The Story of a Private Pilot
The Life of a Private Pilot
In Alaska as a young boy, we had chances to fly because it was a prominent means of transportation. Growing up, dad owned a couple of Piper aircraft. Sure, we went up with him when he asked us to, sometimes just to get us out of the house a few hours while mom was cleaning, or for whatever reason arose. Dads plane was a Piper Colt, and my brother and I were age 7, and 8, respectively. But leaving the Big Delta airstrip, dad had us in the back and we flew down the Delta river, Jarvis Creek passing under us and then Fort Greely Army base; Next was Tango Lakes and then we were out close to Black Rapids training camp alongside of the mountains on the north and the river delta below us. He chose to practice his short field/ emergency landing techniques by landing us on a rutted logging trail, with stumps to the right and left of us, which he could do, considering the craft was high wing and had oversize tires. Nonetheless it took my breath away as we touched down and rolled a few feet, then full power and off and up we went again. A few minutes later he had us up at the lodge and on and small but adequate grassy strip alongside the Richardson Highway. We had a friend, Loyd, who spent the summer there and he had a Briggs powered go- cart that we enjoyed the next hour while the dads were visiting. Later in life I heard stories from old timers that remembered my father flying up the Delta River to Fairbanks, on his way to work everyday while he was working at the Mercedes/Volkswagon dealership there, and he virtually flew to work every day. Due to adverse and of course winter ice fog and other conditions he would have to fly low to the deck and I was told that there were those in Fairbanks such as the US mail haul plane that would wait for dad,” Jimmie H. Jones”, for those that don’t know who I am; When they heard his plane coming up the river they would know that the approx. hundred mile run was passable for flight.. well, that too was a guess, for I’m afraid that Pilots in those days flew “ by the seat of their pants” and would come under cloud cover on a “wing and a prayer” and you don’t dare go back the way you came!.
Another time while we lived in Palmer Alaska and I was only five, Dad flew his other Piper “Colt” down to Soldotna to visit a church elder, Kenneth French and his family. Now he had flown there several times before, and they had a landing field nearby that he had always flown direct to, buzzed the house where these folk lived and after landing was picked up in their Suburban. Well this time was different in that after Buzzing the house, he went ahead to land, not knowing that the landing field had been turned into a plowed field and held great danger for him. I’m sure he came around to final approach, pulled back on the throttle and did a normal touchdown, of course with the wheels being caught in the loose dirt, and grabbing and flipping the aircraft violently. The underlying grace was that somehow my mother as a praying lady had had a word of caution in her spirit and prayed intensely for his safety, not in full knowledge of the situation but knowing he was in danger. So much so, she was in our Landrover and halfway to Soldotna by the time that the incident happened. Of course the good people there had rushed out trying to flag and warn my father not to land. Communications were of the more primitive type in the early 60’s. As a good ending to the story, his life was spared and though the little plane caught on fire upon crash landing, dad got out with only a keep sake very tiny scratch on the back of his right hand. Talk about protective powers and each of us having an angel to keep guard over us! Not to mention a mothers prayers. They left the plane in Soldotna as scrap and returned home to us very relieved kids, being solely watched by older sister Sharon. But losing a dad at that age would have been tragic!
How I Began Flying;
After marrying a wonderful sweet gal in Big Delta in 1980, we soon were to move on to help build the church that now stands at Jerome and Huffman in South Anchorage, and we became helpers in several ministries while there. Early in 1984, Bill and Rena Crumpacker heard that we were seeking to go out and help establish a new outreach and in a nutshell they invited us to pack up and travel with them out to Bristol Bay. It turned out that they had been given a great parcel of property on the NaknekRiver, and wished to start a work, following a dream by Kenneth French, who was a pioneer church planter to Alaska. Well, one of the conditions Bill Crumpacker made for me was to make myself a pilot. So I sought out instructors from Merrill Field and found the Blue Sky Program, who offered me ground school and flight instruction and I was on my way to becoming a bush pilot!. I had another good friend, who was our pastor, J. R. Blackshear, and somehow he got talked into sartign the Blue Sky program as well. We both first trained in tomahawks and Cessna 172’s and he eventually bought himself a Cherokee 140, which he later sold to me; after I was already living with my wife Kem, and 2 year old daughter Naomi, in Naknek Alaska. ( late we had another wonderful daughter and named her Rebecca, making us a compact family of four). I said that because we could then easily fit into the the four-place Cherokee 140 cruiser. One of the early interesting rides we had together as a family was a trip to Kenai, meeting up with Merlin and Debbie Crumpacker and towards the end of a very nice visit, he escorted us with both our planes over to Chiknik Bay, on the west side of Cook Inlet to dig clams. Whereas, we landed, their family and ours, them having a Cessna 182; Merlin and wife Debbie, and son Ryan. I remember we had clam shovels and buckets, and while we loaded up our buckets with clams, big brown bears browsed the edge of the cove, and just as the evening came, we had the most interesting discovery. I had not brought the Cherokee 140 quite high enough on the gravel beach and it being a tricycle landing gear, the nose of the plane had sunk several inches in to the wet surf. We tried several methods to get it up higher so that it would be safe to load up and take off, but without much luck; so as a last resort, Kem had to lean herself over the tail of the plane, counter-balancing the engine weight up on the nose and allowing me to taxi up closer to the shore where there was a stable gravel bed for us to load and go. I hope to find my pictures of this and post them with this story. I’m sure Naomi and Rebecca remember if it was only Ryan or another of the boys with us!. We DID get home safely. It was a beautiful trip across the inlet and stuff that memories are made of! If I may mention I recently saw a picture of Merlin at his work station up in Kapurak, Ak, at the control station for the Alaska Oil pipeline where he is the engineer.
