On the morning of May 9, 1957, First Lieutenant David Steeves prepared to depart Oakland, California, to return to Craig Air Force Base, Alabama, his permanent duty station. This was to be a routine flight that he’d made several times before, with a refueling stop at Luke AFB, in Arizona. He was only 23 years old, but had already logged 900 hours in the type aircraft he was flying today, a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. This was a two seat training jet, although he was flying solo on this flight. Steeves was an Air Force flight instructor: the trainees at Craig learned to fly jets in the cockpit of T-33s after they graduated from advanced propeller-driven planes.
Steeves pushed the throttle forward and lifted off the runway. He was headed home, expecting to see his wife and little girl by the end of the day but it would be nearly two months before he would see them again. In less than 40 minutes, he’d eject and spend the next 54 days alone in the wilderness, just trying to survive.
Athletic and possessing Hollywood moviestar-good looks, Steeves had played on the varsity football team throughout high school, beginning with his freshman year. When he was seventeen, his parents went on a long vacation, leaving David and his sister in the care of his older brother. Seizing a basically unsupervised opportunity to pursue his dreams, the clean-cut youngster went straight to the local airport and enrolled in flying lessons. By the time his parents returned, he’d completed most of the training, so his surprised parents let him finish. At least he hadn’t gotten into trouble in their absence, as some teenage boys would have done.
After high school, David really wasn’t keen on college. Flying was what he really wanted to do. At some point he’d heard about an Air Force program that offered flight school and officer training, no college degree required. (Apparently the USAF really needed pilots in 1952, during the Korean War.) That was for him! Upon completion of training and commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, David married Rita, a beautiful blond, a girl he’d met in his junior year. She’d grown up in the next town over from David’s, and attended a neighboring high school. Within a year, they had a baby daughter.
About thirty five minutes into the flight, Steeves initiated a standard radio check-in with Air Force flight controllers. A controller responded to the call with a standard response, to which Steeves was supposed to reply. Despite repeated contact attempts, the controllers never heard back from him.
At an altitude of 33,500 feet, Steeves was now high above Kings Canyon National Park, and the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains of southern California. Immediately after calling flight control, he heard – and felt – an unfamiliar sound, like a sudden increase in air pressure… or a low-pressure explosion. He lost consciousness. When he came to, seconds or maybe minutes later – he couldn’t be sure – the jet seemed to be spinning. The controls and instruments were damaged and inoperable. There was only one option: eject. He’d practiced the ejection procedure many times, and performed it automatically; the canopy flew away; the rocket-propelled seat blasted him out of the cockpit and into the freezing, thin air.
During the high-speed ejection, Steeves’ aircrew survival kit was ripped away from him along with a map and other items that would be useful in an emergency. Rocket propellant expended, the seat fell away leaving just pilot and unopened parachute behind. When satisfied that both seat and aircraft were clear of the area, he pulled the ripcord, opening the ‘chute. He now had time to assess his immediate situation, and started to look around below for where he might land: he had some limited ability to guide the ‘chute with steering straps. His training kicked in again and he remembered to look up at the parachute. The ropes were all good, none were tangled. But as if he needed more bad news, two of the dozen or so silk panels of the ‘chute were damaged, probably by the explosion that knocked him out. This was bad. A ‘chute with holes in it doesn’t slow down the parachutist as much as an intact parachute. In short, he knew he was descending faster than he should be, faster than he wanted to be. That meant a hard landing was in store for him.
Looking at the mountains below, he could see a snow covered valley that he’d later learn was Dusy Basin. That would be an ideal destination, with snow to cushion what he expected to be a rough meetup with terra firma. In pilot’s jargon, he was “coming in hot”. As the Earth approached, it became obvious he was heading for the steep side of a mountain peak above the valley. He could have steered away, but feared that any additional aerodynamic stress on the parachute might enlarge the holes, and snow or no snow, he couldn’t survive a plunge of hundreds of feet if the ‘chute failed completely. A ledge on the side of the mountain appeared to be in his direct path, more or less, so he gently steered for that.The rocky ledge was indeed hard, but he sticked the landing. The ‘chute got hung up in rocks on the slope above him. Steeves counted that as lucky, since a stuck ‘chute couldn’t be taken by the wind, which would have dragged him off this safe perch. He didn’t realize it at first, but he’d sprained both ankles when he hit the ledge. For a while he sat and contemplated his predicament, and tried to come up with a plan. He was high in the mountains (about 12,000 feet). He was on the side of a very steep mountain, without shelter and with no easy way to get to the valley below. His flight suit wasn’t designed for winter survival, but he did have a knit cold-weather cap in his pocket. His flight helmet, oxygen mask, and parachute could help retain heat. Although he’d lost the Air Force-issued survival kit, he still had a small revolver and survival knife firmly attached to his boots. Clouds were moving in, bringing colder temperatures and probably more snow. In a matter of hours the sun would set and he’d freeze to death. He had to get down to the valley and find shelter, or die.
First order of business was to gather up the parachute. Climbing up the face of the mountain, he eventually freed it from the rocks. He bundled it up with its harness and seat to hold it in a ball, then tossed it down the slope. Steeves then crawled down the slope after it, face first. He was half way to the valley when he reached the ball of silk. It had taken a long time to crawl down this far, and he could see that sundown would not wait for him to crawl the rest of the way. Inspiration struck: using the parachute seat as a sled, he slid the rest of the way down to the valley floor.At the bottom, he found the large rock and trees he’d spotted from up on the ledge. Steeves made a snow cave and crawled inside, started a small campfire with rotting wood, and survived his first night in the wilderness. He stayed there for four days, knowing Air Force search and rescue teams were looking for him. The Air Force was looking for him, but the weather had turned bad, clouds obscured observation aircraft, and search parties couldn’t get to the area. Steeves ran out of patience and decided to find his own way out of the mountains. His ankles were too painful to walk on, so he crawled for fifteen days without food and only snow for water. At least he stll had the parachute to help him stay warm at night.
Incredibly, he found a park ranger cabin. (Later determined to be 9.72 straight line miles from where he had started.) There were a few cans of beans and a canned ham, the first food he’d had in about twenty days. The food and cabin gave him time to rest and recuperate. With his pistol, he was able to shoot a deer for additional food, which he surely needed.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK