Infant who survived 1978 plane crash on Buffalo Pass now soars above Yampa Valley himself
June 8, 2008
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Matt Kotts eases the single-engine Cessna 182 onto the Steamboat Springs Airport runway.
He’s deliberate in his speech and movements, talking mostly about the Friday afternoon flight over the Yampa Valley while adjusting knobs.
“We can go wherever,” Kotts said. The wind has been whipping, but he’s not worried. “It might be a little bumpy.”
He’s particularly calm for a man whose first plane ride, nearly 30 years ago, ended on the side of a mountain. Kotts speeds down the runway and into the sky. He gains altitude and heads east, toward the crash site on Buffalo Pass.
Kotts was 8 months old when he took off from this airport for the first time, in a deHavilland Twin Otter commuter plane. He and his mother, Margie, were traveling to Denver with 18 other passengers. Two crew members put the planeload at 22.
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At 6:55 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1978, Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 left the Steamboat Springs airport.
The National Transportation Safety Board spent five months picking apart what happened next.
The weather was punishing. Ice was collecting on the plane. The crew was struggling to pull the aircraft above 13,000 feet. Twenty minutes in, the Otter’s crew told Denver air-traffic control that they were returning to Steamboat.
From there, the conversation was ominous. Flight 217 still had trouble gaining altitude. At 7:40 p.m., Denver asked if it could help.
“Not now,” the crew replied.
Flight 217 went silent.
Heading for danger
Kotts’ mother, now Margie Roosli, was holding her baby on her lap. The flight was short, so she hadn’t bothered to take his snowsuit off. He was snuggled against her shoulder, asleep, when the plane turned back.
“There was really nothing to indicate we were in trouble,” Roosli said. “I didn’t know the pilot had turned around to go back to Steamboat.”
The plane’s altitude dropped. The ice worsened. The crew struggled to slow the aircraft. Then the Otter’s right wing clipped a power line on the eastern side of Buffalo Pass.
The plane went down.
The crash took the life of one Steamboat woman, Mary Kay Hardin. Pilot Scott Klopfenstein would die from his injuries three days later.
Roosli hit her head and lost consciousness.
“I knew exactly what happened, not from my own knowing, but what they told me,” she said last week from her Denver home. “A lot of seats had moved in the plane; they just came out of their bolts. (Matt) slid out of my arms and under the seats to the front of the plane. And for nothing to land on him, no seats, was an absolute miracle.”
The 8-month-old was fine.
Roosli was hospitalized for a week. Although she was in and out of consciousness, Roosli said she never asked about Matt.
“Subconsciously, I must have known as a mother that my son was OK,” she said.
30 years later
Kotts circles the Cessna over the crash site. He points to the power line the plane struck, near the second tower from the top on the east side of Buffalo Pass.
“There it is,” he said. “It’s real pretty up there in summer.”
Kotts has visited the site with his mom, his dad and his younger sister. He has tucked away a few artifacts in his west Steamboat home: a wing piece, a panel from the cockpit and his stroller, which he and his family found under a bush 10 years ago.
Kotts has been flying for almost six years. He formed the Steamboat Springs Flying Club with Bob Maddox, and he instructs. Kotts also flies commercially in Alaska, with Fairbanks-based Warbelow’s Air Ventures.
He is known around town, he said, as the baby in the plane crash.
“It’s just one of those crazy things,” he said a couple of weeks ago, sitting on his back porch with the rusted stroller remnants.
His affinity for the air isn’t the only coincidence of his life’s story. Kotts said his father moved to Steamboat to help put up those power lines across Buffalo Pass. Kotts also works as an electrician.
“It’s kind of weird,” he said mildly, with a smile. “I was in a plane crash; now I fly. We hit power lines; now I’m also an electrician. I guess I was destined.”
Finding the Otter
On that 1978 night, Dave Lindow, a pilot who had been the fixed base operator at the Steamboat airport, went out to search.
“I offered my help down at the Sheriff’s Office that night because I was probably the only person in the area at the time that had a large snowcat,” he said last week from his home in Washington.
He was told to look near Walden. But Lindow said he was familiar with the flight paths from the airport and knew the plane wouldn’t be there. Also, it was too much of a coincidence that electricity had gone out in Walden when the plane disappeared.
