Breaking with usual radio transmission protocol, I said, "Ed, bro, we're just looking for a place to crash. Make sure you tell all our families that we love them."
Just saying those words made it hard for me to look at Marc, so I glanced toward the cockpit, where Tommy J and Tom Howes were busy figuring out how to save our asses -- or at least keep them from being scattered over a half mile of godforsaken mountain jungle.
Once we were lined up for our landing, I looked forward and saw the two Tommys sitting there. Tommy J was spot on, man. He showed no panic, just a precision to his every move and utterance. The ground was coming at us quick. Marc and I checked our straps one more time. I took a quick look over Tom's shoulder, then linked my arm with Marc's. I'd been in communication with Ed pretty much throughout our roughly four-minute descent, and I said to him, "Hey, Ed, I'm going to have to get off. We're about to crash."
At that point, I flashed back to a conversation I'd had with one of my supervisors in the company. I'd been in the military and had had some basic survival training, but flying with Northrop Grumman, I was supposed to take the next level up. I told this company guy that I wouldn't do it. When he asked why, all I said was, "With this piece-of- s*** aircraft we've being asked to fly in, there's no way I'm going to survive a crash. A dead man doesn't need to know how to survive."
When I heard the engine spooling down, I immediately looked at the instruments and scrutinized the terrain for an emergency landing spot. I didn't see anything close to suitable, so I reached for a map. I was barely aware of the ambient noise in the cabin. I knew Keith was on the radio, but the sound of his voice in my headphones and the presence of the three men behind me were definitely on the periphery of my consciousness. Our altitude was a little over twelve thousand feet and I needed to determine if we could make the glide, clear the mountains, and land at our refueling site, Larandia.
I looked over at the gauges to find out what our current airspeed, altitude, and rate of descent were. From the map, I plotted a point approximating our location and our destination. My gut had told me instantly that we were not going to make it over the ridge and into the airport. The calculations I did simply confirmed my suspicions.
"I see a clearing." Tommy J's voice rose in pitch just a bit.
"I see it, too," I said.
We were going down in a steep valley bordered by two ridgelines. Just above the one to the north was a clearing less than the size of a football field. I'm not a spiritual or religious person, but when I calculated the odds of there being any patch of ground that was clear of trees on the thickly forested slopes of the Cordilleria Mountains, I'd say it was pretty damn close to a miracle. The spot was no bigger than a postage stamp; was tiny, but it was our only option. Put it this way: If we were falling down a deep well, that clearing was like finding a tiny ledge just a few inches above bottom.