Investigators say a Prescott man miraculously escaped death, and even serious injury, when his single-engine aircraft crashed northeast of Payson into the Tonto National Forest.
The pilot, 21-year-old Brian Rutkowski, was air evacuated from the crash scene, treated at Payson Regional Medical Center and released.
About 12 hours after the crash, which occurred at 2:45 a.m. Nov. 7, Rutkowski was waiting in the office of Gila County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Tim Scott for FAA crash investigators to arrive.
"(The FAA is) going to send somebody up here and (Rutkowski will) go with them out to the crash site," Scott said. "He's told us he realizes he is a lucky man."
Rutkowski told county investigators he was returning to Prescott from a visit to Texas, when the aircraft's engine began to sputter and stall.
"He said he also lost vacuum pressure," Scott said.
After losing altitude, Rutkowski told Scott the plane struck a tree, hit the ground hard and flipped.
"We think he went in from a northwest direction," Scott said. "The plane then spun around."
The impact of the plane destroyed a large cedar tree and uprooted several others.
Damage to the plane included a sheared off right-side wing and tail section, a bent and dented left wing, demolished propeller and holes in the fuselage.
The first deputies dispatched to the area couldn't locate the aircraft, which was hidden in a clump of trees with only its left wing visible from a distance.
A Native Air helicopter eventually spotted the aircraft, pulled Rutkowski from the wreckage and flew him to PRMC.
Residents in the area, including Jerry McNamara who lives in Freedom Acres, said the noise of the helicopter circling for about 45 minutes awakened them.
"They had spotlights and were flying circles," McNamara said. "We wondered what was going on."
Rutkowski had rented the Piper Warrior PA 28-161 about midday Nov. 4 from SKYschool in Prescott.
SKYschool president Dan Lawler said Rutkowski had rented aircraft from them before, had a private pilot's license, but was a relatively inexperienced pilot.
"He was where every pilot begins, with low miles," Lawler said.
Lawler was unsure when Rutkowski was scheduled to return the plane to Prescott, but said the pilot had to have filed a flight plan in Texas.
"That's a (rental policy) of ours," he said.
Lawler talked with Rutkowski after the accident and said the pilot complained only of bumps and bruises.
"From what I understand, he's very, very lucky," Lawler said.
FAA investigators asked Rutkowski not to make public comment until the investigation is complete.
Following completion of the FAA investigation, Lawler hopes to retrieve the downed aircraft to see if it can be repaired or parted out.
"We don't know how we'll get in there to get it," he said. "We'd like to avoid the expense of a heavy-duty helicopter, but that might be the only way."