On June 23, 1966, a Mooney Super 21 is en route from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, with four persons aboard when the pilot encounters stormy weather and crash lands on Leschi Glacier on Mount St. Helens in Skamania County. The pilot, Grant Erickson (1917-1966), and his wife, Dolly (1925-1966) are killed, but their daughter, Karla Little (b. 1941), and her two-month-old daughter, Laurie, miraculously survive the crash. After searching for the missing light aircraft for two days, a U.S. Army helicopter spots the wreckage and directs rescuers to the scene. Army medevac helicopters extricate the two survivors and fly them to Saint John Hospital in Longview for emergency treatment.
Trouble in the Air
Grant Erickson, age 49, vice-president and general manager of the Warren Radio Supply Company, and his wife, Dolly, age 41, left Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Tuesday, June 21, 1966. He rented an orange and white Mooney M20E Super 21, Registration No. N79843, for the trip. The Erickson’s itinerary included a flight to Seattle to visit their new two-month-old granddaughter, Laurie, daughter, Karla, age 25, and son-in-law, Loren E. Little, age 24, who was a third-year medical-school student at the University of Washington. From Seattle, they planned to fly to Los Angeles to attend a weekend family reunion and the 50th wedding anniversary of Grant’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Erickson.
At 12:58 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, 1966, Erickson took off from Boeing Field (now King County International Airport) en route to the Portland-Troutdale Airport, approximately 10 miles east of the Portland International Airport in Oregon. According to his flight plan, the light aircraft was due at Troutdale at about 2:00 p.m. But at 1:20 p.m., Erickson radioed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Service Center that he was encountering low clouds, thunderstorms, and rain, and having engine trouble. In his last transmission to FAA, he estimated his position to be approximately 20 miles northwest of Portland, at approximately 8,500 feet.
A Search Desperate and DifficultWhen the Ericksons failed to arrive at the Troutdale Airport, the FAA in Portland immediately organized a search for the missing plane. Some 40 aircraft from the Washington State Patrol, Oregon State Patrol and Civil Air Patrol, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force and Army, began an intensive search for the Mooney in an expanding arc from the northwest to northeast of Portland. Low clouds covered the higher elevations of mountain foothill, hampering efforts to spot the orange-and-white plane from the air. The clouds lifted later in the day and the sorties continued until dark. The flights were resumed at dawn on Friday morning and Loren Little took a hiatus from medical school to ride in one of the search planes as a spotter.
The hunt for the missing aircraft continued throughout Friday and Saturday. Finally, at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, an Army Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter spotted the Mooney on Leschi Glacier, which flows between Big Lizard Ridge and Little Lizard Ridge, at the 5,500-foot level on the northwest side of Mount St. Helens (elevation 9,677 feet, now 8,364 feet). The aircraft appeared to be relatively intact, as if it had crash landed there, but the observers saw no people, alive or dead.
A Mother and Her Infant
An Air Force Pararescue team was flown to the crash site to examine the plane, which was sitting precariously on a rocky outcrop, and to look for survivors. They found that Grant and Dolly Erickson had been killed on impact, but that Karla Little, although trapped in the wreckage, was alive and alert, with baby Laurie cradled in her arms. Lightweight Hiller OH-23G Raven medevac helicopters landed on the snow field by the wreckage and evacuated the infant first, then Karla, and then the bodies of the Ericksons to Saint John Hospital in Longview. Loren Little was flown to Longview soon after the Mooney was sighted and saw his wife and infant daughter when they arrived at the hospital. Loren declared the pair’s survival was nothing less than a miracle.
Emergency room doctors examined baby Laurie and found that, except for a bruise on her forehead, she was in remarkably good condition. Karla, however, was listed in serious condition with a concussion, a collapsed lung, two broken ribs, frostbite, and a fractured vertebra, partially paralyzing her legs. Late Saturday, after her injuries were stabilized, she was airlifted to Seattle and admitted to University Hospital for observation and treatment. Loren Little received custody of his infant daughter and returned to Seattle to await the arrival of his mother, Maxine Little, from Sioux Falls. She volunteered to care for Laurie until her daughter-in-law recovered sufficiently from her numerous injures.
While hospitalized, Karla recounted the details of her two-day fight for survival. She did not remember the plane hitting the mountain and was unconscious for quite awhile after the accident. Karla said that when she awoke, her parents didn’t move and were evidently dead. At her husband’s insistence, Laurie had been secured in a child’s car seat, facing to the rear of the plane, which had protected her from injury. Karla brought a bag full of milk and baby food, but her legs were trapped in the wreckage and she was unable reach it. Luckily, she had a bag containing diapers and two baby blankets at hand and was able to keep Laurie relatively comfortable and warm. She used one blanket to stuff in a broken window, keeping out the freezing wind and blowing snow. Although suffering from pain, exposure, hunger and dehydration, Karla continued nursing and caring for the baby, keeping her alive and well. “Her courage and initiative saved our baby’s life,” Loren Little said (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Cause of the Crash
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the fatal accident and found that the probable cause was engine failure due to improper setting of the engine controls, resulting in carburetor/induction system icing. As a contributing factor, the pilot was not instrument rated and continued to fly VFR (visual flight rules) into adverse weather conditions, which included a low cloud ceiling, zero visibility, rain and thunderstorms. When Erickson flew into stormy weather, he apparently became seriously lost and crashed into the mountain, more than 50 miles northeast of his destination.
The Mooney impacted at the 7,600 level on the north side of Mount St. Helens, slid 2,100 feet down the icy mountainside, and came to rest on a rocky outcrop. Later, salvagers removed the aircraft from the mountain with a flying-crane helicopter.
Life After the Crash
Loren E. Little graduated from the University of Washington school of medicine in 1967 and returned to Sioux Falls to do his internship at the Sioux Valley Hospital. Although Karla suffered a broken back, which partially paralyzed her legs, she eventually was able to walk again, with the help of a leg brace. Her recovery was faster and more complete than her doctors believed possible. But Karla, who was a special-education teacher, had her baby daughter, Laurie, to keep her focused. And on Friday, January 3, 1969, she gave birth to a second child, Richard Everton Little.
Dr. Little served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam era and received advanced training at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., specializing in ophthalmology. After military service, the family moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where Dr. Little established an eye-care clinic.