Skip down to excerpts from each book.
Hey Pilot! I Got to PEE!
Instantly and cautiously relaxing back pressure our visibility challenged aviator eases the wheel forward a smidge, no more than an inch and is quickly rewarded with the last of the village lights leaping into view and sliding swiftly aft of the left wing. A quick glance down and back just as quickly replaced with the almost immediate inky darkness ahead of the windshield as he turns to analyze the road ahead. The transition to intense focus on the attitude indicator (artificial horizon) and altimeter is critical, but almost routine by now.
A decision must be made quickly. While only 63 nautical miles in a straight line to home, a straight line is not an option. The penlight flashlight shows OAT at 32 - 33 degrees and the tops are unknown. Given that the Cessna 207 can't carry enough ice to chill a decent cocktail, and the sole weaponry to fight with is limited to a heated pitot tube. Climbing into know icing without knowing the tops and with the bottoms so low is out of the question.
It's either turn around now and CAREFULLY or press on following the beach. Our hero notes 180 feet on the altimeter and dims the interior lights as low as they can go and still illuminate the instruments trying to get the maximum out of his eyeballs for night vision. A couple of minutes after the old peepers reset for "dark mode" he realizes he can see at least a good mile and a half or two and the foam of the waves breaking on the beach in a straight line ahead of him almost point the way home.
A quick glance to the left wing tip and he also realizes his red navigation light is no longer "glowing" in moisture. Is there room to go up a little bit??
A small 1/16 of a turn on the elevator trim eases the SkyWagon into a 50 foot per minute climb. 200....225......250.....28....OOPS! WHERE'D the world go again!! A quick 1/8 of a turn on the elevator trim the other way and now it's down at 50 FPM. AT 270 feet indicated good mile of breakers comes into view ahead, and the temp outside hanging right at 32 even. No ice building. The last sequence from Kotzebue over the Automatic Direction Finder right as I taxied out said nine hundred foot ceiling under the clouds and two miles visibility. A-l-l-l-l-RIGHT !! Damn near 300 feet of altitude, a good mile of visibility here. We're headin' for the barn...
Some Days You Get the Bear...
At these temperatures, even with no wind, the residual heat left in the engines will dissipate fairly quickly and I will need to start them up again in an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes at the most. Carson then insists it is no problem for him to bring me out to the airplane every hour or so as need be from his house. But I am getting cold now, and my adrenalin level is ebbing for the first time since the phone jarred me awake. I yawn and realize I've been awake for the better part of 21 hours and make the decision to sleep in the plane. I tell Carson to make a fresh pot of coffee, put it in a thermos and bring it out to me when the medical entourage is almost ready to leave the clinic for the airstrip. My PLAN is to have Carson deliver the coffee, pull the engine covers and plugs and warm the engines for a couple of minutes before the sled bearing the stretcher bound patient arrives beside the plane. That's MY plan, anyway. Ignorant of what lies ahead for me.
Carson gives me a "roger" and he and his boy leap on their machines and the remainder of the group heads off to town leaving me in the bitter cold, alone with my chariot.
My fingers ache now with cold as I tear open the aircraft door, leap inside and close it behind me. The relative warmth of the approximately (plus) 45 degree air still remaining in the cabin seems almost like a South Pacific breeze, and I grab the Eddie Bauer (guaranteed to - 40) sleeping bag and unfurl it on the floor. I can sleep in my snowsuit pants but NOT with sorrels on, so I unlace my boots and kick them off before slithering into the half unzipped bag. Using my wadded up parka (DAMN THAT'S COLD) for a pillow, I slide the zipper almost all the way up. In a matter of minutes I'm nice and toasty...at least for a while.
Having done this once before in a 207 in Kiana one night, I know from experience that the rest of the heat will evaporate from the cabin and the temperature inside the plane will plunge toward the ambient 30 or so below outside. Despite what Eddie Bauer may claim and the fact that I am dog tired I know I will wake up shivering in just about one hour or a little more. Just right for warming the engines, and also turning the cabin heater on to warm the interior again! Repeat as necessary. A perfect plan, coming together. A-A-A-A-H-H-H-H-H. I sigh contentedly and burrow deeper into the bag. I sure miss....I WONDER....I wonder if she'd....naw.
I am drifting. Sinking slowly into a slumber. Drifting some more, I slide off the edge of consciousness and prepare to tumble joyously headlong into a deep sleep for as long as I'm allowed. ( I LOVE sleep...almost as much as a good prime rib). Huh? Huh? I seem to trip or stumble slightly as I try to fall over the edge. C'mon...c'mon...we're ALMOST there.....c',m HUH!. Coming back now. Did the airplane just jiggle? Coming closer to awake (NO!) the gears in my brain squeak, groan, and TRY to start turning. Oh WAIT! It must be the WIND. Yeah, that's it. The wind. I sigh as the gears upstairs slow to a halt again as does the slide toward real sleep.
Another STRONGER "jiggle" jars my eyes open simultaneously hitting the quick start button in my cranium!! The instantly "up to speed" brain recalls.....there IS NO WIND!! I remain motionless, but the plane does NOT, giving yet another small jiggle.
You know that funny feeling, you know, when your skin starts to tingle. And then you get goosebumps and a chill for no reason and then FINALLY the small hairs on the back of your neck stand straight out and then you have the feeling SOMEONE IS BEHIND YOU!!??!! JEEZ! I HATE that feeling..........
Stomping the excess snow off our sorrels as we climb the front steps to the FSS offices alerts the building's only two occupants that they have visitors and we find both men staring at us as we walk in. They await our partial disrobing so they identify their guests and greet us by name. The F.A.A. man is one of two Flight Serviced specialists who flies part time for us when off-duty. Jim greets us heartily and offers a couple of cups of fresh hot Java eagerly accepted, as we walk past the swinging wooden waist high door to go behind the counter and park ourselves for a few minutes at least. May as well kill some time here.
As we settle in and make the perfunctory small talk about the weather, the AM radio in the background is playing and, of course, it is tuned to KOTZ; for indeed, nothing else can be heard anywhere on the dial. It' s the 20 after "Tundra Telegraph" hourly message blitz which can be as brief as 20 seconds for a couple of messages up to ten minutes on days like today when the weather creates another storm. This one being a "storm" of messages phoned in to the radio station by those whose plans have been affected in some way by the weather. It is most often to assure someone that they are "home safe and sound".
This because, so many people travel dozens, up to 150 miles on their snow machines from one village to another. Many times coming to Kotzebue to shop for heavy items; sofas or sled loads of flour, beans, powdered milk, coffee and the like. Heavy items that won't freeze but are expensive to carry back on the plane with you.
Jim, Bounce and I are in gales of laughter talking about our Boss's latest attempt to get back out of the doghouse his wife has banished him to, after catching him (yet again) for the umpteenth time in the back room of the bar "negotiating" the price of a cash village charter with a quite cute young maiden from said village. These negotiations apparently most often entail some sort of barter agreement wherein the boss winds up with ownership of some or all of the prospective customer's undergarments. Flexible terms are available. Ownership may be temporary when used as collateral for a loan if you are short of full fare, or permanent when traded for a more significant one-time today only discount. It is speculation about what our boss does with this collateral afterward that has driven us to laughing to the point of tears.
As the laughter subsides, and silence momentarily ensues we all reach for our coffee to take as swig as the following Tundra Telegraph announcement is read....
"To Mary Josephson in Noorvik from Joe Josephson in Kotzebue....'The weather is too BAD to go home on snow machine...WILL TAKE WIENS!' " Simultaneously we all do a "spittake" with our mouths full of coffee, and damn near fall off our chairs in laughter!
Visibility now nearing a 1/4 mile, winds gusting to 45 knots, and Joe has realized, unable to safely snow machine home the only other answer is to FLY in this weather. Oh god, my sides are KILLING me.
We hang with Jim for another forty-five minutes or so and wait for the 3 PM weather to come in from NOME. Peak gusts to 52 knots and visibility now a steady 1/16 of a mile with pressure still falling, it ain't getting no better HERE any time soon.
A Good Dayís Work
Now once or twice, Iíd had the rare treat of being able to ride jumpseat on some of those old Douglas workhorses and watch show from a ringside seat so to speak. But whether inside the airplane or standing outside, olí CloudDancer has been absolutely fascinated to the point of immobility by the sights, sounds, and smells of an R-2800 or ANY radial engine being brought to life.
