A 60-year-old man is being treated for injuries after crashing a plane in a corn field along Highway 71 Tuesday morning.
The crash occurred north of County Road G. The field was described as north of the Tri-State Canal and south of Lake Minatare Road.
Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said the pilot of a crop duster hit powerlines and entangled a cattle trailer before 9 a.m.
Overman described the plane as “mangled.” The pilot, Mike Uhlken, described on scanner traffic as a 60-year-old man, had been transported to Regional West Medical Center. He was complaining of chest pain and other injuries. He had also been doused in an insecticide that he had been spraying.
Mark Becker, with Nebraska Public Power District, said that the crash impacted five miles of transmission and distribution lines. He said that it impacted 2,400 customers, resulting in an outage. NPPD’s system that monitors outages had been in the process of being upgraded, so initially, the power company didn’t receive notification of the outage. The outage impacted Western Nebraska Community College, Regional West Medical Center and others throughout Scottsbluff.
“We are hearing from our control center that the majority have been cleared and are back in service,” Becker said at about 11 a.m.
From the scene, downed power poles were visible. At least two power poles were knocked down on the east side of Highway 71, and one on the west side of Highway 71. Nebraska Public Power District workers told officers that the cable wrapped around the truck crossed the road about a tenth of a mile where the semi stopped.
Nebraska Public Power District Scottsbluff Superintendent Dennis Wademan said there were 33 properties just before noon still without power and 20 poles were knocked down because of the crash.
Overman said the sheriff’s office is collecting evidence but the investigating entity is the National Transportation Safety Board. Other responders included Gering Police Department to use a drone to take photos of the crash.
Officers said Western Aviation, a division of WESTCO, owned the plane. Uhlken has been flying for Western Aviation since March 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile. Prior to that, he flew for 16 years for Reisig Brothers Aerial Spraying. He has been flying since 1976, doing aerial spraying.
Tony Schmid, a manager overseeing crop planes for the company, declined to comment.
The Scottsbluff Fire Department Hazardous Materials Unit responded to the scene because of the concentrated pesticide.
Neal Heil, a groundwater geologist with petroleum remediation at the Department of Environment and Energy, said WESTCO will most likely be responsible for cleaning up the plane’s fuel and the pesticide.
“Generally speaking, the cleanup is performed by the spiller and the department will follow up as necessary to see it’s done properly,” Heil said.
The driver for the cattle truck, identified by authorities as Jerry Joe Landin, told the Star-Herald that the crash happened in an instant.
“I’m just driving along and suddenly boom, crash. I had time to think ‘What the heck?’ And pretty much it just stopped me in my tracks here,” he said, adding that he didn’t see the wires or the plane.
Landin said the 35 cattle he was driving to Greeley, Colorado, seemed to be unharmed in the crash, though he couldn’t touch the truck due to the powerlines.
Over the hours, the cattle would frequently scuffle, mooing and shifting the trailer. They were finally put in a second trailer and taken back to Chandler Feed Company about four hours after the crash.
Landin suffered a head injury but was not transported to the hospital.
Tim Jerger, the property owner, said he and his wife were in the driveway taking photos of the crop duster spraying pesticide on the farm, which he rents out, and heard the crash.
“I just knew what happened, right away,” he said.
He said after calling 911, he found the pilot in the cornfield.
“I took my three-wheeler up there and walked through the corn I ‘spose maybe 60 feet, I didn’t count the rows,” he said. “The plane is upside-down, Mike (the pilot) is sitting on the edge of the cockpit, conscious and talking and I helped him get up and walked him here to the house.”
With the power off, Jerger said he had to clean the pilot with a water jug, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
Jerger said he thanked God no one was killed and the crash wasn’t worse.
“At least it didn’t tip the trailer, we would’ve had cows running around with the power lines and the crops,” he said. “This could have been much, much worse,” he said.
Law enforcement diverted traffic near the scene for several hours, at County Road H and Lake Minatare Road. Other roads closed in the area were County Road G, County Road 19 and County Road 22, according to road crews.
Star-Herald Digital News Editor Maunette Loeks contributed to this report.