CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The pilot of a single-engine airplane was struggling to get over Wyoming's highest mountains in bad weather before it crashed and killed the pilot and three of his young sons, a voice recording shows.
Luke Bucklin of Minneapolis said in a radio call to ground controllers just before the crash that his aircraft might not reach 16,000 feet, the altitude he was assigned by an air traffic controller.
"Descending rapidly," the pilot says on the recording.
"Reporting severe mountain waves," he said about a minute later, referring to powerful up-and-down wind currents over the peaks. "Probably going to (garble)."
It was the last audible transmission from Bucklin on the recording obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Preliminary investigative reports indicate the last transmission came around the time the plane crashed Oct. 25 in the Wind River Range of northwest Wyoming.
Bucklin, 40, was killed, along with his 14-year-old twins, Nate and Nick, and 12-year-old son, Noah. They were on their way home from a wedding.
A weeklong search located their bodies and the wreckage on a mountainside at about 11,100 feet. They were six miles southeast of Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest point at just over 13,800 feet.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators haven't disclosed the cause of the crash.
It was snowing heavily when the Mooney M20J took off from Jackson, Wyo., airport manager Ray Bishop said. It crashed less than an hour later.
A preliminary NTSB report said Bucklin radioed about 41 minutes after takeoff that the plane had a trace of ice and had encountered light turbulence.
The plane was approaching the Wind Rivers about 10 minutes later when Bucklin reported reaching 14,500 feet, well below the altitude assigned by the ground controller.
"We're getting a low rate of climb and may not be able to achieve one-six-thousand," Bucklin said on the recording.
About two minutes later, Bucklin reported the "severe mountain waves" and told the controller the plane was descending fast. The NTSB said the controller lost radio and radar contact with the plane shortly after.
Veteran Wyoming aviators say conditions can be treacherous over mountains.
Pilots in small planes often have little time to respond in critical situations, said Cale Case, a pilot and Wyoming state senator who lives in Lander, on the east side of the Wind Rivers.
"You've really got to make a lot of decisions there in a hurry, and you're probably going to screw it up," he said.
About two months after the Bucklins crashed, a single-engine Aerocommander 114B went down in the Wind Rivers, roughly 40 miles southeast of where the Bucklins were found. Killed in that wreck were three members of a Jasper, Texas, family: the pilot, 56-year-old Ralph Day, his wife, 42-year-old Doris Day, and their son Connor, 12.
The Bucklin family had been in Jackson for a wedding and a vacation, friends said. Luke Bucklin's wife, Ginger Bucklin, and the couple's youngest son flew home separately on a commercial flight.
Luke Bucklin and the three other sons planned to fly to Pierre, S.D., on the first leg of their trip home, the NTSB said in a preliminary report.
The forecast warned of turbulence, potential ice buildup and clouds obscuring mountain peaks, the NTSB said, and Bucklin's flight plan indicated he planned to fly by instruments because visibility was poor.
Bucklin's pilot license was current and he was qualified to fly by instruments, the NTSB said.
Bucklin was president and co-founder of Sierra Bravo Corp., a Web development company based in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb.
Elliott reported from Denver.