I mean thereís a whole HERD of spark plugs Ďn pistons Ďn valves and rocker arms and cylinders involved in just starting ONE of those DC-6 jobbies...
As the starter motor is energized and the big olí three bladed square tipped propellor mounted on that Pratt & Whitney starts slowly revolving; there comes a slowly increasing in tempo number of alternating sounds. Thereís a "CLICK" and a "CLACK" and a sighing "WHINE" and a "CLUNK" and as the propellor picks up speed so does the rate of the noises until it begins to resemble the sounds of an old steam locomotive pulling away from the station platform and then...BANG!....and a puff of greasy blue smoke pukes out of a stack and kicks the propellor over a few RPM faster for a turn or two.
As the breeze carries the sweet smell of the burnt oil to your nostrils there is a BANGBANG!!...and then quickly a NOOOOOIIIISE!...as all the plugs now ignite fuel vapor in DOZENS of cylinders and the individual noises have now blended into a thunderous choir bellowing their song to the world as a large cloud of white smoke is swiftly swept to invisibility behind the roaring defiance of this mechanical miracle.
And inside the cockpit the pilots and flight engineer, like a team of skilled surgeons operating inside a chest cavity, hands flying around the cockpit from boost pumps to mixture and throttles and mag switches, alternately cursing the engine as a "whore" and sweet-talking it as you would seduce a potential lover, now ease the throttle of the running number two engine back to idle. As they do, outside the blades slow perceptibly and the noise dies down to a soft and throaty rumbling, as the team turns their attention to getting another of the remaining three sleeping giants roused into work mode.
Sometimes, it all happens in mere moments. And sometimes it takes long minutes just to get one reluctant motor to agree to come to work at any given time. But MAN, I purely love watching it happen!
Itís DejaVu All Over Again
Two minutes later, having wiped down the mirror and lathered up, I am just to beginning to shave as Penny steps dripping from the shower to wrap herself in my terry cloth robe which fits her like a full length overcoat. Turning to stick her tongue out at me in the mirror she disappears and I heave a huge sigh of relief and mentally compliment myself on my control of the situation.
Ten minutes later the day is on schedule. Thirty minutes exactly from the time the alarm goes off Ďtil I am ready to hit the streets. Again I emerge into the sunlit front room to find the sleeping bags, blanket and pillows folded and piled neatly. My sense of smell aside from now causing a craving for coffee also detects the smell of toasted bread.
Sure enough Penny turns from the stove with two plates of eggs and toast and sets them on the table next to the two cups of coffee, mine obviously already laced with the double cream and sugar she knows from history I use.
Seeing the look of consternation on my face she silences my forthcoming objection with a mere "Come on. Youíve got to eat before you go to work" And, as that apparently settles the matter, she pulls out her chair and plops her (again) panty covered bottom down on the cheap plastic. Grasping the underside of both sides of the chair, she uses her again bobby sox covered feet to both lift and drag herself toward the table in two quick "scoots" which sets those dadgum love muffins to wobbliní all about again. (I know the girl OWNS a bra....where the heck IS the darn thing??)
Throwing my shades on the counter I pull up a chair and make short work of the two scrambled eggs and toast on my plate while my gaze is shifting surreptitiously back and forth between her pair of sunny-side ups and HER plate of eggs and toast. In under ninety seconds I have dined and am now ready to face the day. Grabbing my vest off the sofa I turn to reach for my sunglasses again only to find Penny leaning up against the counter wearing my Ray Bans with a big dazzling smile. The picture is too much for me and I crack up laughing as does she. It has broken the tenseness.
"Are you mad at me??" she asks. Still unaware at this point what HAS gone on...did she come home with Bounce.....when did she get here............whatever.......??
" No doll. Iíve never BEEN mad at you" I reply. And she smiles so big and then says "Good! At least give me a kiss goodbye." and she opens her arms. In a reaction more born of simple reflex ( I mean, ANY beautiful bare breasted girl approaching me with open arms is probably guaranteed to get the same response) I take Penny and pull her close bending my head down to meet her lips.
Uh-oh. The contact of the sides of her....GEEZZ.....pressed against my bare inner arms as she pulls me closer mashing herself to me while conducting an inspection of my tonsils with her tongue sets off warning bells, whistles, and sirens and I must ESCAPE. But Penny sensing, or most likely feeling my response, intensifies her efforts by scratching one hand gently up and down my back. DAMNDAMNDAMN the weakness of my spirit I think as I raise my left arm so that I can check the time on my wristwatch.
Twenty-six minutes to scheduled takeoff. Letís see..I think quickly while beginning to rub one of MY hands lower now....ummmmm....oh-KAY......ummmm the airplane is TWO minutes away .....LORD Iíd forgotten how good this girl can....KISS as the scents of her shampooed hair and clean bare skin mingle in my nostrils.....ummm...ten.....no fifteen minutes to top off and preflight....oh wait...I topped off last night before heading to the bar....okay....ten and two minutes is twelve minutes...... Fourteen minutes later I kiss Penny goodbye one more time at my front door and take the steps down the stairwell in rapid time as I finish buttoning up my shirt and tucking it in for the second time in less than twenty minutes. At precisely 11 A.M. I release the parking brake on the orange and cream colored Cessna 207 and goose the throttle to begin another days fun Ďn frolic in the clear summer arctic skies. Timing, my friends, is everything
If You EVER Do That Again...
My feet hit the tarmac and I have taken no more than two or three steps, still beneath the tall overhanging T-tail of the giant Boeing; when a roar of sound blasts over the scene sending vibrations through my bones from itís timbre. Out of nowhere... across the top of the one story log cabin terminal building peels a Cessna 185 with some protuberance hanging from itís belly in at least a 30 degree bank. The engine bellows as the propellor control is rammed forward and I spin 180 degrees on my heels, mouth agape as I follow the airplane flashing overhead at no more than 150 feet! It has somewhat overshot itís "final approach" turn to....where?! Oh, I see in the distance, about a half mile to the south another Cessna rising from what must be another runway.
Sure enough in another couple of seconds, this (must be) WILD man has slipped, skidded, I dunnoí...something sideways to the left, lines up and snaps his wings level. He whacks the throttle and drops down pretty as you please, out of sight, behind that.....what the hell kindaí airplane is THAT starting a takeoff roll on Runway 08? It has got to be the biggest airplane I have ever seen being drug about by one single radial engine. This leviathan, which to me appears at a distance to be almost as large as the sleek Boeing from which I have just alighted, rolls no more than 400 feet...I swear. The tail is in the air from almost the instant of forward motion. The damn thing seems to be barely moving yet, like a helicopter in translational lift, the tail continues to rise higher until seemingly it drags the rest of the airplane off the ground with it. Barely out of ground effect...my GOD...heís goiní DOWN! At no more than forty feet, not yet a third of the way down the runway, heís losing it and falling off on the right wing. I am sick thinking I am going to watch this crash helplessly. Mind thy airspeed my instructor always said. But....wait..... heís...heís NOT going down. Huh? Thatís a TURN! Continuing his turning climb through a southeasterly heading this....whatever is it..... pursues itís labored climb, engine rattling and clattering until it disappears from sight over the ridge bordering the lagoon to the southeast. It had staggered to the dizzying height of what appears to be a nosebleed inducing 300 feet.
All this has occurred in no more than one minute from the first sound of the 185's engine. I still stand, mouth hanging wide open.....("You tryiní to catch FLIES boy?", my old man would say to me....) absitively posolutely flabbergastered by what I am seeing. As I glance around the tarmac finally regaining my senses I see two or three other odd-looking airplanes Iíve never even seen in pictures before.
I turn back and lurch somewhat unsteadily toward the "terminal" and I clearly remember shaking my head and muttering to myself "GeeeeZUS Toto! We sure as hell ainít in Kansas no more!
Donít Look at Me
The salt spray stings my face and the wind rips at my jacket as we plow at full throttle down the backside and up the face of each foam capped wave like some endless Coney Island roller coaster. I feel the airplane buck slightly four times. The recoil of each rocket fired transmitted to my senses through my feet planted on the slippery deck of the conning tower. I stare at the white blips of the six Japanese Val dive bombers on the water-splotched face of the radar screen. The convoy proceeds straight ahead in blissful ignorance of the impending carnage I have just unleashed on them, counting on the poor visibility and low clouds to protect them on this dark night. Fools!
