Pilot who survived plane crash thankful for searchers
The "but" was that Mark Calloway had just crash-landed in some of the most rugged terrain found in the Southern Appalachians, near Hooper Bald in Graham County's remote and towering range of Snowbird Mountains.
As Mark Calloway talked to his wife on a cellular phone and looked at his Moody MD20, its nose crammed down into three feet of snow and ice and the tail section broken off by the same tree that the plane had slid down to the ground on, he had no real idea where he was. It could have been anywhere in Western North Carolina or east Tennessee, although he told his wife he was inclined to believe he wasn't far from Athens, Tenn.
The mountains have always posed a special danger for pilots. Quick-changing weather conditions can cause problems, as was the case in October 1997 when two Florida residents died in north Georgia while flying to the Macon County Airport. The pair apparently flew directly into a mountain as stormy weather moved through the region.
But weather wasn't a factor in Mark Calloway's crash.
"The engine just quit, the propeller quit turning," he said.
Mark Calloway's six years of flight experience paid off. He slowed the plane down as much as possible, pulled the nose up and let the plane's belly rest on the trees.
"I did the best I could," he said. "Things can happen and you just keep your head about you."
But if it happens in the mountains, the challenge for pilots isn't over once they survive the crash: Through the years, planes have seemingly vanished in WNC, north Georgia and east Tennessee, a little mountain version of the Bermuda Triangle.
The most recent disappearance is still unsolved. In November 1998, an Ohio man left Portsmouth, Ohio, bound for the Cherokee County Airport. The 71-year-old wanted to visit his son, an FBI agent involved in the search for suspected serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. The pilot's last-reported position was just north of Knoxville, Tenn. His plane has never been found.
But technology played a crucial difference for Mark Calloway, the beloved husband of Kim Calloway and the father of two children, a 6-year-old son and a baby born just three-and-a-half weeks ago.
In addition to having the cellular phone, the pilot was able to provide rescuers with general coordinates of his location using the plane's onboard positioning system.
"After I got my head back together - I jumped out of the airplane because of fear of fire, because I could smell fuel - I went back in and got my gauges to work," Mark Calloway said.
The pilot was 41 miles from Knoxville. The plane's instruments provided a latitude and longitude reading.
Retired Graham County resident Ron Johnson was at his home when the police scanner started crackling at 6 p.m. with news of the search.
The computer expert, who has been working on a Graham County mapping project, jotted the coordinates down as they were relayed by scanner.
Johnson marked the coordinates on a map and called the sheriff's department. He was soon helping rescuers - who were equipped with hand-held Global Positioning System units - hone in on Mark Calloway's position.
"Later on, (the pilot) was able to get a more precise reading off his plane," Johnson said. "He was able to narrow down the area to a quarter-mile from where he was. If they'd not been able to pinpoint where he was, he might still be out there."
The rescue itself was difficult and dangerous. As darkness descended and the temperature plummeted to well-below freezing, rescuers trudged through the snow, waded creeks and slipped on ice to reach the stranded pilot. Even in daylight, the plane was nearly invisible from just a few yards away.
While rescuers hunted, Mark Calloway hunkered down. Snow was falling and he sought protection from the wind in the plane.
As time passed his hands and feet grew numb. He worried about hypothermia.
"I was getting really discouraged and real cold," Mark Calloway said.
At 10:30 p.m., the pilot's ordeal ended. He had only minor injuries - a cut on his forehead and a banged up knee - and walked out with rescuers. On Monday, he was back at work.
He struggled to find words to thank rescuers for giving him back his life.
"I just can't say enough about those guys for not giving up and braving the cold," he said.
"It's a miracle," Kim Calloway said. "I'm so thankful to the rescue people. We are so blessed ... that my husband is home and is going to be a husband and father. It's such a miracle."
Call Quintin Ellison at 452-1467 or e-mail at QEllison@CITIZEN-TIMES.com