Jackie Hemingway checked her instruments as she flew along in her Quicksilver ultralight airplane. The weather conditions were clear and calm and she was cruising at an altitude of five hundred and fifty feet.
Ultralight airplanes do not require the pilot to be licensed but there is substantial training involved in addition to learning as much about your aircraft as possible before solo flying.
She spared no expense on her aircraft. She outfitted it with a completely upgraded instrument cluster with upgraded long-range communications to contact ground support and airport towers along the route of her cross country flight.
Her aircraft, a Quicksilver GT 500 allowed her to fly just about two hundred and fifty miles before having to land to refuel. She carried a one gallon gas can she had integrated into the fuel system as an emergency backup in case she needed it.
Jackie, not being a licensed pilot, was relegated to flying strictly by VFR or Visual Flight Rules which meant she could only fly during daylight hours. A condition that suited her just fine as she wasn’t fond of flying in the dark anyway.
As she flew high above eastern Tennessee she enjoyed the view and calm serenity she found every time she left the ground to soar like the eagle and hawk through the open sky.
Her feet rested on the rudder controls and she made a slight left-hand turn to adjust her course heading westward. Something didn’t feel right as she maneuvered her craft back on course. She gently alternated between left and right rudder to try and see if things went back to normal. She checked her instrument panel to maintain her heading as a flock of crows darted upward from a lower altitude.
Several of the black birds struck the cockpit nose and fluttered up and over the windscreen and knocked into the rear mounted engine. A puff of feathers could be seen like a pillow opening up during a pillow fight.
Startled, Jackie grabbed the yoke with both hands and tried to maneuver her plane in a left-hand turn as more birds flew about. She tried to exit their flight path and return to clear air when she noticed that neither of her rudder controls were responding properly.
She turned even more to the left hoping to resolve her control issues when she felt her left rudder control instantly bottom out. The ultralight entered into a hard-over rudder left turn which could not be undone.
Her engine sputtered as bird feathers choked and clogged her air intake and began to starve the engine.
Jackie toggled her comms button to contact the nearest tower. “Quicksilver 109, mayday, mayday, mayday!”
Though in a dire situation she did not panic and continued to try and resolve her flight issues. Her right rudder control would not depress more than a few inches and she tried to compensate with more right stick to undo the left-hand spin she found herself in. She was able to slow her descent a bit but could not straighten out her corkscrew spiral and surmised that her contact with the birds had damaged her rudder and ailerons.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Quicksilver 109.” She called out again. She received no reply and quickly switched on her longer range high gain antenna and hailed another mayday.
An on duty controller at Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee happened to hear the emergency call while cycling through radio frequencies after hearing the alert on a scanned channel.
“Mayday caller this is T-R-I tower. What is your emergency?”
“TRI, Quicksilver 109 – ultralight. Bird strike. Losing engine power and I have a hard-over rudder.”
“109, I don’t have you on radar. What is your position and heading?”
“TRI, standby one…” Jackie tried to get a fix on her position as she spun around in circles. She knew she was nearing Roan Mountain and had not yet crossed over Interstate 26, but that was about as specific as she could be.
“TRI – I’m somewhere west of – I think I’m uh…I think I’m between the lake and…I mean Roan Mountain and 26 somewhere.”
“109 can you make TRI to your north?”
“109 you are going to be approximately twenty-five miles from TRI.” The controller picked up the phone and called his supervisor to inform him of the emergency.
“Negative, can’t make it.”
“109 you have…looks like you have Pine Oaks Golf Course ahead of you maybe fifteen miles to your west if you can make that.”
“Can’t make it…I’m rudder hard-over…going down.” Jackie began to feel the dizzying effects of corkscrewing around and around. She tried to maintain her focus as her plane descended through three hundred and fifty feet.
“TRI do you have my transponder?” Jackie asked. If the tower at TRI could locate her transponder signal on radar, they would know her exact location.
“Negative 109, if you can, squawk ident.”
Jackie reset her transponder as she tried to keep her aircraft from nose diving.
“Do you have it now!?”
“109 negative. Do not have you,” the controller responded. “Give visual reference points. What do you see?”
There was no further audible reply from Quicksilver 109.
Jackie was about two hundred feet from the ground when the airframe’s structural integrity began to fail. Her Quicksilver nosed-over and she began a catastrophic nose dive towards the ground.
She pulled back on the yoke with both hands as sweat poured off her face and into her eyes. Her radio microphone remained “stuck” open and transmitted the sounds of her struggling and the breaking up of her aircraft as it plunged into the thickly forested area.
It wasn’t until the next morning when TV station WJHL, Channel 11 interrupted their normal morning broadcast.
News anchor Cindy Keifler began a hastily prepared broadcast as a static photograph of an ultralight aircraft was shown in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
“Good morning…Some tragic news to bring you this morning…Author Jackie Hemingway’s plane is missing and presumed crashed somewhere in the area around Roan Mountain.
“Officials at Tri-Cities Regional Airport initially wouldn’t say for certain if Hemingway’s plane had crashed but an amateur ham radio operator confirms to Channel 11 that they heard the author’s mayday call.”
The programming cut to a recorded video piece where a ham radio operator was being interviewed.
“Well, I was scanning aviation frequencies when I heard a mayday call,” the man stated. “After the transmissions between her and the tower ended, I called 911 to report what I heard. I recorded about half the conversation.”