Not three seconds after the last rocket leaves the left engine nacelle a dark shape leaps out of the water into the air 100 yards ahead of us. It turns slightly to the left as it dives again into the water only to slice back out and upwards having turned ANOTHER 10 degrees left off our bow....oh...God in HEAVEN!! "SOUND THE COLLISION ALARM!! DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!" I scream into the voice tube to the cockpit. With a final glance at the trail of smoke and bubbles curving to our left I leap for the conning tower hatch ladder grabbing the lanyard to drag it closed behind me.
As I slam the upper and lower cabin door halves together the boss's daughter Shirley and I are drenched as a few gallons of salty brine spray through the cracks before we are able to spin the wheel and get a firm seal. I TASTE the salt in my mouth. Shirley's hair is matted and saltwater runs down her face, her high school cheerleader sweater now glued to her curves I notice as I look forward past her apprehensive face to the cockpit where I can see Bounce is hunched over the controls in the dim glow of the instrument lighting. We are now surrounded with a cacophony of sounds. The diving alarm bongs for five seconds along with the ringing of the collision alarm. Men shouting can barely be heard over the dull "thuds" as watertight doors slam shut throughout the plane, and the metallic clang of the gasoline tank vents opening to admit the rush of seawater with a loud gurgling sound.
Hollering at the cockpit over the din, my words carry an uncontrolled sense of urgency. "DOWN BOUNCE!" at the top of my lungs I cry "TAKE 'ER DOWN FAST!! FULL FORWARD ELEVATOR!! Throwing the words back over his shoulder instantly Bounce replies "I've got her full forward skipper! We're takiní the express elevator!!"
With the hatches secured and the diving alarm stilled, only the sound of the incessantly ringing collision alarm still peals through the airplane. It should've shut off by now. "It will any second" I think, as my eyes turn toward the "repeater" altimeter in the control room instrument cluster. Shirley now grabs my forearm. I throw a quick glance at her concerned face three feet from mine. She's worried because she can see the intensity, or is there fear, in my eyes. It's something she's never seen before and she hollers at me over the continued ringing of the collision alarm....will someone PLEASE shut that damn thing OFF!...."Captain!... Captain!!..... what IS it? What's HAPPENED??!!
With my eyes focused on the altimeter needle I speak loudly over the collision alarm replying "Our last rocket is turning on us. It's making a circular run!" Again I scream at BOUNCE, "BOUNCE get us DOWN" as I watch the altimeter needle unwinding WAY too slowly, barely now 50 feet of water over the top of our rudder, but our rate of sink is increasing as the weight of our now full gas tanks takes affect. All eyes turn toward the sound man seated alongside Bounce in the cockpit, his hands clasped hard over his David Clark headset. He strains to hear the sounds of our errant rocket in his headphones over the still ringing collision alarm
Werenít Nobody SHOOTINí at Me
Three or four weeks had gone by and Dave had shown himself to be one hell of a hard workiní old man!! He kept up with us kids in the air and on the ground. Heíd bought a brand new Yamaha kick butt racing snow machine to get around on. Heíd paid cash I discovered. He was never seen to be cruising at anything other than the fastest possible speed, unless slowing to stop.
But he babied his airplanes and the engines and handled those throttles with a great degree of smoothness and finesse. The contrast was remarkable really, until I thought of how Bounce, Dirk and I behaved on our ground bound machines. It was just, I dunnoí....WEIRD to see some old guy act like us!
Further he had no problem keeping up with anybody when it came time to relax and "unwind" from a hard days work at the Ponderosa or the Whale. I had noted during our "new-hire groundschool" conducted at the end of the Ponderosa bar, Dave could beat up on a fifth of Canadian Mist every bit as good as I could a fifth of Bacardi. After covering the basics of the Cessna 206 and 207's fuel and electrical systems including what slim emergency or alternative procedures there were I had found, not surprisingly, no gaps in his knowledge. I declared he had scored 100 % on his oral examinations and was now ready to begin his "ride-alongs". I had then tried to turn the conversation to talk about him.
Might as well have tried to learn more about the origin of the ciderblock wall against which my shoulder comfortably leaned. Every question was either coyly deflected, answered with another question to me or just plain ignored. And when I mentioned Air America, and that some of the things about some of their operations Iíd heard were a bit, uh, shall we say questionably legal? Olí Dave just turned to me and pinned my head back against that cinderblock wall with the absolute ICIEST stare Iíd ever seen. Quietly he said "Now, I wouldnít know anything about that." He then climbed offaí his stool and headed for the jukebox. Discussion closed.
Good! Weíre VFR!
After lunch itís back to the hangar where the rest of the day passes in a blur of draining fuel sumps over and over and over. Man I couldnít believe how much water we got out of those tanks. I helped with compression checks (good), pulling and replacing plugs, filing props, and polishing plexiglass. And finally, at seven PM, with the sun long gone and inky black moonless night skies overhead we are ready to roll her out and try an engine run. Amazingly, but not totally unprecedented, the entire day has gone by without one lousy trip. No good for my pocketbook, but I did learn a lot today. Cedrick and Dan climb into the front and I ask Dan if I can sit back in the cabin and watch the proceedings over their shoulders.
Dan flips on the master switch and the warm glow of the white post lights and internally lighted overhead switches bathes the cockpit. From there...well, things just didnít manage to go so good. As Dan was firing up the second (right) engine, the first begins to cough, sputter, and die. Cedrick starts working cross-armed with Dan from the right seat trying to keep the left engine running with shots of boost, leaning then enriching the sliding mixture control knob and, and pumping the throttle.
Then engine number two catches with a roar for about two seconds. Then joins itís left side mate in belching, backfiring, roaring and then dying in a repetitive cycle. At least number two had a rhythm. ROOOAR....... BLAM!......... coughCOUGH..... SILENCE........ ROOOOAR...... BLAM!....... coughCOUGH......... SILENCE.........ETC. The number one engine meanwhile has no such program. It roars for a few seconds then maybe it quits altogether or not. Maybe it backfires. Then it roars happily for a whole ten seconds before backfiring three or five times in a row.
Manifold pressure gauges, fuel flow and RPM needles are in constant motion swinging wildly about their instrumental arcs. Hey, at least you know they are working, right? The needles are matched by the four arms frantically flailing about the small cockpit from lever to lever to high boost pump to magneto switches. Dan and Cedrick look like two competing conductors on the same podium trying to direct an orchestra composed of kazoos, moonshine jugs and a guy with only one cymbal and a ball peen hammer, to play Handelís Messiah.
Finally, after about three minutes of this barely harnessed pandemonium, just as both seem ready to give it up and shut Ďem down the two engines begin to smooth out, the wild swings of the engines gauges start to dampen, and over the next two minutes are reduced to just an occasional every fifteen or twenty second minor hiccup from one side or the other.
Hi. Iím From the F.A.A.
I had decided to have her "mount up" on my side and crawl across as opposed to using the right side door so that I would be near both the parking brake and the ignition key should she accidentally hit the throttle. I knew from her size no matter which side she entered she was going to need some form of assistance from me. Well. HELL!
Things just didnít go that well. With me and her both in the 185's doorway, the left door was straining at itís limits. She couldnít it seemed get upward beyond the boarding step onto either the floor with her knee or preferably my seat. Considering Iím standing on the ground yet, she is frequently falling against me with various parts of her anatomy. Now, up to this point I have tried to be respectful (sheís my elder) and gentlemanly as well. But it has become quickly apparent to me that, short of a very small front end loader or forklift, I am going to have to take more....er...drastic and somewhat unpleasant measures here!
As Sadie dismounts the step for the third or maybe the fourth time I tell her. "Okay Sadie...when you get up on that step this time, I want you to reach inside and grab that black pole in the window and use it to help pull you up and I will....well girl....Iím gonna give you a little BOOST from BEHIND Okay!?" And laughing it off as nothing she says "Roger ! Roger!í and prepares to mount the step again. I holler "Wait! Let me get ready first!" I press myself facing forward against the inside of the door with my right shoulder down low. I reach out and grab the throttle with my right hand and raise my left arm up over my head to get a firm grip on the parking brake handle.
Having assumed THIS comfortable position I holler at Sadie "Okay!! Get On!" and as before she struggles mightily to heft her bulk up offaí the step and onto my chair. When upward progress ceases, well...thatís my cue to do my part. Wedging my right shoulder under her.... posterior I begin a maneuver or exercise which, looking back, I wish someone couldíve taken a vidoetape of. There was no "Americaís Funniest Home Vidoes" back in those days, but if there was, Iím sure this wouldíve rated highly. Much as I had muscled loads of hod and bricks in high school for a brick-layer friend of mine, I now tried to MUSCLE Miss Sadie into the airplane without hurting myself or the airplane.
