THE BLOG
12/16/2011 07:42 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

How I Survived A Copter Crash And The North Woods

"Don't go away, I'm alive!" I shouted, knowing they could not hear me. As I watched the airplane fly away, I knew the rescue team was done searching for the day.

I had been flying home to Texas after a gold prospecting trip in Alaska when my helicopter lost its tail rotor. It was as if I was sitting still while the heavy spruce forest that blanketed northwest British Columbia spun in circles seven-hundred feet below me.

I dove the aircraft into a sweep of spindly spruce trees to break my fall and possibly avert instant death. I hoped a search team would find me quickly.

From the start, my life was about survival. I was born in 1924 on a remote mountain in Arkansas, where I lived in a log house built by my father. My earliest years were spent in the wilderness, miles from the nearest town, and from an early age I was taught how to survive off the land.

Growing up, I loved to read adventure stories and dreamed of the day I would live some of my own. The first came at age seventeen when I joined the Marine Corps, one week before Pearl Harbor thrust the US into World War II. I served in the South Pacific and was wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Still, despite all of my close calls and near misses, I was unprepared when my helicopter went down. It was September of 1979 and my only way home was burning in the wilderness of British Columbia.

The door of the helicopter flew off as if blown by a bomb as fire blanketed the shattered bubble. Releasing my safety belt, I dove through the flames. I felt the sickening warmth of the fire as I looked back to witness a horrible sight: my aircraft was rapidly being consumed.

For the next fourteen days, with seven broken ribs and a crushed vertebra, I would lay stranded in the cold, penetrating dampness of forty-degree ground water, exposed to bitter, chilling winds and heavy storms. I could only crawl on hands and knees, but I had to fight to survive with the few resources salvaged from my charred aircraft: a pack of M&M's, a melted hacksaw and seven matches.

To survive the exposure I needed shelter. On hands and knees, I dragged the door that fell off my helicopter, one inch at a time, to four small tree stumps cut off by my rotor blades. Hoisting the door on top of those stumps was nearly impossible with my injuries.

For food I scoured the woods for wild cranberries. I found only a handful each day, but the berries, as well as my M&M's and one ill-fated frog, sustained me. Still, hunger made me delirious. For two days I conversed with a large black bird who introduced himself as Pete Pickle.

On the ninth day I awoke to clear skies and the low drone of an aircraft. A search and rescue airplane! I rushed to start a signal fire with one of my matches, but the smoke didn't rise above the tall trees. The plane missed me by a quarter-mile.

Early the next morning the rescue plane returned. I started another fire, but again the smoke did not break the tree line. The engine grew louder, but I could barely see the aircraft as it passed a mile away. As the drone of the engine grew dim, I slumped to the ground and wept. I had to face it now: the next step was death.

I spent the rest of the day writing notes to my family on a paper bag that had flown from my aircraft. I wrote my good-byes and made changes to my will, hoping the scrap of paper would one day find my family.

The next three days brought more rain and no search planes. The situation had never felt bleaker, but instead of sinking into misery, I found a new clarity.

I scanned the area. One-hundred feet away was a clearing in the forest; I had seen it before my crash. If by some miracle the rescue team returned, something in that clearing must catch their attention.

I crawled to the tail section of my helicopter and disconnected the loose cables. Lying on my back, I grasped the two-hundred-pound mass of unwieldy metal and began dragging. Each exertion brought blinding pain; I could feel my ribs breaking loose. But adrenalin was flowing. Instead of getting weaker, I was pulling off the impossible. It took every drop of strength I had left, but after two days the tail rotor was out in the clearing.

It was early morning on the fourteenth day when I again heard the faint sound of an engine. The sound diminished, then came again -- each second pure agony. My heart pounded. I scrambled outside my shelter, barely in time to see an aircraft passing over.

I reached the clearing in record time. With renewed strength, I pulled my weakened body upright against a tree. I heard the aircraft circling. They had seen something, at last.

The rescue crew airlifted me out of the wilderness and flew me to Fort Nelson, where I was treated for my broken bones, trench foot and hypothermia.

Shortly after I was allowed to leave the hospital, I bought another helicopter.

To find out more about Walter Yates and his memoir Breakaway, visit his website or buy his book on Amazon.