Crash Landing

This Franklin hunter’s Alaska trip didn’t go quite as planned. Would the hunter become the hunted?

Twenty minutes into a 50-minute plane ride at the end of a five-day grizzly bear hunting trip, Jody Vaccarella of Franklin quit thinking about the wondrous sights he’d just seen in the unspoiled wilderness of Alaska.

That’s when the engine on the Cessna 185 piloted by Jim Bailey of Anchorage conked out 1,750 feet above the ground. So many minutes later, the powerless plane clipped treetops and tumbled to the ground.

Vaccarella, 47, and Bailey walked away from the crumpled plane soon after the crash. People they talked to up there and in the Teche Area reacted incredulously to their survival on July 31.

One of the first men Vaccarella met called the two men walking ghosts and very lucky. He agreed.

“Actually, it happened so fast, it’s hard to describe. I didn’t think at any time we were going to be killed,” Vaccarella said while telling the story of his third hunting trip to Alaska. “I don’t know why. I never felt we were going to get killed. The only thing I could think of was who was going to find us after we hit the ground. That’s the only thing I could think of because we were in the middle of nowhere.”

Mindy Peltier Early, Vaccerella’s travel agent at Let’s Travel Inc. in New Iberia, said he confided in her something else that was on his mind. That was the fact he didn’t have his rifle and ammunition in the plane, and they were in the middle of grizzly country.

“He did tell me he thought all the way down that he didn’t have his gun. It worried him the whole time about how was he going to fend off bears,” she said.

Early, a travel agent for nearly three decades, said Vaccarella wasn’t the first of her clients to survive a plane crash over the years. Francis Sapienza, she said, walked away from an accident in Dallas.

“Like Jody, he pulled people out,” she said.

About Vaccarella, she said, “He’s on his sixth or seventh life. He called me a couple days after he got back. Of course, he called me because he was worried about the next hunt.

“At first I couldn’t believe it. Then when he said he was going to tell me the story, I was surprised he was alive because so many people don’t survive those plane crashes.”

Vaccarella, who hunts deer on family property in the marshy Black Crook area in St. Mary Parish, enjoyed his latest big-game venture immensely. He arrived at Bailey’s Stephan Lake Lodge 50 miles south of Anchorage on July 25.

To get to his hunting spot and a smaller camp, he left the next day and traveled five minutes by boat, then hiked for 30 minutes, paddled a canoe 30 minutes, hiked another 25 minutes and canoed 30 more minutes “to the little place we ended up staying for five days,” he said. It took him and his guide 20-25 minutes each day to hike to the hunting grounds, he said.

The Vaccarella’s Repair Shop owner still hasn’t killed a grizzly bear. His first big-game hunt was rained out as he stayed in a hotel for three days and, being a hyper person, finally told the guide he was going home. The second time he did shoot a bear but, unfortunately, didn’t recover it.

“It wasn’t a good hit. It wasn’t a fatal hit. It was low,” he said about the rifle shot he squeezed off.

He was fired up for this summer’s outing. After all, the third time’s a charm, isn’t it?

“I tell you, it was a good trip. I could have killed a bear in the first 30 minutes. My guide told me it was not a first-day bear,” he said.

Vaccarella saw seven grizzly bears during his hunting trip, but passed on shooting the bruins. He wanted an 8-foot-tall grizzly bear, and a 7-footer was the biggest they encountered.

He did all the shooting with a digital camera he bought a week before the hunting trip.

“I tell you what, it was awesome. I said ‘If I don’t shoot him, I’ll have a picture of him,’” he said.

He captured the wild animals in their natural habitat, including fishing for salmon.

“I’ve got pictures of bears, pictures of bears catching fish,” he said. “It’s just a great trip. It’s just a shame I didn’t come home with a bear.”

But all getaways, no matter how breathtaking and exciting, must come to an end. Vaccarella got into the Cessna 185 at 2 p.m. on the fateful Tuesday. He was under the impression weather conditions were favorable, but the pilot said the fog was high, which is why they were grounded until after 1:30 p.m.