She was grunting I was groaning. She was twisting I was turning. She was laughing...I was NOT. Her sister was pulling and I was pushing and there was small but NOTICEABLE progress until...
The Jeremy Newton GCA
Now Selawik at about 62 or 63 NM on the oh....zero eight-seven degree radial if memory serves, was just about one of the TOUGHEST places to find in a daytime whiteout before the dawn of a reliable and steady VOR signal, much less the help of DME, which appeared by the mid-seventies. And while both were of course limited to "line-of-sight" use they sure made it easy to refine a pretty good "guesstimate" of when you would be overhead the small village. Selawik village lay athwart two channels of the Selawik river in what you could I guess refer to as three "subdivisions". The river split in two just north of the village and rejoined just south. And of course, as you know from following the "Chronicles", following rivers to villages was always one of our favorite navigation methods.
Unfortunately in this case, the few miles between the riverís mouth at the northeast corner of Selawik Lake, and the point just north of town were essentially useless. Unlike the Buckland and Kobuk rivers, the Selawik River offered little to no contrast with itís surroundings. Also itís (relative) extreme narrowness and more than 120 degree course twists, when combined with the real lack of differentiating terrain and an essentially flat-as-a-pancake ground run, made trying to follow it to difficult if not downright disorienting.
Hence, if you were lucky enough to find the mouth of the river at the northeast corner of the lake, a general heading flown for four to seven minutes, depending on the strength of the easterly wind you were flying into, would usually put you within a couple of miles of the village. But hey. This is one village where I know I was not the only guy to "lose" the village ("airport" and all) after having actually entered a downwind leg with the runway barely in sight.
But night COULD make it slightly easier to find the village, assuming the town generator was working. Once you found it though, night landings on the 40 to 50 foot wide 3200 foot unlighted dirt strip were generally made across the top of town. Usually there was no relaxing until the airspeed indicator was back down to zero on the ground. Fortunately for the pilots of the pre-DME days Selawik had something no other arctic village I ever knew of had. A one-man human "Ground Approach Controller" named Jeremy Newton. And it was nights just like this that earned Jeremy his reputation.
What Could POSSIBLY Go Wrong?
Seated on the right side just aft of the wings I clearly hear the "thunk" of the heavy plug type aft cargo door when the ramper pulls it off itís uplock and it falls snugly into position for locking. The vibration transmitted through the airframe to the soles of my boots has barely been felt when I hear the much quieter sounds of the internal mechanisms controlling the locking pins. They move into position as the handle is rotated with a muffled mechanical sound. Then there is the final "tink" as the spring loaded external access handle is retracted flush with the outer skin.
Instantly from the left side I hear the Pratt & Whitney JT8-D winding up. Less than a minute later, and much louder, the deep whine starts outside our window. It takes but a few brief seconds to accelerate the turbine wheels. I visualize in my mind the Captainís pointer finger hooked under the fuel control lever sitting at idle/cutoff. The magic number comes up on the N1 and N2 gauges and a quick upward motion by that one finger frees the fuel to flow to the combustion chamber where two huge spark plugs are doiní what theyíre made for. This is immediately confirmed by the resounding "THUD" of what initially is a minor explosion that grows into a spreading rage of combustion and fire. Along with the climbing musical whining tone of the engine accelerating, the combustion peaks and settles to a steady fiery stream. The aft end of the engine now pouring out hot air and noise.
A quick after start and taxi checklist are accomplished and, what with the terminal being at the departure end of the runway, we are poised just short of the runway in another two minutes. We await the landing of one of the local "bush" planes before we claim the asphalt for our takeoff roll. Ninety seconds later, having taxied practically off the damn west end of the runway to complete our turn to the east and still use every inch of runway, we sit astraddle the centerline motionless momentarily. The engines are accelerated to about 20 % thrust and allowed to stabilize before being shoved to max power for takeoff.
In the cabin the thunder from the turbojetís exhaust, no more than 15 feet from where I sit, is deafening. The vibration caused by the niagra of thrust pouring forth from the exhausts of the now SCREAMING two turbojets travels all through the airframe. It goes through the floor to the seat frames, and from there through the seats and into your butt until your inner organs can FEEL vibrations! The pavement rushes by faster and faster as I (with no jet experience) try to guess the moment of rotation. Once again I miss by at least four seconds (early).
The east end of the runway sweeps by a good six hundred feet below us as the gear "clunks" itís way into the wells, barely audible over the continued din which is now complimented by some of the inner passenger window panels vibrating in rhythm with the airframe. And then suddenly, as always, the nose pitches down somewhat and the roar of the engines lessens slightly. In a couple of decades I would come to know this as "acceleration height". And as we accelerate to a faster climb speed it again gets somewhat quieter as it now becomes harder for all the noise to "keep up with the plane". My senses are alive. I am excited! This calls for a celebration! I need a drink! Now, where is that flight attendant call button?
Chains and Padlocks
An hour after their full tanks of fuel would have run dry, Al and I climbed into my Islander with itís full tanks and launched for Pt. Hope. We were concerned, but not too worried. Worst case, he mustíve had to set down on a frozen lagoon along the shore somewhere. It was relatively warm, about 30 or so and no wind.
We climbed to an altitude of eighty-five hundred feet. From this altitude we could both see farther and be heard farther away when transmitting on our radios. Equally important, we could hear incoming calls from a greater distance too. We flew all the way to Pt. Hope, eyes peeled for signal fires or flares. We constantly broadcast on a half dozen frequencies one after the other.
Over and over again we repeated Russís call sign over the radios until twenty miles from the village. Then I dropped the plane like an anvil. We went back and forth across the top of Point Hope two or three times. I jammed the propellor controls full forward to make both engines howl their loudest cry. I tore across town barely missing the structures ripping the shingles off the houses. I wanted to talk to the whole damn village!
Yes, I was told by many. They were there and at the appropriate time as well. Googy had stayed in the slightly warmer confines of the planeís small cockpit. More than one person reported it appeared she had fallen asleep in the right front seat before Russ and the Wien agent were even done unloading. No one noticed anything strange on the departure either. All said they had taken off and headed out like normal toward Kotzebue. "Okay" I said and continued, "Get somebody, or a group of people to standby the HF radio to the hospital until I you are told otherwise. All night if we need to, and listen to KOTZ for messages." I thanked them and told Nick, the Wien agent that we were going to fly back to town practically on the surface, just in case.
Al, Googyís brother and my best friend maybe in the world, the brother I never had, now rode besides me in anxious silence. I tried to get him to fly for a while. He was the only non-pilot I knew that I would ever trust as much. He learned from his Dad mostly and actually enjoyed flying. He just never wanted to be a professional, surprisingly to me. But he flew well nonetheless. Yet that night, for the first time ever with me, he declined the controls when I offered. His attention was riveted outside. He knew we needed both sets of eyeballs looking. And he also knew that I donít need to look at what Iím doing hardly at all to fly this thing.
We tore along the beach no more than three hundred feet in the air until we reached Cape Thompson where I dropped to 150 feet. Flipping on the landing lights, I transitioned to a sixty-five knot slow flight configuration as we crept around the base of the steep and jagged cliffs. Normally the air was violently turbulent at the bottom of the seven hundred foot cliffs. That night it was eerily placid, almost calm. A very rare occurrence.
Superheros Only Live in Comic Books
But now neither Frank nor I laugh as we peer through the oh-so-slightly tinted plexiglass forward that makes up our windshield. Frank is in the right front seat for at least two reasons. The first is that he is one of the heaviest (body weight) appearing passengers, and when you have to fill a Cessna 206 or 207 you always put the heaviest person in the right front seat . Also Frank is at least a private licensed pilot and wants to sit there. Lastly should by some cosmic quirk of fate something happen to me, it is only most logical that the only other among the seven of us that is capable of landing the machine be in a position to do so.
Throughout the last dozen or so hours spent together at the controls of the big Cessna, not once has Frank asked a stupid question. What few he has asked have been all intelligent. Most generally they were about operating procedures or the limitations and capabilities of the aircraft. Truly a nice man and very enjoyable flying companion, customer or otherwise. I can see almost all the way around the bend where the cliffs alongside again continue ahead to fall into the sea at Cape York.
