tracks to pack the snow. But when he finally came to a stop, the tail and
one side of the plane sunk down into the snow — nearly down to the wing.
Lewis made several attempts to dig the plane out and get it
turned around, but his efforts were futile. And by that point, it was -20 degrees
Fahrenheit, the sun was setting, and Lewis knew he wouldn’t be able to pull out
of that location in the dark even if he could get the plane unstuck.
“As soon as the sun started to go down – within 15 minutes
to half an hour – it got down to -35 degrees,” Lewis said.
Lewis began preparing to spend an unplanned night in a snow
cave in a very remote area of Alaska. He had survival gear and a -20 degree
sleeping bag, but the air temperature and snowy, swampy landscape made it
almost impossible for Lewis to get a significant fire going. He had a stove, too,
but it was so cold he couldn’t get it to ignite. That meant he couldn’t make
food or boil water to drink.
“It was rough,” he said. “Maybe rougher than it should have
been based on how I was prepared.”
Tracking and Texting
Not every portion of Alaska has flight following or other
radar coverage, which is partly why Lewis had invested in an inReach satellite
communication device in the first place. He wanted his wife back at home to
be able to track his flight path via MapShare™.
“If I’m ever late, my wife can easily log in to the site and
see where I was last or what’s going on,” he said. “Then we can communicate
back and forth, and I can let her know why I’m late or what happened.”
The inReach device’s two-way text communication via the
global Iridium® satellite network was key to his initial investment in
the technology as well.
“I was looking for a way to actually be able to
communicate,” he said. “If you know where somebody is but you can’t communicate
so you don’t know what’s going on, that can heighten anxiety for the folks on
the other end.”
Lewis was particularly grateful he could communicate with
his wife on that early January night. He had the inReach device attached close
to his body to keep it warm, and so as soon as he realized he was stuck, he
texted his wife on the device to inform her of the situation.
Still awake in the cold of that -35-degree night, Lewis
determined that his feet had been numb for about 10 hours and began to worry
about doing permanent damage to his extremities.
That worry finally prompted him to trigger an SOS and communicate
with staff at the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center.
A search and rescue team via helicopter was dispatched to
“They found me immediately because they had my coordinates,”
he said. “The biggest challenge they had was finding a good place to land
because the snow was so deep.”
The helicopter sank all the way down to the frame, so they
opted to lower a rescuer down instead. Without snowshoes, the rescuer sank all
the way down to his chest. The depth of the snow was serious, but the rescue
team managed to get Lewis out and transport him to a local hospital.
Lewis had developed severe frostbite on his hands and feet.
His right thumb was black with third-degree frostbite and felt as though it were
“The rescue team actually told me that rather than suffering
as long as I had through the night, I should have just triggered the SOS
earlier and not risked potential harm,” he said.
Ultimately, though, Lewis recovered – and kept all of his
fingers and toes.
“But without the inReach I would have had to spend the night
until the morning and then continued trying to get unstuck,” he said. “Or I
could have potentially hit the plane’s ELT, but that doesn’t give your exact
location, and I don’t know if it would have been working in those
Later, Lewis used the inReach coordinates to guide him back
to where his plane was located and retrieved the plane with a helicopter.
Be Calm, Be Prepared
In addition to having all the necessary survival gear to spend the night in negative temperatures, Lewis credits his ability to stay calm for his ultimately successful rescue.
“I was definitely prepared, but the biggest thing was just
being calm,” he said. “I was calm about the situation the whole time. Maybe
just a little frustrated I was stuck.”
Back at home, his wife was calm, too, because she could text
back and forth with Lewis.
“I think it would have been a lot worse – she would have been really concerned – if there was no way to communicate,” Lewis said. “That made all the difference in settling fears and anxiety. Because I was safe. It wasn’t a crash. I just landed and got stuck and couldn’t get out because I was in the middle of nowhere.”
That’s why his advice to other pilots who fly in the
backcountry is to carry an inReach.
“At the end of the day, the minor additional cost to be able to communicate with somebody if something happens, and being able to provide details of the situation so that rescue can be prepared, is huge peace of mind,” he said. “I recommend it to everybody.”
NOTICE: To access the Iridium satellite network for live tracking and messaging, including SOS capabilities, an active satellite subscription is required. Some jurisdictions regulate or prohibit the use of satellite communications devices. It is the responsibility of the user to know and follow all applicable laws in the jurisdictions where the device is intended to be used.