On Dec. 5, 2001, just after 10 a.m., a Cessna 182 took off from Ernest Love Field in Prescott, bound for Ajo. On board were the pilot, Phillip Larson, 48, his front-seat passenger, Lincoln Bryce, 26, and two rear-seat passengers, Shellie Snow, 36, and her husband, Steven, 41. All were from Prescott.
Shortly after the airplane took off from runway 21-left, the tower controller observed the airplane losing altitude and making a banking turn back towards the airport. She asked Larson if he was experiencing difficulty, and he replied that he was. The controller asked him what runway he wanted to land on, but received no response.
The Cessna had crashed and caught fire.
Larson, a well-known real estate developer, was killed along with Bryce; the Snows, who were found several yards from the wreckage, were seriously burned and were flown to Phoenix hospitals.
The Snows, who survived their injuries and now live in Gilbert, said in an interview Monday, Nov. 6, that they recall the events that led up to the crash, but not the crash itself.
“There was ice on the wings, so Phil Larson turned the plane around to face east, and we went in (to the airport café) for about an hour,” Shellie said. “When we came back out, there was still quite a bit of ice on the wings, although it was starting to melt.”
The couple was flying to Ajo, and would drive to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), Mexico.
Larson was building condominiums there, and he wanted the Snows and their five children to move there for a couple of years to sell the condos, Steven said, so, he and Shellie were headed there to check out the schools, the church, and the medical facilities to decide whether they would relocate to Mexico .
Larson, Bryce, and Steven chipped away at the ice, and when “Phil felt we had gotten enough off that we would be safe,” Shellie said, they began to taxi towards the runway.
“I remember taking off,” Steven said, “and we barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway.
“The last thing I remember is, the plane was wagging back and forth very violently … and I remember the pilot saying, ‘Something isn’t right,’ or ‘This isn’t good,’ or something like that, and that’s the last thing I remember,” he said.
Steven spent six weeks in the hospital; Shellie was in a coma and stayed for six months.
“We thought I’d return to work,” Steven said. “I guess in our minds, we were naïve enough that we thought we were just going to heal.”
But they didn’t have many broken bones, which could heal — they had massive burns, and infection set in. Steven deals with a lingering infection in a leg bone even today, and Shellie still has medical problems.
“We’ve never really recovered fully from” the injuries, he said.
He’s been unable to go back to work as a real estate broker, and is on disability today. The couple stayed in the Valley with their children after the crash, mainly because there were continuing medical treatments and doctor visits.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the crash, initially suspected that regular automobile gasoline had been used to fill the airplane’s fuel tanks, but the final report of “probable cause” of the crash concluded that “the pilot’s failure to adequately de-ice the airplane prior to takeoff, which resulted in the airplane’s degraded aerodynamic and climb performance capability” was the reason.
The NTSB’s final report said, “Numerous witnesses observed 1/4- to 1/2-inch of snow and ice on the surfaces of other airplanes parked at various spots on the airport the morning of the accident.”
It also noted that “Contributing factors were the pilot’s incorrect weight and balance computations, and his use of an impairing over-the-counter medication,” by which, it meant “an over-the-counter sedating antihistamine at a level above that expected from a single dose.”
Steven and Shellie are grateful, and believe the fact that they lived through the crash was a miracle.
They have no idea how they got out of the back seat of the airplane, which is cumbersome under normal conditions, and involves having to slide the front seats forward. This would have been nearly impossible with Larson and Bryce still strapped into them.
But for all their difficulties, the Snows, grandparents now, don’t place blame.
“We have never blamed Phil,” Shellie said. “We loved Phil, and we miss him. It was an accident.”