Swinging out slightly over the water we look ahead and can see halfway to Brevig Mission at least. It appears much darker which I attribute to the fact that the still half-hour earlier risen sun is not yet high enough and has yet to begin shedding itís rays on the south sides of these western most hills. With the extra few dozen feet "breathing room" between me and the hills alongside I turn to exchange commentary with Frank for a couple of moments, no longer.
Swiveling my head back forward I am instantly astonished! BAM! Itís raining! Freezing rain! Jesus GodaíMighty! Where did this come from. I didnít turn my head away for more than five, maybe ten seconds at the most! My altitude remains an unwavering 800 feet but the world around me is rapidly disappearing as my windshield has in just a few seconds iced over completely. To my left side the just seconds ago clearly visible hills whizzing by a few hundred feet away are slipping from view as a mist enshrouds us. I reach down and forward with my right arm and, grabbing a handful of elevator wheel roll it forward sending the plane from level flight to instantly plunging down at 1000 feet per minute, eliciting startled and surprised gasps from all on board.
I haul back on the yoke and reverse the elevator trim wheel only moments later having dove the airplane straight ahead to five hundred feet on the altimeter, knowing from my last glance good view forward less than a minute ago that there is nothing ahead to hit.
At 500 feet the situation is unchanged. My directly forward view is now nil and only by pressing the left side of my head against my side window can I see at all forward. And to the sides the view is improved not one whit? Can I make anything out at all? Is that the rocks meeting the water and ice flows two hundred yards to my left or not? I canít be sure. And I know that the rocks extend slightly further south ahead. I must turn away! I bank right, staying level at 500 feet until Iíve changed course 25 degrees away from dry land and now fly east-southeasterly out over the broken ice and water.
My brain has slammed from "idle" into overdrive. Damn hills. Had this happened at a decent long FLAT stretch of coastline I wouldíve simply had to continue the turn until I had rolled 210 degrees right from my original heading. I could then re-intercept the beach at any altitude, even a HUNDRED feet with only vertical or side visibility. As it slides beneath you, itís a quick hard left thirty degree turn and you follow the beach back out of whatever you have gotten yourself into. Done it a dozen times or more. But that plan is NOT going to work here. Not now. And we fly further from dry land and the freezing rain continues to pelt the airframe. In under only a couple of minutes the leading edge is already carrying what has to be almost an 1/8 inch of ice.
Mary Mother of GOD! I am now actually frightened. Sleds do NOT carry ice, nor are they meant to. But Iím gonnaí pack some no matter what it appears. UP! I decide. I quickly crank the prop control full forward while easing back on the yoke and the world simultaneously disappears on all sides as I shove the throttle full forward and open the cowl flaps. No! Screw the cowl flaps! Itís 30 degrees out and I donít need the extra drag right now.
That Sparkle in His Eye
I lie, as I have been every night for the past three months, on an old three cushion sofa. It is set back against the opposite wall from the desk and window, among the half dozen or so sparse furnishings, not counting the oil stove, that cram the one room cabinís interior. The couch may have seen better days. But if it did, it was a long time ago as evidenced by the half dozen or more places on the back cushion and armrests where the once-rich brocade has worn through. If the wound is small, the stuffing sticks through; if itís a large wound it is patched with 100-mile-an-hour tape, known to mere mortals (i.e. non-pilots) as grey duct tape
Since I stand (or stretch out) six foot two inches tall and the couchís three seat cushions measure just under five feet, six inches in combined width, I have lately become quite used to sleeping in only one position. Not wishing to inhale the mixed scents of airplane oil, decades of soaked in sweat, and Lord only knows how many gaseous assaults, I sleep on my right side with my back against the couchís back. My legs are half-folded inside my sleeping bag to me the comfort of laying my head flat within the confines of the two armrests.
I have an extra hour to sleep as it is Sunday, and set the alarm for eight oíclock. There is no reason whatsoever to even contemplate doing anything before then. The Fort is a village. A big village, but a village none the less. It is November and it is 11 degrees below zero outside I will soon find out. Nothing, and I mean nothing is going on in Fort Yukon on a cold Sunday morning in November before 8 a.m., and most likely, not much after 8 a.m. either.
I am a creature of habit. I stayed up a half hour later than I normally do writing a letter to my parents telling them about my latest new job and life in "the Fort" as we non-locals call it. But having achieved the eight-hour sleep mark plus a little extra my internal body-clock, sensing an approaching bladder overpressure situation, has sent the signal to my idling-in-slumber brain to come back online.
My eyelids flutter once, then again, before opening the third time for good. I focus on the laser-edged shaft of bright yellow-white light passing through the curtains. From a street lamp mounted 30 feet up a wooden pole and a good twenty-five yards down the street; the soft circular warm appearing glow of luminance outside, becomes inside this dark room an almost diamond shaped laser-edged beam no more than four inches around. It slants down and left from the top of the curtains to terminate in a puddle of light I canít see on top of the huge four drawer metal filing cabinet against the south east wall.
One other tiny source of light fights the inky darkness of the cabinís interior.
My eyes fall upon the coffee table where my clock radio sits. It is the one possession that I never seem to lose, no matter how many times I move. Iíve dropped it, packed it poorly and someone sat on the damn thing one time, yet here it is, still keeping perfect time. The inch-and-a-half white numbers read 758. Two minutes Ďtil my alarm goes off. Even as I watch the "58" changes to "59" in less than in less than another blink of an awakening eye.
In the deafening silence of the little cabin even the small double click noises of the tiny plastic "cards" flipping over within the clock pierce my semi-conciseness. And a half second after hearing that tiny noise a much louder sound, though still at a comfortable level, resonates throughout the tiny cabin. The radio now projects the transmission of the only AM radio station heard throughout much of the interior.
The announcer is beginning with "Good BLESSED Sunday morning, the day of Our Father, to all." And as he continues I now begin the self-extraction process from my Eddie Bauer sleeping bag. Almost fully awake now I realize I can no longer ignore the bladder overpressure warnings. The voice pours like warm honey from the little radioís speaker into the darkness as the announcer continues.
"THIS is radio station KJNP broadcasting for the Glory of the Lord from North Pole Alaska. Today is Sunday November 8th 1981. Turning first to state and local newsÖÖ."
The stationís call letters stand for King Jesus North Pole, I have been told, and it is a church owned and operated station I assume. The announcerís words "Glory of the Lord" reactivate my twelve-year-long Catholic School sin-and-go-hell-forever indoctrination, thus sending my brain into an guilt ridden review of my life since leaving Texas and making Alaska my new home eight years earlier
As I sat there struggling to slip felt boot liners over my stockinged feet in preparation to go take a morning whizz, the words "Glory of the Lord" bounce around my brain like a cue ball in a pool table. I drink too much. I gamble too much. I LUST way too much, all the time. In fact, I smoke to. I havenít even seen a priest, much less been to confession, Mass or Holy Communion in longer than I can remember. And when was the last time I even said a prayer?
Then the announcerís next words cut blow away the mental pandemonium in an instant.
"In Nome, it is expected that the search for a missing Munz Northern Airlines flight will intensify today."
My feet hit the floor, and I sit frozen in position on the couch staring at the numbers on the clock but seeing in my mind instead a clear vision, if only for a moment, of Munzís Nome A-Frame headquarters offices and attached hangar. And now I am again focused intently on the white numbers as they kick over to 801 and the announcer continues.
"Details are few in coming at this point, but it is known that the Aero Commander aircraft departed Nome shortly after noon yesterday with only the pilot aboard headed for St. Lawrence Island. Weather, both in Nome and on St. Lawrence island yesterday, combined with early darkness, have thus far allowed for only limited search flights. The Civil Air Patrol and local searchers hope to be joined today by four-engine Lockheed Hercules aircraft out of Anchorage. The assistance of both the Coast Guard and Elmendorf based Air Force Rescue units is especially valuable, as the missing aircraftís planned flight routing traverses over 130 nautical miles of cold Bering Straights waters. Elsewhere in the state, theÖÖ"
And then I heard no more.
Catch a Falling Star
November One Echo Hotel was transmitting something about having difficulty with his nav radios. He was asking for a DF (direction finder) bearing from Nome.
