On May 8, Darren Bullen woke up on a small gravel island, upside-down in a single engine Cessna, with the weight of a man on his neck.
The plane had fallen silent and gone down after complete engine failure. Near Coffee Creek, over 100 km south of Dawson City, trapped in the middle of the Yukon River, Bullen and the three other men in the plane nearly lost their lives.
“We flew over an island and my thoughts to myself were, it would suck to get stuck on that island. And all of a sudden, the engine went pop,” says Bullen, whose large build makes him seem indestructible.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in lands and resources employee flies frequently, doing land assessments.
Immediately after the engine popped, Great River Air pilot John Hill stated he was preparing for a crash landing.
In the plane with Bullen and Hill were Scott Keeley and Anthony Bier of the Access Consulting Group. The crew were collecting samples to do assessments of streams in the Coffee Creek area.
Bullen calmly and poetically recollects the moments of that icy May day.
“I was in the moment and just watching John getting ready to land,” says Bullen.
Hill found an open spot to land on a gravel bar in the middle of the river.
The small stretch of land had not been there the week prior. It was the right time for spring thaw. The ice had broken up, allowing the water to recede and the island to emerge.
“We were floating in silence. There was no motor, we weren’t talking. We were just waiting for the next command,” says Bullen.
Hill slowly turned the plane in and made it around to the front of the island as the plane continued to drop quickly.
The aircraft landed, breaking off the front wheel, skidding the length of the island. The plane’s nose dug into the soft clay, flipping it onto its roof.
“If we didn’t have John and his years of flying experience, it would have been a different story,” says Bullen.
Hill was the first of the four to release his seatbelt, falling on Bullen before climbing out of the cockpit.
“All I could see was darkness. My hands were holding my head up my feet were stuck under the dash, and one of the guys was on my neck,” says Bullen.
“He couldn’t move and I couldn’t move, and it was hard for me to breathe. I just kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe’.”
Hill assisted both Keeley and Bier, who suffered a serious back injury when his seatbelt released during the crash.
Bullen was determined to get out of the aircraft on his own.
“Don’t pull me out. I’ll walk out,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Bullen got his legs loose from the wires under the dash, crawled out, and stood up.
The men came to the reality of occupying the small island while they waited to be rescued.
“It was like a bright light hit you when you got out of the plane,” says Bullen.
“It was like something out of a movie, but more intense. I wasn’t sure what to think.”
The men’s first priority was the well-being of Bier, the most seriously injured. They wrapped him in sleeping bags and a tarp.
They quickly made a fire and a wind break with the equipment from the plane.
The waiting game proceeded after the plane’s beacon went off. Satellite phone calls were made and signals went out.
“What’s the situation?” was a question from the nursing station.
The answer: “We’re all alive.”
Two-hours later, the rescue choppers arrived and attended to Bier. The pilots had a word with Hill—a cigarette in his mouth and tears in his eyes—who had done multiple emergency landings before.
“He must have nerves of steal,” says Bullen. “We gave John a hug and thanked him.”
Bullen credits his calmness to his Northern Tuchone mother and late English father.
“I got the best of both worlds,” says Bullen.
Bullen’s mother, a petite five-foot-four woman, whom Bullen describes as “wild”, runs a four-wheeler, goes hunting and fishing, and has something of a preoccupation for berry picking.
His father, from North Yorkshire, England, worked at the bank in Dawson City and met Robert Service back in the day.
Bullen’s father passed away last year.
“He had a full life,” says Bullen. “It would have been hard if I didn’t make it in this plane for my Mom, that’s for sure. I felt like someone was watching over me.”
Heading home in the chopper with their samples and gear, the survivors looked back.
“I just looked down at the crash site and thought to myself, ‘I just walked away from that’,” says Bullen.
“It’s not every day can you say you were in a plane crash and lived. Everyone says we’re pretty lucky.”