Menlo pilot, Palo Alto passengers walk away from crash

Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 6, 1999

COMMUNITY: Menlo pilot, Palo Alto passengers walk away from crash

Trio plucked off Colorado mountain after extreme winds force plane down

by Renee Moilanen

Menlo Park pilot Gert Eberlein's year went out with a bang Dec. 30. The 52-year-old's small, single-engine plane battled 100 mph winds high over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado before losing altitude and slamming into a cluster of trees on 11,671-foot-high Rollins Pass, about 60 miles northwest of Denver.

Eberlein and his two passengers--longtime Palo Altan Rebecca Rudd and her 22-year-old daughter, Natasha--were on their way to a New Year's ski trip in Steamboat Springs when extreme wind conditions and low visibility forced the pilot to turn around. That decision, he said, was the problem.

"I was not aware how strong the downdraft was," Eberlein said. "The wind just pulls you down, and as I came closer and closer downwards, I realized I was going to crash."

The plane came down in the trees--"a hard landing," Eberlein said, not exactly a crash. "As long as you walk away, it's a landing. And for the circumstances, it was a good landing."

Once on the ground, it was just a matter of waiting for help, he said. With his cellular phone, Eberlein called the Colorado State Patrol, but was unable to give a precise location before the phone went dead.

Still, the pilot says, he never lost confidence that help was on the way. "It was just a matter of time," he says. "There was no question we would be found."

In the meantime, the trio was prepared for at least two days of camping in the extreme conditions--described as "not very conducive to a human environment" by Sgt. Kent Edlund of the Gilpin County Sheriff's Office in Colorado.

Winds gusted to 60 mph, and the temperature fell well below the zero mark. While the Rudds huddled for warmth in the broken plane wreckage, Eberlein remained outside, whistling for help and ready to flag down rescuers.

Within two hours, a cross-country skier who had heard the crash stumbled upon the wreckage. "It was so good to see someone," Eberlein says. "I was surprised it was so fast."

The skier headed down to the nearby command post and led rescuers to the plane. Within hours, Eberlein and his two passengers were off the mountain and on their way to the hospital. The pilot's knee was injured when the fusilage hit one of the trees. The two women suffered only bruises and contusions.

"We were very happy to be alive," Eberlein said. "I just had a desire to get everyone out without them being frozen."

Despite their ordeal, both he and the Rudds are in remarkably good shape. "I was so glad to be alive," Rebecca Rudd said. "I think it was skill, luck and the angels."

One factor in their success, Rudd added, was Eberlein's calm, controlled reaction. "I was very glad to be in a plane with him. He's very analytical, very level-headed, and he reacts incredibly in an emergency," she said.

Eberlein, a Menlo Park resident for five years, flies every day from Palo Alto to Napa, where he works as a pharmaceutical chemist. Rebecca Rudd and Eberlein, who have been close friends for years, flew together to Cabo San Lucas for last New Year's Day.

Eberlein said he's looking forward to getting back in the air as soon as possible--if he gets a new plane.

Meanwhile, Eberlein and his passengers will be spending a few days in Colorado, recovering from their injuries and adjusting to their momentary celebrity status. "It's very strange," Rudd said. "It's not the kind of thing you want to be recognized for."

The ordeal has given her a new perspective on life, she said. "I'm looking forward to 1999 and living life a little differently--not taking things for granted," she said.

Rudd said she didn't know when she would return home. Her daughter, a graduate of Gunn High School, graduated last year from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in film and now lives and works in Boulder. Loren Stein contributed to this report. Renee Moilanen writes for the Almanac, the Weekly's sister newspaper in Menlo Park. 

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