For the next five or six minutes or so, until I was passing abeam Elam, I listened as Martin talked with the specialist on duty at Nome. The FSS specialist at Nome Radio was asking routine questions that Martin seemed to be having a hard time answering. Martin seemed not to be positive about his altitude, once reporting to be at forty-five hundred feet, and then a minute later, when asked to confirm his altitude again he reported his altitude as fifty-five hundred feet. This both baffled and disturbed the specialist on duty for Martin had reported taking off from Sishmaref about a half an hour earlier.
Yet the receiver indicator lights at the Flight Service station panel showed that Martinís radio signals were being received through the Nome based antennae system. The only problem with that was, a half hour out of Shismaref is NOT going to get you within line-of-sight radio communication in a Cessna 206. Due to the Sawtooth Mountains to the immediate north of Nome, almost encroaching upon the north boundary of the airport; one would have to be much higher than forty, or even fifty-five hundred feet to talk directly to Nome FSS only a half hour out of Shish.
I began a slow climb out of fifty-five hundred feet while continuing directly toward the Moses Point VOR. It was my intent to get an accurate and current ceiling (cloud base) over the navaid and relay it to Nome. I thought at the time, "With the weather obviously deteriorating from the southwest, if the weather beats Martin to Golovin, he may have to retreat further east and come visit us in Unalakleet." I felt sure that would be his most likely choice. My climb was short-lived as I entered the base of the overcast at sixty-two hundred feet just a couple of miles west of the Moses Point VOR.
The conversation between Martin and Nome radio was occasionally blocked by another transmission with a resulting squeal in my headphones. And to my further surprise I caught snippets of what I thought was Kotzebue Flight Service radio, far, far to the north, calling Martin in 1EH as well. Breaking the squelch indeed did reveal that, 37 miles above the arctic circle, far from where Martin was estimating his position to be, Kotzebue Radio was also receiving him clearly and would try to help if they could. This only added to my confusion.
I was at fifty-five hundred feet over Moses Point and had to break squelch to hear either Kotzebue or Nome radio directly. Yet One Echo Hotel was receiving to both at the same time clearly. How could this be?
When there was a break on the frequency I called Nome radio over the remote outlet at Unalakleet. I apologized for interrupting, but wanted to give them the Golovin and latest Moses Point weather. I also reported being able to see the lights of Shaktoolik and Unalakleet already (if it helped). I ended by saying that I would stay in the Moses Point area for a few more minutes and report any changes and standby to assist on this frequency if needed.
I switched back over to 122.2 and tried to wait for a break in the transmissions so I could call Martin directly and give him the weather, but I neednít worry. The Nome specialist relayed it to Martin and encouraged him to head for Moses Point in the next transmission. Martinís response was to again repeat that he didnít want to go to Moses Point and needed a heading to Golovin. His tone at times seemed to border on belligerent. It made no sense. We werenít far from civil twilight now.
I missed the plane. I know I was supposed to be on it. I donít know how I missed it. Many of my good friends were aboard. Counting the heroes in the cockpit there were twenty people on board, leaving one empty seat for me.
They taxied out without talking to ground control and I ran after them. I pursued them on foot, running behind the plane into the twin whirlwinds of dust churned forth by the huge Hartzell three-bladed props, that pulled the 60-year-old DC-3 forward. Uselessly I hollered into the wind "Hey! You guys want me to get you a taxi clearance?"
I caught up with them when they pulled into the runup pad. Standing perilously close to the spinning propellor as the crew ran up the engines, I hopped up and down trying to attract their attention. Still unable to see me apparently, they continued their pre-flight engine checks. The miniature tornado directly beneath and created by the rapidly spinning propellor tips threw numerous tiny pebbles outward in all directions. I felt the occasional intense and sharp sting as small stones struck my legs, torso, and windmilling arms.
And then, in the next instant, I was watching the old Gooney Bird make her takeoff roll from a distance. Itís two Wright radial engines roared and snarled, as the propellers chewed into the dry desert air and shoved it backward, racing the old girl forward. I slowly turned my body and followed it as it thundered past my position. The tail slowly rose as the necessary amount of lift built beneath the wings to launch the mechanical beast into flight.
I was distraught. All my friends were taking a trip somewhere without me. Had they not seen my seat was empty? As the plane lifted slowly skyward, and the wheels began to retract, all faded to black for a moment.
And then, still on the ground, I saw the plane flying into my view from the left. The engines droned at cruise power. Having circled the field to gain altitude, they were now passing overhead at about two thousand feet. They flew down the length of the runway again, apparently to reset their directional gyros before taking up their course to....where were they going?
As they passed almost overhead I started to turn away.
The Baron and The Bootlegger
I decide it would be cool to do a (semi) "formation" takeoff. So as Tim turns left to line up on the centerline, I swing wider to the right and center my wingspan in the right half of the runway. I planned to allow the 185 to get a good 100 or so feet ahead of me during the takeoff, not wishing to either crowd him, nor scare the passengers or myself! Once again the superior performance of the 185 made that a totally moot point.
As the sound of Tim's engine going to full power registered, the 185 was already leaping away from me at an accelerating pace. I shoved the throttle forward on my 207 and watched in disgust and envy as the 185 continued to pull ahead, albeit at a slower pace. Only a couple of moments later I watched the tail of the 185 rise slowly from the asphalt, now at least 150 feet ahead of me if not more. I was passing all of about 55 knots.
A few seconds later the 185 was lifting gracefully into the air and more than 200 feet ahead as I waited patiently to get 70 knots on my airspeed indicator so I could see if I could interest MY machine into exploring the realm of flight. About five centerline stripes and twelve seconds past the 185's liftoff point my sled parted company with Mother Earth, having finally attained a speed sufficient for the generated amount of lift to overcome the slightly overgrossed weight of the airsheen. By that time Tim had the 185's nose diverging from the runway heading to Kiana's 062 degree course and was passing 300 feet at the far end of the runway. JEEZ I hate SLEDS!
Having finally convincing my comparatively unenthusiastic white and orange and cream striped Cessna that it really DID belong in the air, I climbed to my normal 12 to14 foot flap retract altitude. And with the indicated airspeed now passing 82 knots, I reached over to the right lower part of the instrument panel and slapped the tan plastic airfoil shaped electric flap selector lever to the uppermost position. Immediately my right hand dropped to the center pedestal mounted elevator trim wheel for a couple of quick nose up half spins, as the airplane tried to sink slightly from the loss of the additional lift provides by the flaps in takeoff position.
A gentle pull aftward combined with a slight downward pressure on the right hand side of the yoke has me immediately climbing out of ground effect and away from any possible small wake turbulence the 185 may have left behind. I clear the bluff on the southeast side of the lagoon by a good 150 feet climbing at all of 500 feet per minute indicating ninety knots. Minutes after Tim has announced his departure I finally get a hand free to grab my Telex and mash down on the ridged black button in the center of the microphone. "Kotzebue radio, Cessna 1712Uniform copied all and we're airborne. Time check please."
Five minutes later I crossed Riley Wreck, all of twelve miles from home, struggling through 2500 feet MSL intending to climb to 3500 feet. My rate of climb was down to 400 FPM. Of course, about then I found Tim on one twenty-two point nine and he cheerfully reported he was cruising in the cool air at fifty-five hundred feet already halfway across Kobuk Lake. Dirtbag.
Tim and I yakked back and forth for the next ten minutes. Having finally staggered up to 3500 feet MSL I lowered the nose and let the speed build before pulling back the power to our normal "23 squared" cruise power settings. I then reach down to close the cowl flaps hoping for another two or three knots on the airspeed indicator. When the airspeed settles at 122 indicated I lean forward and look up and to my left for the air vent mounted O.A.T. indicator. I then fiddle with the liddle whozi-whatits black plastic rotating ring mounted on the face of the airspeed indicator. Moving the ring 'til the correct numbers line up gives me a true airspeed of....one hundred twenty-seven knots! Boy we're really PEELIN' the paint offa' this baby ain't we?
Catch Us If You Can
Like most charter outfits, we also had "rampers" who had been hired as business boomed to help us with the fueling and loading, enabling quicker turnaround times during busy periods. Of course being pilots, anything that reduced the amount of actual labor involved in our jobs was well received. So we were quite grateful as charter work increased in the pipeline era days to have these additional warm bodies on the property to help us do the grunt work. Hence, the inbound radio call was also to serve notice that said "ramp boy" should be handy to assist us in unloading and moving our passengers happily along their way.