The plane took off.

“Like I said, it was a 50-minute flight. We’d been flying 20 minutes when the engine just stalled out. Jim didn’t panic or anything,” Vaccarella said.

Bailey did say, however, that it was the first time it had ever happened to him, and Vaccarella remembers saying “Lucky me.”

“He was just trying to figure out what was wrong, playing with all kinds of buttons,” he said as the plane glided without power. “That went on for three to five minutes. We were sinking. After probably five minutes of him trying to do it, we were down to 1,200 feet. Actually, he did get it started back up — only for a few seconds. It did lift us up 10 feet.

“When he went to make his mayday call, he said ‘Mayday, mayday, this is Jim Bailey.’ And he gave the coordinates where we were. He told them he didn’t know what the problem was.

“One of his buddies had heard the mayday call on the radio. He came on the radio, and said ‘Jim, is that you?’ and he said yeah, that was him and he didn’t know what the problem was,” he said. “He kept fooling with the little buttons. It never started again. He looked at me and said ‘Jody, we’re going to crash.’ I said, ‘What to do?’ He said ‘Just hold on tight.’ When I looked over the dashboard, I saw the top of trees. That’s when we hit the top of the trees.

“Once we hit the top of the trees, the left wing flew off. And then the plane spun around to the left and flipped us over and we fell upside down.”

There was an eery silence in the woods.

The Franklin outdoorsman’s injuries were limited to two small cuts on a shin. The pilot had a cut on one of his hands.

“That’s very lucky. When we flipped over and hit the ground, all I did was look at my legs and hands, and said, ‘This is impossible.’ I was so grateful to touch ground. I can’t say I was scared to death or anything,” he said. “The spruce trees we hit were 150 feet tall, then we fell to the ground. I never felt a jolt. We were not sore or anything the next day.”

There was the matter of getting out of the wreckage.

“Once the plane came to rest, my door was jammed,” he said. “I kicked the little window out. Jim was still hung up in his seat belt with the steering wheel. I asked him if he was all right. He wouldn’t answer me the first time I asked him.”

Vaccarella assisted the pilot, and pulled him away from the plane. The Louisianian’s biggest fear was that the aircraft would catch fire. It never did.

He did go into the plane to get the digital camera he bought just before leaving for Alaska.

“It’s unreal. When you see the pictures, it’s unreal. When it’s not your time, it’s not your time,” he said.

Bailey had a satellite phone that wouldn’t work. But the pilot did have a cell phone the cook had given him, and it successfully connected with a tower.

Vaccarella walked to a clearing 80 yards from the crash site. A rescue helicopter that had heard the distress call was in the area, but couldn’t see them.

“We could hear the helicopter, but we eventually lost sound of it because of the fog. It kept getting farther and farther away,” he said.

“Jim’s buddy (piloting a small plane) who called saw me in the right of way,” he said, and contacted the helicopter, which picked them up.

“The whole process was 25 to 30 minutes from the time we hit the ground to the time the helicopter picked us up. Once the helicopter got there, we were off and going back to anchorage. We flew to a heliport at a little FAA station, and Jim filed a report,” he said. “The guy behind the counter said that we were walking ghosts and how lucky we were. We all agreed. He also said that I was real lucky or the pilot was real good. I said ‘yes’ to both.”

Vaccarella said he didn’t tell his wife, Janet, about the crash until he got home Wednesday. They have a daughter, Jaci Vaccarella Myers, 25, a son, Jamon, 23, and a grandon, Lucas Myers, 19 months.

“She said that would be my last trip to Alaska, “ he said, ‘but I am going to work on her.”

He’s getting pumped up for his next big-game trip in three weeks to shoot a horned animal in Canada.

This story appeared in The Daily Iberian.

About Don Shoopman 493 Articles
Don Shoopman fishes for freshwater and saltwater species mostly in and around the Atchafalaya Basin and Vermilion Bay. He moved to the Sportsman’s Paradise in 1976, and he and his wife June live in New Iberia. They have two grown sons.

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