Jeff Bezos survived a brush with death starting his rocket company Blue Origin — here’s what happened

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.

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Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.
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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

  • Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was scouting for a large Texas ranch to buy in March 2003.
  • The billionaire wanted a huge parcel of land to test spacecraft for his then-nascent startup Blue Origin.
  • He was scouting properties by helicopter with a cowboy, an attorney, and a pilot named “Cheater.”
  • A gust of wind blew the helicopter off-course, causing it to crash. Luckily everyone survived.
  • A new book called “The Space Barons” describes the accident in remarkable detail.

On March 6, 2003, Jeff Bezos wasn’t the richest person in the world, and Amazon.com stock sold at prices less than one-fiftieth of its value today.

Yet Bezos, thinking ahead – far, far ahead – was already scouting the deserts of Texas for a place to launch his most prized venture: Blue Origin, a reclusive rocket company he founded in 2000 that may soon give Elon Musk’s SpaceX a run for its money.

Bezos was visiting a canyon near Cathedral Mountain, which is located in West Texas roughly 50 miles from the Mexico border.

He wanted to buy a huge, secluded desert ranch to test-fire rocket engines and launch state-of-the-art spacecraft.

However, as Washington Post writer Christian Davenport explains in the first chapter of his new book, “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos,” the famous billionaire had a close brush with death during the real-estate scout – then, almost immediately afterward, laughed at the top of his lungs.

How and where Bezos cheated death

In March 2003, Jeff Bezos crashed inside an Aérospatiale SA-341G Gazelle helicopter similar to the one shown here.

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In March 2003, Jeff Bezos crashed inside an Aérospatiale SA-341G Gazelle helicopter similar to the one shown here.
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Dmitry A. Mottl/Wikipedia (public domain)

Short on time and eager to get back to Amazon, Bezos – against the advice of experienced locals – insisted on looking at parcels of land by air instead of horseback, which might take days instead of hours.

Bezos eventually found himself in the passenger seat of a five-person Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopter with his attorney, a cowboy guide, and pilot Charles Bella.

Although nicknamed “Cheater” for the escapades of his drag car-racing days, Bella was best-known for his unwilling role in a 1988 prison break. In that incident, allegedly at gunpoint by an inmate’s girlfriend, he landed the same chopper flown in “Rambo III” in a prison in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Ty Holland, a cowboy and Bezos’ backcountry guide, chartered the helicopter that had touched down in the canyon about a mile up. Holland was eager to get moving while the normally gusty mountain weather was calm, but Bezos loitered, writes Davenport.

The approximate location of Cathedral Mountain in West Texas.

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The approximate location of Cathedral Mountain in West Texas.
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Google Earth; Business Insider

Everyone eventually re-boarded, and the helicopter took off for the next site.

But according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the accident, posted in July 2003,”the helicopter entered an uncontrolled descent and impacted terrain” and “came to rest in a shallow creek.”

The report was a gross understatement of what actually happened.

As Davenport writes, a gust of wind blew the Gazelle toward a tree line, Bella lost control, and the chopper clipped a mound of dirt, toppling it over. The rotor blades snapped off and the chassis rolled and tumbled into Calamity Creek, breaking off the helicopter’s tail boom in the process.

The chassis landed upside-down in the creek and partially filled with water.

The aftermath of the accident

An illustration of Blue Origin's New Glenn fully-reusable rocket.

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An illustration of Blue Origin’s New Glenn fully-reusable rocket.
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Blue Origin/YouTube

Bella, Bezos, and Holland escaped with minor injuries while the attorney, Elizabeth Korrell, suffered a broken vertebrae. (The Smoking Gun has a photo of the crashed Gazelle on its website.)

After everyone was accounted for as alive, Bezos told Holland they should have used horses, then let loose a “weird, full-throttle laugh” that “boomed through the canyon,” Davenport writes.

“Avoid helicopters whenever possible,” Bezos told Fast Company in 2004 about the accident. “They’re not as reliable as fixed-wing aircraft.”

Bezos ultimately passed on the property he was inspecting and bought up a 30,000-acre ranch outside of Van Horn, Texas, around 2004.

Today the company is quietly developing a fully -reusable rocket system called New Glenn, which may compete with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Big Falcon Rocket systems.

Using interviews with Bezos and others characters, plus a heap of reporting and research, Davenport has reconstructed what is likely the most detailed (and colorful) description of the events and people involved the incident in his book “The Space Barons” – not to mention the larger and heated competition between Bezos, Musk, and others.