Meanwhile, the FED's face purely lit up at the sound of the incoming radio call, as he recognized Little D's voice right away. And while I knew Timmy had previous opportunities to interact with the Gohdeen's village-based DebonAire operation before, he was aware that Little Dean was still brand new to our operation, and thus a juicy target for a surprise ramp check. Not to mention a fully loaded aircraft offered numerous violation possibilities not available when catching an empty aircraft. Is he over gross weight limits? Are any of the passengers obviously intoxicated? (Not exactly a rare occurrence…) Are there missing Emergency Information cards in the seat pockets? Oh, they had a wonderfully long list of "gotchas" they loved to nail us with.
So Timmy reached for his handy pocket notebook and ball point pen which he placed on the deep window ledge facing the airport. He eyeballed the eastern portion of the ramp whilst continuing to carry on an innocuous conversation about the weather and the ongoing local commercial salmon fishery. To Velma and me though, he appeared every bit as dangerous as a stealthy cheetah, lying in wait in the tall grass, for the baby of the eland herd to pounce on.
Now to further appreciate this story, you should know a few extra details. The first of which is that at the time, we had about five airplanes in our fleet which we parked in a wingtip-to-wingtip row abreast each other. And currently the closest airplane (a Cessna 207) sat with it's wingtip no more than 10 to 12 feet from the rampside wall of our office that featured the large window from which Mr. Timmerson gazed awaiting his next "victim". Immediately beyond that airplane was the closest empty parking slot, followed by my mount for the day, a Cessna 206. The last two spots were unoccupied as Dirk and Bounce were out generating revenue as well.
Also being the young, studly, and therefore extra "cool" pilots that we were, we had to arrive with STYLE.
As I've recounted elsewhere in the Chronicles, it was almost universal common practice in those days, when pulling into a village parking lot anywhere, to coast your airsheen to a stop with the engine shut down. Thus, the propeller would be either slowing to a stop or fully motionless. This was done in an effort to eliminate any danger to the young children of the village who almost always competed to be the first to touch the airplane as it came to rest. Of such simple pleasures are a child's day comprised in rural Alaska.
Of course that danger was all but non-existent at our home base in Kotzebue. But the same arrival procedure was often employed by each of us in the all-important effort to not only appear "cool"; but as a self-test and competition amongst ourselves to see if we could exactly to the inch, hit our assigned parking slot, with our aircraft perfectly aligned and spaced between two of our sister ships. The greater the distance from your assigned space you were when whacking the mixture knob, the more of a challenge it was to use your momentum and inertia to properly execute the maneuver.
So it was that in today's afternoon matinee, the following things occurred in the space of just a couple of minutes.
Mr. FED sees Little D's approaching Cessna 207, just as it is turning off the paved taxiway and onto the (then) gravel ramp area. I notice his face brightens perceptibly when he does and I swear he cracked a slight smile and I head him whisper "Oh GOODIE!" under his breath. Then grabbing his notebook and pen off the window ledge, he turned and proceeded to exit the building using the south facing door through which one directly accessed the ramp and our flightline area.
Fearing the worst, I leapt offa' my stool behind the counter and immediately replaced Timmy's face in the window with my own. The source of his barely restrained glee was then immediately apparent to me, and an uncontrollable "Oooooh SHIT!" erupted from my lips. This prompted Velma to arise from her desk and join me at the window, where she too uttered an epithet. For Little D's tail feathers were riding lo-o-o-w to the ground, which as any Sled (Cessna 207) driver knows, means he is loaded to the max!. And probably overloaded to boot!
"Oooooh dear. This is not gonna' be pretty" I remember thinking to myself....
What's Good For The Goose....
As I descended slowly back down toward 4,500 feet I noted that the area to the north was getting much darker north of Kiana. As I was processing this information mentally, I dialed up 122.2 in preparation for transmitting a PIREP to Kotzebue flight service. And no sooner had the last rotary frequency selector knob click into place than I head Morey's voice blasting into my David Clarks mid-sentence.
"…souls on board and four-and-a-half hours on the fuel." It was Thursday afternoon and Morey and Lefty and their co-worker, having made the Administrator proud, were now aiming their Cessna steed eastward, bound for Fairbanks. As soon as they had received confirmation that their flight plan was activated, I broke in and called out "Hey Morey. Come up on twenty-two nine for a minute."
In just seconds, Morey's voice came blasting back at me through the earphones of my David Clarks. "Hey CloudDancer. What's up this afternoon and where are you?"
I answered, informing him that I was just coming abeam the west end of the Waring Mountains on the south side inbound from Selawik, and added "things ain't looking so good out east for you guys it appears." This I followed with a quick but thorough recap of my eyeball weather observations over the last thirty minutes or so.
In a not completely unexpected response, Morey came back saying they had just received a thorough briefing in person at the Flight Service Station before climbing into their Stationair and roaring aloft. He stated, as I had already been told myself, that the "forecast was VFR... etcetra, etcetra..." To which I replied "Well Morey, that may be so, and that's what they told me too. But this stuff is coming down out of the NORTH and it sure as heck ain't looking good from here.
Obviously we're gonna' get hammered and you'll be seeing it out your window as soon as you gain a little more altitude and get a little further east."
Morey than asked me to repeat what I had seen myself in the last 30 minutes and by the time I was done, he acknowledged he could now seeing the approaching menace from the north himself.
I encouraged him to consider returning to Kotzebue to enjoy the local hospitality for another evening. He answered with a curt "Standby CloudDancer."
After more than a minute passing with only the monotonous dull roar of the IO-520 growling under the cowling a few feet ahead of my seat to keep me company, Morey's voice magically leapt across the intervening now 30 or so miles between our two ships. "Hey Cloudy. I had you on speaker, and we've been talking it over here...and...uh…we decided we're going to go ahead and give it a look-see on the north side of the hills here (the Warings) so we've got the (Kobuk) river for a good backup."
Now approaching the halfway point on my westbound journey to Kotzebue from Selawik, I could see around the farthest-most western hill of the Warings, which separate Kiana and Selawik. From this particular geographic position, I would normally have a clear view all the way to Kiana in decent weather. Instead, not only could I no longer see much beyond Noorvik to the northeast over my right shoulder, but I again found myself sliding intermittently into and out of the ever lowering cloud bases. And ahead of me, visibility was just starting to drop, as the first snowflakes now began to fall gently from above.
I gave it one last shot. "Yeah Morey. Well...ya'll are big boys and I'm pretty sure you must be smarter than me...bein' FEDs and all. So you go ahead, an' I hope you have a safe trip home. Be careful out there, and we'll see ya' next trip out." And a cherry response of "Okay CloudDancer. Thanks for the heads up and we'll watch it!" came promptly in return. Thus having made my best efforts at preventing them from becoming a search-and-rescue statistic, (at least in my mind) I switched my radio back over to 122.2 and contacted Flight Service to both report my latest weather observations as well as get Kotzebue's latest weather.
It Was Okay I Guess
My destination was a small "x" marked on the well-worn, four-year-old Fairbanks sectional chart that I had just extracted from the glove box in the 185's cockpit, as I sat in the on the ramp with the engine idling, awaiting the skinny white needle in the cylinder head temperature gauge to come off it's left peg. I'd never been to this particular "x" before, but had received a thorough long-distance briefing from my boss over the phone. I had arrived at our log cabin office earlier to find a note stapled to today's scheduling book page reminding me to call the Chief Pilot in our Fairbanks headquarters before departing.
As the engine slowly ticked over, spinning the propeller at just a lazy 700 RPM, I unfolded the barely still serviceable map gently. The originally stiff, multi-hued thick paper had now become quite pliable in spite of the cold temperatures inside the plane, which so far had only risen to maybe ten degrees warmer than the ambient 22 (F) degrees outside. The addition warmth at this point was mostly provided by the morning sunshine streaming through the plexiglass windshield of the eastward-facing Cessna workhorse, as the engine had been running less than two minutes and wouldn't really be helping the cabin heat program for a while yet.
Now with a consistency and feel more akin to that of a folded up, well used Bounty paper towel, the sectional came open with ease, which was a good thing. Pulling it open to quickly or unfolding it with force would, no doubt, further speed the deterioration already well evidenced by the several rips in the creases. Many of the creases and folds had holes where, first the colors had faded before going white, as the threadbare paper kept getting thinner and thinner with repeated folding and unfolding, before finally giving way to time and separating altogether.
As I refolded the sectional to show the area east and north of Ft. Yukon encompassing the upper Porcupine River, several of my boss's recent cautionary words echoed again through my mind.
