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Helicopter Pilot, Devoted to Wildlife, Dies Pursuing His Passion

October 15, 1986|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

Wildlife biologists from several governmental agencies are mourning the death of pilot Don Landells, who was killed when his helicopter crashed last week during a bighorn sheep project in the Mojave Desert.

Landells, a veteran of hundreds of wildlife projects involving California big-game animals, died Oct. 6 when his helicopter crashed on Clark Mountain. Also killed in the accident was Jim Bicket, a biologist for the Bureau of Land Management.

Surviving the crash were Dick Weaver, 37-year DFG biologist, and Gerard Wagner, a volunteer worker on bighorn sheep projects. Weaver is hospitalized at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas with a broken leg. Wagner, who suffered a dislocated shoulder and a back injury, was treated and released at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas.

For the survivors, Oct. 6 was the longest day of their lives. For about 10 hours, Weaver and Wagner lay in pain on the floor of a desert canyon near the wrecked helicopter. All day, they waited for a rescue helicopter.

The accident that took the lives of Landells and Bicket occurred on the slopes of Clark Mountain, about 5 miles north of Interstate 15 and 15 miles from the California-Nevada line. The helicopter had taken off at 7 a.m. from a base camp, about three miles away, and was flying back and forth along a ridge.

"It was a typical operation," said Weaver, 60. "The weather was clear . . . a little windy along the ridge line, but it didn't seem to bother Don. Everything seemed like a hundred other flights we'd had together.

"We'd been up just short of an hour, when a rock outcropping appeared in front of us coming off a turn. Just before I saw it, I remember thinking the wind pattern seemed strong. . . . Then I saw the outcroping, an instant before we hit it.

"We went down right there, and rolled, tumbled, slid and bounced several hundred feet down the mountainside.

"We were in the bottom of the ravine all day. We were rescued at dusk. Don was killed instantly. Bicket died during the day. Wagner was thrown from the chopper to the ground, but he couldn't move. He had severe shoulder and lower back injuries.

"I couldn't move either. I didn't try. I'd landed on a rock, about 30 feet from the chopper. My leg was broken just below the hip, and I had my boot in my face. I managed to get the boot out of my face, but I was afraid to move--I could feel jagged pieces of bone at the break and I was afraid of cutting an artery.

"Wagner and I kept each other's spirits up all day, by talking about how a rescue chopper was looking for us. We knew the man who operated the fuel truck at the base camp would start to worry about us after a certain point in time. When our maximum flying time went by, we knew he'd figure we might have landed somewhere. But after that, he contacted Don's hangar in Desert Hot Springs, and they got another chopper out to look for us.

"Just when we could hear the rescue helicopter looking for us, we were starting to worry. The temperature was going down, and I wasn't sure we'd be able to make it, if we'd had to lay out there all night."

For many in wildlife agencies in California, the accident brought home again the dangers involved in big-game management projects, particularly those involving mountain-dwelling bighorn sheep.

In 1985, Landells and three other biologists were involved in a near-miss helicopter accident near Independence, in the Eastern Sierra. Landells was preparing to fly three biologists over possible Owens Valley tule elk trap sites. As the helicopter lifted off, it lost power at about 10 feet, flipped over, and crashed. That time, no one was hurt.

Landells, 59, had been a key figure in DFG big-game projects since the 1960s. Working out of his aviation company based in Desert Hot Springs, he used his helicopters to herd elk, deer or bighorn sheep into capture nets for transplant operations, or flew state biologists over big-game habitat for census counts.

Bighorn sheep, of course, occupy the most rugged habitat of all big-game animals--precipitous mountainsides, cliffsides and rocky canyons. It isn't the kind of flying most helicopter pilots would choose for a career, but as many of his colleagues were saying this week, Landells was an uncommonly skilled pilot.

A frequent flying companion of Landells was Dr. Loren Lutz, president of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep.

"Don was so smooth at the controls of a helicopter, he made riding around mountains seem effortless," he said.

"I flew on countless missions with Don on tule elk and bighorn projects. Most helicopter pilots will show you a certain amount of nervousness flying around mountains, but Don never did. He was very busy with his business, but he was a very giving man. He was a man who loved wildlife and always made time for wildlife."

Bicket, 38, was a nine-year Land Management biologist who was based in Needles. He was involved in virtually every desert bighorn project in the Mojave in recent years.

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