The sun was setting, and Casey Ryan was exhausted after trying to dig his pickup truck out of a snowdrift. He needed to send a message for help.
“I said, ‘We need to use our smarts here,’” Ryan said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The two crafted a plan that would have made MacGyver proud. Ryan wrapped his iPhone in a paper towel and used duct tape and some cord to tie it to a small camera drone he’d brought with him.
Then he flew the drone — his phone dangling on the cord underneath — up above the trees, where he hoped it would pick up reception to send the SOS text he’d written to his wife.
It worked. Although Ryan and his companion had to spend the night in his truck, volunteers with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office arrived the next day to pull them free. The sheriff’s office announced the details of the Jan. 30 rescue in a Facebook post last week that admonished Ryan for traveling on an unmaintained winter road — but praised him for his resourceful exit strategy.
“I’ve been doing search and rescue since 2007,” said Jason Bowman, a search-and-rescue coordinator with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office. “And this was by far the most unique way I’ve ever seen somebody call for help.”
Ryan, a 37-year-old photographer who lives in Eugene, Ore., had planned a short trip to drive and hike around the region’s mountain roads that afternoon with a friend, he said. He took one that winds through the Willamette National Forest, a popular destination for hikers and skiers. Ryan said he was familiar with the roads and travels them regularly as a garbage cleanup volunteer. The conditions were icy, but Ryan said he decided to press on after he passed a truck traveling the other way and assumed the road ahead was traversable.
In the late afternoon, about 30 miles into the forest, Ryan and his friend came across a woman stranded on the snowy road in a black Mercedes van, he said. Ryan offered to help pull the van out. But as he turned his pickup truck around to get in position to hitch it to the van, he reversed into a snowdrift. Ryan and his friend tried to dig the truck free with shovels as evening came, to no avail. All three travelers were stuck.
“The temperature was dropping,” Ryan said. “The snow was now turning to ice blocks around the tires, and I knew we weren’t going to dig out.”
Ryan had brought survival gear and several days’ worth of food and water, so he wasn’t worried about their immediate safety, he said. But he needed to call for help for both his vehicle and the van. Ryan’s walkie-talkies and the van driver’s radio wouldn’t transmit far enough. He decided against trekking 30 miles back out of the forest.
Then Ryan’s friend recalled media reports of smugglers using drones to drop phones into prison yards. He suggested using Ryan’s camera drone to bring his phone high enough to find a signal.
“I was like, ‘That’s ingenious,’” Ryan said.
The plan required some trial and error. Ryan’s small, palm-sized DJI Air drone was not designed to hoist a bulky iPhone 13. He first tried taping it to the top of the drone, but a sensor detected the extra weight and prevented the drone from flying. Tying it to the bottom of the drone somehow fixed that, but Ryan still worried it wouldn’t stay airborne.
He threw the drone gently upward to give it an extra boost. It wobbled and struggled at first, then slowly lifted up into the night sky. Ryan piloted the drone with an older, spare phone. He watched nervously as it rose.
“It got to the point where I almost couldn’t see it,” he said. “ … I was thinking, ‘Man, my phone has never flown before.’”
The driver of the Mercedes was “mind-boggled” when Ryan and his friend told her of their plan, he said. But the disbelief soon turned to celebration. They all cheered at the sight of the drone descending safely, phone still attached.
Ryan retrieved the rickety drone and checked his phone. A hurried text for help to his wife, which included his location, had successfully been sent.
Ryan asked his wife, who was out of the country, to call AAA to tow the two stranded vehicles. It was late evening by then, and Ryan said he didn’t alert 911 at first, as he didn’t want to occupy emergency services, believing their situation wasn’t yet urgent. The three travelers slept in their vehicles overnight when help didn’t immediately arrive.
The next morning, Ryan sent his drone and iPhone above the trees again to check back with his wife, who told him that AAA said it didn’t service the mountain road in the snow. She next called the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, which set off for a rescue.
Ryan wasn’t able to talk much more. On a third flight to send and receive texts, the drone’s battery gave out and Ryan guided it into what he joked was a “catastrophic landing” — a crash into a soft patch of snow.
Volunteers from the sheriff’s office arrived in the late morning and towed both vehicles free. Ryan praised the response of the rescuers, who were stunned to learn that he’d texted for help, he said. Bowman, from the sheriff’s office, said that his team has responded to more stranded vehicles than usual this season after forest excursions became popular during the pandemic. Ryan’s adventure, though, topped his list of memorable rescues.
“I don’t think there’s even a close second,” Bowman said.
Ryan’s drone survived its crash landing, and on Saturday, he posted a YouTube video detailing his improvised phone sling. Ryan said he’s avoiding the mountain road until the weather warms up, and he’s since purchased a GPS with a satellite phone service that he hopes will be more reliable.
“Going forward, I hope I won’t have to do another drone flight rescue,” he said.