This was my first winter living and flying in the interior of the state. For the last almost nine years, since arriving in Alaska, I had been a West Coast boy. Kotzebue, Nome and Unalakleet had been my stomping grounds up 'til now. For all intent and purposes I had literally learned to fly out there. Of the over eight thousand hours I'd already logged at the age of 28, all but 263 had been in northwest Alaska, and most of that in the upper and lower Kobuk Valley. And only one half of one percent of all that time had ever been in a ski-equipped plane, if THAT much.
But today, as I looked downward out of the window in the left door, in addition to seeing the familiar 8.50 x 6.00 Goodyear multi-ply tire attached to the axle of the 185's leaf-spring steel main landing gear leg, the was a really huge and heavy Fluidyne wheel-ski and all the associated tubes, couplings, nuts and bolts, and springs and bungees necessary to make the thing extend and retract on command. Actually…command is not a good word here. "Command" indicates something such as maybe pushing a button to make things happen. Or maybe glancing through the window, focusing on the big metal slab, and clearly barking the word…"Retract!" and then just sit back and watch as the ski does as it's told.
Nope. Wasn't that easy.
Just to the adjacent and to the right of the long Johnson-bar flap handle, securely bolted to the cockpit floor was the mechanical hardware I used to raise and lower the two heavy wheel-skis as required. A stout, heavy aluminum handle, was the primary component that I interacted with as the operator. The 18 inch or so long handle extended upward from the body of the apparatus, and leaned forward at about a 45 degree angle relative to the cabins floor. It's upper end was encased in a sparkly metallic-red rubberized bicycle style handle grip. In fact, it coulda' come right offa' my old Schwinn.
Firmly grasping said handle, and pumping the upper end of the handle fore and aft virgorously, thus moving your right hand repeatedly back and forth through about a two foot arc, pressurized the hydraulic fluid in one or the other of two hydraulic lines. Which line was pressurized, was then determined by the position of what can best be described as an oversized old-timey rotating magneto selector switch mounted atop the small box bolted to the floor. Turning it 30 degrees right from it's normal, top-dead-center (off) position, sent the pressure to the retraction side of the piston assembly mounted on each ski. And of course, pointing it 30 degrees the other way sent the pressure to the retraction side of the same pistons.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Doesn't really matter now.
Jus' Me and an Ol' Country Boy
The radio banter had occupied the entire time it took me to reach the east end of the runway. I swung 29 Mike around and turned her into the wind, taxying forward slowly until I stopped dead square in the middle of the white painted "26" that indicated the runways heading.
No engine runup was necessary, as I had put this bird to bed just two hours earlier, having flown her all day. But with the very likely potential for having to crawl my way back in on a VOR approach, possibly to well below published minimums, a couple of fine-tuning points were in order.
Once more I set the parking brake. The engine idled slowly. The first rising tendrils of warm air emanating from the floor vent were starting to blunt the damp chill in the cabin. I reached up and grabbed the stub pencil wedged between the cloth headliner and the plastic molding around the wingroot-mounted slide-in-and-out fresh air vent. Setting it down on the seat beside me, I licked my right thumb covering it with spittle. Reaching forward, I rubbed the wet digit in a circle on the plastic face of the instrument panel trim, thus obliterating a few small tiny pencil marks that had already been scribbled there.
Well…more like smudging, rather than obliterating. I made three small circles with my spitty thumb. Now I had a wet and dark three inch tall sort of smudge puddle; which I then "wiped up" using the heel of my right hand before finally disposing of it completely by wiping the heel of my right hand along the leg of my jeans. (What! It's not like my jeans were clean or anything! I'd been wearing 'em for a couple of days and loading drums and stuff! Sheeeesh…)
Tom had given me an altimeter setting of two-niner-seven-six. However, when I set the altimeter to six feet….my instrument read two-niner-seven three. I leaned over to my right and, best as I possibly could given the angle of the dangle; I carefully centered the omni-bearing selector with a "FROM" indication and tried to read the tiny dial and hash marks at the top of the small four inch tall rotary dial. Looked like it was reading 255 degrees from where I sat. So I grabbed the pencil and carefully and clearly printed - .03 in small but legible print, and directly below that I scrawled 255. There! Now I know exactly what numbers I must use to find myself the exact same spot in what should be just over an hour from now.
This was standard procedure for us in those days. For while minimums for the published VOR Runway 26 approach into Kotzebue's Ralph Wien Memorial Airport might be…oh…somewhere around five hundred feet or so, they seldom worked for us. Like as not, you could just be skimming the top of the fog at legal "minimums", your real approach work not having even begun yet. And the runway is wide. But it ain't all that wide when you are approaching it from a slight angle at an extremely low altitude. Hence the OBS "correction" number. The printed approach plate may show a final approach course of 252 degrees, but for me, tonight, in this airplane an hour from now, it will be the 255 degree setting that will bring me home.
Final details attended to, I stow the pencil, grab the microphone and announce to no one in particular and the world in general "Cessna Niner-one-two-niner Mike is departing runway two-six.
Click! It goes back in it's holder and my right hand grasps the black-knobbed throttle and I shove it smoothly and steadily forward to the stop. Fifteen seconds later the runway just below, along with the rest of the world outside my aluminum cocoon, has disappeared completely as the altimeter winds up through three hundred feet.
Reflections of an Aging Bush(ed) Pilot
Remembering just in time to switch to 122.9, I announce with a bounce in my voice "Birch Creek traffic…Air Arctic KingAir 7092 Kilo is three north. Gonna' blow across the top of town at two thousand feet" (about 16oo AGL) A steep turn over downtown Birch Creek (pop. 32 last I heard) reveals that they built a new house there since the last time I saw the place in '93. Progress everywhere!
I remain at two thousand feet MSL, heading 187 degrees for Fairbanks on the Chena. The Yukon Flats rises slowly in elevation below me as we approach the White Mountains. Banking this way and that, I search for at least one lone Bullwinkle that I can get a good look at, but they musta' heard my PT-6s a'comin' an' hid in the brush. Finally, just a few feet (rising elevation wise) prior to the twin three-bladed, fully-feathering, reversible pitch Hartzells starting to chew into the tops of the brush, I haul the yoke back with my left hand while jamming the throttles forward stopping well short of the red lines on the torque gauges.
With an empty cabin, I leave the prop RPM set at cruise and our highspeed flat-hatting on the deck cruise momentum, with some help from the added torque, propels us heavenward at almost 2500 feet per minute initially. In just a couple of minutes I level off at sixty-five hundred feet and caress the elevator trim wheel slowly and minutely forward every few seconds as the airspeed increases to a normal cruise. The real pilot (in the right seat) looks at my face and laughs. I think the silly ass grin I wore must've pushed my ears further back on the sides of my head.
As he returned to his paperwork I watched Lime Peak approach and wondered if the two or three wrecks from the old days still littered both the north and south faces. I glanced to my right and followed Birch Creek with my eyes as it headed southwest through the hills. I remembered the hundreds of hours spent (usually) effortlessly plodding along, quite bored at the time; back and forth across these hills in the Bandits. The Pratt & Whitney turbines always humming along flawlessly enroute to the Fort or Venetie or Arctic Village or even all the way to Bitter Barter By the Bay, as I liked to call Barter Island.
And how well, for a moment, from my comfortable vantage point today, could I look down on Beaver Creek and remember the very rare and occasional few hours that seemed like entire lifetimes instead. Time spent crawling along down low, through rather than over and across Birch Creek at night in the dark. The occasions when it was your only possibility to get to town with a critical medevac on board. The memories flooded over me as I sat so far above it now. I flashback to a dark and stormy night twenty-four years earlier. An night when a much younger and ballsier CloudDancer "pushed it" once again, hoping to get a critically injured Ft. Yukoner to much needed medical aid.
One lonely pilot trying not to get scared, down low in the dark and snow in his Cessna 207. Too low for anything but the ADF pointing just about abeam the left wing. It calls to you saying "Hey! Fairbanks is over there! Think you'll make it tonight?"
Couldn't go high when we left the Fort 'cause the icing started at three thousand. So a FYU radial to intercept the snow covered creek sticking out in the darkness like a dimly lit residential street is this patient's only hope tonight. I don't remember too clearly the southwest end of the White Mountains where Birch Creek wraps around the hills to head eastward again. I only remember that I knew it wasn't the way I wanted to go….