He and rescuers from Boulder went toward the Buffalo Pass power lines instead.
That was about 2:30 a.m. Dec. 5.
“Once we got to the top of the pass, it was blowing 95 or 100 miles an hour up there,” Lindow said. “All you could see is the tree next to you.”
As 6 a.m. approached, some of the snowcat’s directional equipment went out. The team got out to get a reading on their location. Lindow heard yelling.
The team found the plane on its side with a hole in the front and the passengers huddled in the baggage area. More snowcats arrived, and Lindow started ferrying the injured to a cabin near Grizzly Creek. Matt Kotts was one of his first passengers. The baby kept quiet, Lindow recalled.
“I don’t remember that it was hollering its head off,” he said. “I pretty much remember most of the stuff as if it was yesterday. It’s amazing how clear that stuff stays.”
Telling the story
Rod Hanna was the first and only photographer on the scene. He was director of public relations for Steamboat Ski Area at the time and hitched a ride on a company snowcat.
The scene was calm, Hanna said, though the storm hadn’t let up.
“It was snowing, and I remember somebody saying that from the time they were found and rescue started and the time they were done transporting, a foot of snow fell,” he said.
The survival rate surprised everyone.
“I guess one of the things you would say is that it’s amazing that only two people were killed, because they went down in a hellacious snowstorm,” Hanna said. “They went down in the evening, and it was probably 12 hours before they were rescued.”
Dr. Larry Bookman, an emergency medicine doctor who now works at Yampa Valley Medical Center, led the medical team at Grizzly Creek. Bookman had arrived that year to split time between hospitals in Steamboat and Denver.
He also is a pilot. The circumstances were unusual, he said: bad enough to cause a crash but good enough to allow for survivors.
“Usually an uncontrolled crash like that produces an everybody’s dead kind of thing,” Bookman said.
Christine McKelvie also works at the hospital, as director of public relations. In 1978, she was a reporter for the Pilot. The story on the front page of that week’s paper, next to a photo of Kotts’ tiny face, is under her byline.
The event was tough on the Pilot team, she said. Everyone knew someone on the plane, but they had to cover the story. It spread far; Roosli’s parents in Switzerland saw it in the newspaper.
“Nearly everybody did survive, which was the good news — the astonishing news, really,” McKelvie said. “We were very respectful and careful to not intrude, because these people lived in Steamboat or Routt County. They were our neighbors and acquaintances.”
Then and now
The National Transportation Safety Board cited icy conditions and strong downdrafts as causes. Also contributing, its report said, was the captain’s decision “to fly into probably icy conditions that exceeded the conditions authorized by company directive.”
The rules have changed to prevent the problems that captured Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217.
“They made some changes in the departures out of Steamboat where you fly farther to the west before you start your climb over the mountains so you don’t get trapped in the same icy conditions he did,” Lindow said, referring to the pilot. “That’s a thing in flying called regulation by accident. You don’t find out you need the regulation until after the accident.”
But the skies remain risky. The safety board is investigating a May 25 crash in which two men in a twin-engine Cessna 310 died. The crash occurred six miles east of Steamboat, near Fish Creek Reservoir and not far from Buffalo Pass. Mark and Levi Klapperich, a father and son from Hayden, were killed.
Though she has no memory of the 1978 crash, Kotts’ mother is well aware of those risks. She hated planes for years, but when her son decided to become a pilot, she promised to fly with him. Roosli has been up five times with Kotts.
She loves it.
“I’m totally cured,” Roosli said. “It’s only taken 30 years.”
She’s even thrilled that Kotts took up the trade.
“Boy, is it ever a good thing, because he’s the best, I think,” Roosli said. “I’m not just saying that because he’s my son. He’s really great.”
Back to the skies
Kotts loves the escape of flying.
The Cessna he pilots seems to float over the green fields. The ground and the mountains look fake — safe, like something out of a sunshine-yellow movie.
“I landed in that field once,” Kotts said, pointing to a small strip on a farm. It was an intentional landing, he said.
“All of my landings have been on purpose” — he pauses — “except, I guess, the first one.”