The recorded portion of audio played on the air. The last sounds heard were of Jackie struggling to control her aircraft and the inevitable crash, then the recording went silent.
The news anchor shook her head, clearly unnerved, as the broadcast cut back to her. “A scary and tragic event.”
Another camera angle picked her up as she turned slightly to the left. “Ms. Hemingway had been on a cross-country flight to raise money and awareness for human rights. She had previously attempted to set a record as the first transgendered female pilot to fly from Key West, Florida to Bangor, Maine in an ultralight airplane, but Hemingway had to cancel her attempt due to engine problems over Pennsylvania.
“This morning Carter County Emergency and Rescue Squad began the search for Hemingway’s plane as investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board look into the crash.”
Because of the vast mountainous area and the small size of Jackie’s plane, it took three days before searchers found the twisted wreckage of Quicksilver 109. Based on the angle of the plane’s fuselage impact and the damaged condition of several nearby trees that had been clipped by the wings of her plane, searchers surmised she had been able to pull up from her nose dive a bit before slamming into the ground.
A rescuer from Carter County was the first to approach the aircraft and it was apparent that a fire had broken out either just before or just after it had impacted the ground. Jackie’s Quicksilver had an enclosed cockpit to protect her from the elements. Part of the windscreen had broken away from the airframe and the wings had been ripped away during the impact with the trees. The remaining fuselage was on its right side and the engine and tail had separated from the body of the plane.
The rescuer peered inside the cockpit. He immediately noticed the smell of gasoline and burnt material as he quickly surveyed the scene.
“Hey, get those NTSB guys up here now!” He called out.
An investigator approached on the other side of the fuselage. He looked into the aircraft and then shook his head.
“Huh,” the NTSB investigator remarked.
He saw blood on the interior side of the windscreen and more on the instrument panel. He stepped back and looked at the rescuer who had called him over. They both looked around the immediate area.
The rescuer keyed up his handheld radio microphone that was clipped to his shoulder.
“Go ahead 26,” the dispatcher replied.
“At crash site…NTSB on scene as well…” He seemed to not know what to say next.
“Copy that 26. Medical Examiner will be en route.”
The NTSB investigator looked at him and shrugged.
“So…where the hell is her body??” The investigator asked.
“Unbelievable!” The rescuer exclaimed.
“Anybody find body parts back there!?” The rescuer yelled back to the rest of the squad.
Two other county rescuers approached the plane.
“What are you talking about?” One of them asked.
“She’s not in the cockpit.”
The NTSB investigator made a phone call as the rescuers searched in, under and around Jackie’s plane. Other than some blood, there was absolutely no trace of Jackie Hemingway.
“Go ahead 26.”
“Uh…Hemingway is not with the aircraft.” The rescuer informed dispatch.
There was a pause before a reply came.
“26, say again.”
“This is no longer a body recovery…it’s a search and rescue. Hemingway appears to have survived the crash and may have left the area on foot!”
Fifty yards away a member of the rescue squad whistled and waved his hands.
As the NTSB investigator approached, the rescuer pointed down. There on the ground was a mangled cell phone.
“Holy shit! Do you think…?”
The investigator picked it up. Blood was smeared on the screen. He held it and looked around and listened.
“Everybody shut the fuck up!” He listened for a moment, turning his head in different directions.
“She’s out there somewhere…she’s hurt and we need to find her!”
He turned to the lead county rescuer, “Get as many people down here as you can. I’m talking all hands on deck — fire, police, volunteers, search dogs – everything.”
Jackie’s plane had crashed just north of Roan Mountain and the search for her radiated out from that area in all directions. She was injured and had been in the elements for three days without medical care and without food or water.
More than fifteen miles away, Dave and Rachel Dillon had just finished a pleasant meal at the Captain’s Table Restaurant at the Lakeshore Resort and Marina on Watauga Lake. It was busy when they arrived and they had to park across the street in the small overflow parking area that butted up against a sloping hillside. The hill meandered into the rugged and unforgiving mountains running south of state route 67 down to Roan Mountain.
As Dave opened the passenger door for his wife she smiled at him and as she sat down she noticed someone slumped over on the ground about fifty yards up the hill in front of their car. When Dave came around and got into the driver’s seat she motioned to the person wearing a blue flight suit that did not look well.
“Dave, who is that up there?” She asked. “It looks like a woman.”
Dave squinted his eyes and followed Rachel’s pointing finger. He opened his door and got out of the car. Rachel followed suit as Dave walked cautiously at first towards the woman.
Jackie’s eyes were closed and she felt a numbness in her extremities and dizziness clouded her mind. She felt like she was dreaming and she thought she heard voices approaching her.
“Hey!” Dave yelled. “Lady, are you ok?”
Jackie could barely open an eye and what she could see was blurry and out of focus.
“You look lost,” he said as he slowly made his way up the hill.
“Where..am I?” She asked in a raspy voice.
“Earth!” Dave joked still about twenty feet away. Now he could see that Jackie was injured and in dire need of assistance. He turned to his wife.
“Go and get some help!”
Rachel immediately ran down the hill screaming for help and crossed the road over to the restaurant they had just left.
Dave’s breathing was a bit labored by the time he reached Jackie. He saw the black leather name tag over the left breast of Jackie’s flight suit. It read, ‘Jackie Hemingway, Pilot’.
“Oh my god! Are you Hemingway…from the plane crash!?” He asked her.
A faint smile traced across her lips.
“I am she.” Jackie said as a tear rolled down her cheek.
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