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Beth in a Tree

The afternoon of November 18, 1992 brought a break in the routine for the Hamilton County Cave and Cliff Team: a report that an ultra-light had crashed fifty feet up in a tree in Marion County. Sirens wailing, we rushed toward the scene in our faithful rescue trucks. Unfortunately, Truck 1520 (an ancient Chevy Suburban with about a half a million miles on it) was blowing out transmission oil and laying down a thick smokescreen behind us. The muffler on the truck was also just about gone, which really added to our image as a crack technical rescue team.

Even with the pedal to the floor, the truck went slower and slower until we were well under the speed limit. A steady stream of cars came past, most of them giving us strange looks.

"Turn off the lights and siren!" one of us finally gasped. "This is embarrassing!"

At Kimball we abandoned the vehicle and piled into a healthier Suburban. As we got closer, we could hear Beth Elliott on the radio. Beth is a former member of the team who still occasionally appears at some of our rescues.

"What's Beth doing here?" Dennis Curry said. "She's not on the team anymore!"

Arriving at the appropriate tree via a convenient, newly-bulldozed path, we found that not only was Beth already on the scene, she had already made it up the tree and was talking with the pilot. Wow, I thought, she did some stout climbing to get up there. But why didn't she take a rope with her?

There are those that say a rescue situation, when lives may depend on good judgment and quick action, brings their mind into a razor sharp focus. Perhaps it was the lingering effects of the fumes from Truck 1520, or perhaps some minds, including my own, are suffering from astigmatism. Long minutes went by as we stood looking up into the tree, scratching our heads, but one by one the members of the team came to the same conclusion. Beth hadn't heard about the rescue and come over to see if she could help. She hadn't climbed the tree. She had actually been flying in the ultra-light when it crashed.

Beth, despite the fact that her father was killed in a plane crash, often flies in a Cessna for the Forest Service, looking for forest fires. On this day, she was eating lunch at the Jasper airport when she was offered a ride in an ultra-light, a hand-built contraption called a "trike" which consisted of a hang glider wing with a two seats and a engine mounted below. Beth agreed and was soon soaring through the sky.

The view from the front seat of a trike must make riding in the front car of a rollercoaster seem pretty dull. When you look down, there is absolutely nothing between you and the ground but your feet and all that empty space. Rich, the pilot, was doing his best to give her a good ride. Then something went seriously awry. As Rich made a sharp turn, there was a structural failure in one of the wing tubes ("I knew I should have put another sleeve in that thing!" Rich said later), and the wings collapsed, folding upwards. The plane began to plummet. As it happened, Rich had only recently installed a "ballastic recovery system" or rocket-propelled parachute. You yank on an emergency pin, and a small rocket pulls out the chute so it deploys almost instantly. And that's how Beth and Rich parachuted into the top of this particular hickory tree.

Beth always carries a radio, so she called for help and also alerted her forestry friends, who were working a fire nearby. Since the tree was a bit inaccessible, the forestry guys brought in a bulldozer to make a path and a little clearing around the scene where we could work./

Getting Beth and Rich down was easy enough after we tossed a rope up. Getting the wedged ultra-light down took a little longer. In fact, it took Dennis about three hours of rigging ropes and sawing branches while the rest of us mostly stood around on the ground and watched.

Rich was confident that with a few repairs he could be airborne again within a week. Dennis, who dislikes flying in general, expressed amazement that Beth had gotten into the flying machine in the first place. Me, I was a little envious. That Beth sure does have some adventures.

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