Grand Junction planes collide, aftermath |

Grand Junction planes collide, aftermath

Marija B. Vader and Paul Shockley
Grand Junction CO, Colorado
Courtesy Mesa County Sheriff's OfficeThe crash scene on Reeder Mesa, outside of Grand Junction, Colo., where Thomas and John Haefeli's Cessna 180 came down following a midair collision on Wednesday.

Aspen, CO Colorado

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado ” He never saw it coming.

A senior investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that pilot Andy Gordon told federal authorities he didn’t see an oncoming Cessna 180 occupied by Thomas and John Haefeli. Gordon was flying the Cessna 210, owned by Mesa County, involved in Wednesday’s midair collision near Grand Junction, Colo.

“He felt a thump and said he thought he hit a bird,” said NTSB investigator Arnold Scott.

Unsure if his airplane was damaged, Gordon turned around and returned to Grand Junction Regional Airport.

When Gordon tried to lower the plane’s front-nose landing gear, the instrument panel indicated the gear was unsafe. Gordon asked for, and was granted, permission to do a slow “fly-by” near the airport’s tower. Air-traffic controllers told Gordon his front landing gear wasn’t down.

He tried other methods of forcing the gear down. Nothing worked.

Gordon managed a successful “hard” landing of the plane, which was also occupied by Mesa County Sheriff’s Deputy Lisa McCammon and two jail inmates.

Scott said Gordon told investigators he was never in radio contact with Thomas Haefeli, who was flying the Cessna 180 that eventually crashed on Reeder Mesa.

Gordon, while limping his plane back to Grand Junction, did say he heard another pilot call out, “I’ve got 30 seconds from impact.”

“We believe that was (Haefeli) he was hearing over the radio,” Scott said.

Gordon was among six people who lived to talk about the midair strike, which has put Mesa County’s use of an airplane in the spotlight.

On Wednesday, Scott said Thomas Haefeli told him that he was “descending straight ahead” at around 10,000 feet, when passenger John Haefeli saw another plane dead ahead. Thomas Haefeli tried to dive under the oncoming plane.

They collided, shearing off the tail section of the Cessna 180.

Gordon told investigators he was in radio contact with air-traffic controllers in Denver at the time of the impact.

Scott said he won’t assign fault in the accident. He said his interviews ” along with other items of evidence which he wouldn’t identify ” will be included in a report to a five-member panel with NTSB.

“They’ll issue the probable cause of the accident,” he said.

Does the sheriff’s office need an airplane?

For Mesa County, having an airplane to transport prisoners makes financial sense, say county officials and Debbie Murray, finance director for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department.

The plane “pays off” when the county has several places to stop and multiple prisoners to drop off and pick up, she said.

“A lot of time, it’s going to cost us more to transport prisoners with a vehicle,” Murray said. “That overtime will kill.

“We are constantly looking at the cheapest way to transport prisoners, and we’re also trying to keep the population of the jail down,” she said.

County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said Wednesday’s incident “brought the existence of a sheriff’s department airplane to everyone’s attention. Maybe it’s a good time to review the investment.”

But former Mesa County Sheriff Reicke Claussen agreed with Murray ” a plane is more cost-efficient than using cars, he said.

“We just had cars on the road all the time,” recalled Claussen, who worked for the department from 1971 through 2003. He was sheriff from 1991 through 2003. “It was just not cost-effective. By the time you paid the salaries of two or four deputies and the cars, it became economically feasible to use the aircraft.

“I was really pushing for getting an airplane, even before I was sheriff.”

Weather is also an issue in prisoner transport, because Mesa County authorities may have to cross the Continental Divide multiple times to transport prisoners from far western Colorado. An airplane is not only faster, but safer than van transport, Claussen said.

Current Sheriff Stan Hilkey said overtime pay is “where you start seeing a difference.”

Hilkey said a cost-benefit analysis was done in 2003 by someone no longer working for Mesa County. He and his staff are trying to unearth that report.

Hilkey’s recollection is that vehicle travel is the most cost-effective way to transport prisoners in the state, most of the time.

“However, there are many times that’s prohibitive, with the time and the number of people you have to do it,” he said.

“If the airplane can be fixed and we still find it to be cost-effective, I wouldn’t have any reservation using it again.”

In the media spotlight

This week’s midair crash didn’t just call attention to the Mesa County sheriff’s aircraft. It put the Haefeli family in the spotlight.

Passenger John Haefeli, 66, a fifth-generation beehive keeper and honey maker in Del Norte, Colo., said his small, family business found itself besieged by national reporters, curious neighbors and a producer from Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime television talk show.

The show wanted the elder Haefeli and son Thomas, 43, to talk about Wednesday’s freak accident.

Haefeli said his response was, “Hell no.”

“We just want everything to get back to normal now,” he said. “I didn’t sleep well last night, woke up around 4:30 and there I am on Fox News.

“Jesus, I can’t get away from it.”

The Haefeli’s Cessna 180, which they bought four years ago, was essentially totaled in the crash, but was insured, John Haefeli said.

The wrecked plane had seen plenty of use, he said.

“We were flying it about once a week, basically whenever we had a trip planned when we didn’t have to haul anything,” he said.

The Haefelis will get another plane and fly together again.

“We’ll let the lady folks calm down first, then we’ll be back at it,” he said.

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