Daughter honors father with difficult hike to 1977 Davis crash site

Thursday , July 10, 2014 - 10:11 AM

Standard-Examiner staff

FRUIT HEIGHTS — The steep terrain of the Wasatch Front mountains was no match for Aimee-Lynn Simpson Newlan and her desire to find closure over her father’s death in a plane crash on the Fruit Heights mountainside nearly 37 years ago.

It was an emotional scene as Newlan reached the crash site Wednesday at about noon, bursting into tears when another member of her hiking party innocently handed her what was once part of the plane her father had helped pilot.

The act set off a stream of emotions for Newlan, who then embraced her husband, Brad, who found the whole experience of sitting on top of a mountain “peaceful and restful.”

And while the Newlans embraced, other members of the hiking party found other wallet-size and smaller shards of metal and fiberglass once belonging to the jet airliner.

Steve Simpson, 34, of the Chicago area, was one of three crew members killed Dec. 18, 1977, when the four-engine DC-8 they were piloting, United Airlines Flight 2680, crashed into Ed’s Peak above Fruit Heights.

The plane was in a holding pattern in an attempt to make a landing at the Salt Lake International Airport when it slammed into the mountain at an elevation of about 7,400 feet. The crew, experiencing landing gear problems and “blizzard conditions,“ crashed in the area near Baer Canyon, scattering debris for a quarter of a mile across the mountainside.

Also killed in the crash was Capt. John Fender, 49, and first officer Phillip Modesitt, 46, also from the Chicago area.

And now, with her husband, and the escort of Davis County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue volunteers, along with a handful of others, Newlan made what ended up being nearly a five-hour climb to the crash site.

”I’ve never been on a mountain before,“ said Newlan, who lives in Glendale Heights, Ill, where she is involved in Chicago theater.

Newlan said she lives near the cemetery where her father’s body is buried. But for years, she said, she has wanted more than that, and in an effort to find closure with his death she felt she needed to come to Utah and visit for the first time where his plane crashed.

”It is kind of symbolic for me. I am conquering the mountain,” Newlan said. “This is a very emotional victory for me,” she said.

“My dad died when I was 9 years old. As a little girl I could never process it,” said the 45-year-old Newlan.

Newlan’s brother, Stephen Simpson, made the same trek to the crash site in 1991 on horseback with the assistance of county sheriff’s officials. Her mother, Sherrie Simpson, who lives in Wood Dale, Ill., in 1979 made a similar trek to the site.

Even if she was unable to make Wednesday’s climb, due to Utah’s thin air and current hot temperatures, Newlan said, she still had to come to Utah to meet some of the people having knowledge of the crash, including Bountiful resident Dan Jensen, who erected a marker and a traditional geocache time capsule at the crash site, and former Davis County Sheriff William “Dub” Lawrence.

”(Area residents) heard an aircraft and saw a flash,“ said Lawrence said, who was sheriff at the time.

The crashed occurred at 1:22 a.m. that Sunday morning, Lawrence said. Davis Search and Rescue crews were called out in the dark of the early morning, but due to weather conditions, and the snow-covered mountains, deputies were unable to reach the crash until hours later.

”It was about nine in the morning when we spotted the aircraft,“ Lawrence said. He has a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings and old aerial Polaroid photos of the crash he was able to snap while aboard an Air Force helicopter assisting the county in the recovering of the crew’s bodies.

That is why on Wednesday, despite his work schedule, Lawrence joined Newlan and her husband on the hike. Others taking part in the hike included Scott Brough, his 11-year-old son Logan, Dave Egbert and Jensen.

“I’m a complete stranger,” Jensen said, explaining how he knows Newlan, who he had only communicated with through email until meeting her Wednesday morning.

But Jensen is a plane crash site historian, a geocache treasure hunter, and an individual with a respectful heart.

The 5-foot-tall cross he erected at the crash site using white PVC pipe is his way “to bring a little bit of respect” to the area, Jensen said, while the geocache capsule contains a summary of information he has collected on the accident, including information he has taken from a National Transportation Safety Board report.

United Airlines Flight 2860 left San Francisco on Dec. 17, 1977, and was supposed to stop in Salt Lake City for more mail, before going onto O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

"As the plane approached the airport in Salt Lake City, the landing gear light came on and so (the crew) asked to be put in a holding pattern so they could contact San Francisco and get the problem straightened out. The controller in Salt Lake saw that the plane was getting too close to the mountains and told the pilot to climb (to) 8,000 feet. The plane had gotten to 7,200 feet when the crash occurred,“ Jensen wrote.

But Lawrence disputes Jensen’s narrative, claiming the plane was traveling east when it hit the mountain, and to avoid hitting the mountain it would have had to climb to an elevation of about 9,400 feet in getting over Francis Peak.

That is why witnesses who described hearing the crash, Lawrence said, spoke of hearing the roar of the engine before hearing the plane hit the mountain.

”They were flying blind. They were in a holding pattern. And as they began that holding pattern for some reason they were headed east. They gave it full throttle, and pulled back on the yoke,“ Lawrence said in sharing what he suspects happened aboard the flight. But it still left the crew short of where the plane needed to be to clear the mountain, he said.

The NTSB deduced that the cause of the accident was the ”controller’s issuance and the flight crew’s subsequent acceptance of an incomplete and ambiguous holding pattern.“

Kaysville resident Margaret Brough, a historian who many years ago visited the crash site, said she recalls seeing while on her way to church that Sunday, Air Force helicopters flying over the area where the plane had crashed, darting in and out of the clouds covering the mountain peak, in an effort to recover what was lost.

"This has really been a traumatic experience for this (Simpson) family and it is a hard thing for them to see the crash site, but they (the surviving members of Steve Simpson’s immediate family) will have all come to see where they lost Steve,” Brough said.

“(Aimee-Lynn Newlan) worked really hard,” Jensen said. “It was tough on her.”

Contact reporter Bryon Saxton at 801-625-4244 or at bsaxton@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @BryonSaxton.

Visual journalist Benjamin Zack contributed to this report.

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