It took me a year to finalize my flight training and receive my pilots license in 1985. I was already living in Naknek and working at the Bristol Bay school district. During my training, Bill and I (he owned a Cessna 182) would make lots of practice landings at King Salmon Airforce base. We would try to fly at altitude 3 ft off the runway for the length of the airfield to gain “ground reference” skills. I was so happy though to receive my Blue Sky Certificate, and zip up my log books and head home to Naknek the last time I had to do the training in far away Anchorage. One exciting solo training flight I remember I was taking off on runway 15. I encountered wind shear and dropping almost five hundred feet and I was suddenly pointed straight at the Sheraton Hotel, which was not acceptable and was I glad to be able to maneuver quickly back to my departure heading, and a little shook up too!. Always be ready for wind shifts and unexpected events; always have an emergency landing in site in the back of your mind!
Owning my own Plane
There was costly maintenance involved with ownership, and I had a few trials trying to keep the Cherokee serviced, repaired and in the air. I had to solve a mystery of the bad battery cable in my plane by myself, as no A&P mechanic I knew and sought help from could find and fix the issue. It left me having to “prop” the plane instead of being able to simply turn the key and it start. I was glad when I got that problem solved, as it was potentially dangerous. Over the course of about six years I would make trips around the Bristol Bay while living in Naknek. One popular place to fly was Dillingham, as it had interesting shops and we had outreach connections to look up while we were landed and we made a day of it usually when we went. Other times I would take the plane the approx 355 air miles to Anchorage or to Kenai for business, meetings, or to purchase and bring back supplies.. with just me on board I could haul about 800 lbs of supplies to help us in subsistence living in Naknek.. After we had lived there awhile it became commonplace to make even a short Saturday trip and be home for Sunday. IN December of 1985 Bill and his wife were killed in an unfortunate accident in LakeClarkPass where they were flying home to meet their family, including missionary son, Jim Crumpacker, / Malawi. So we carried on and due to the children were growing up and other circumstances; I had become an airfield operator at KSAFB and was very busy, I finally let the little plane go, selling it and losing my chance to fly the beautiful skies of southwest Alaska.
While I was a dedicated small plane VFR pilot, I encountered many events that are worth mentioning. For awhile I kept my plane tethered in Naknek close to King Air hanger and their I became familiar with John King, Jay, and their dad, Eddie King , before he passed away. He was very smart and was always innovating the process of delivering both small freight and passengers around Bristol Bay. For several years they actually flew the SouthNaknekHigh School students back and forth across the NaknekRiver each day to attend school. This was known as the only School AIR BUS.
Once I got the notion to hunt from my aircraft and I loaded my gear and it being about 0 degrees Fahrenheit, I left town headed towards Iguagik prepared for the worst cold and landed on a fairly large lake where I spotted herds of caribou. As the rules state you cannot fly and shoot the same day I spent the night on the edge of the lake, and around sun-up, with a ice crystal fog overlaying the lake I managed to shoot 2 “bou” and loaded them up quickly to bring them home for the freezer. They were excellent tasting and eating them later I shivered when I though about that cold night spent out in the tundra lakes of SW Alaska. Did I mention I had to keep starting the plane all night so it wouldn’t freeze up tight and leave me stranded and in distress? A note to would be air-hunters; take sheets of visqueen to wrap the “kill” in. Sharp skinning knives are also a necessity! My tried and true M77 Ruger 30-06 was the rifle of choice.
Another time I had made a trip to Anchorage with Bob, an FAA instructor and flight service attendant. We got caught over Mt.Illiamna in the clouds at 13000 ft. and climbing, and southbound to King Salmon, we were using the Loran to navigate and had a total power failure, losing our radios and navigation equipment. Knowing at least our altitude, we could “dead reckon” and tried to get south and clear of the Alaska range, all the time worried about when we would have to come down. I was looking out the window for any break in the clouds, and felt in my gut we had not gone far enough to descend safely: I kept telling Bob, not yet, not yet!. I kept speaking a prayer for guidance and just as he was about to descend over my protests I saw a small opening and saw the side of a mountain. We would have surely “bought the farm” and “augered in” had not someone above gave us a “hole” to view below: a little later I was able to get enough radio response from King Salmon tower where they identified us on radar and gave us an altitude, heading and point of descent that got us home safe that night, his wife and mine coming out to meet us, having been notified by flight service of our urgent “situation”.
Once flying south and coming out of Lake Clarke pass I ran head on into a lightning and thunderstorm, which are rare in the north land, but coming past NonDalton, down by Newhalen and about to cross lake Illiamna, my plane was being buffeted and hard rain was pelting the fuselage; while I was making a “go” or “no go”decision, knowing there was a runway at Newhalen. At that moment a survey helicopter flew by my right wing and well, set a course westerly around the edge of Lake Illiamna, so I followed his flight path and we broke out of the storm halfway around, with Igiugik in site I knew we were home safe, and headed on home to Naknek flying close by the “No Seeum Lodge”, which was a joke name for a lodge based on the feared Alaska “no- seeums”! ( a type of flying bug which could put a welt on you anyone could see!” Another camp downstream had a sign calling their camp the “WE-Seeum” Camp. Nonetheless, I made it home safely again with a plane full of supplies and surprises for my “gals”.
The Old Days & New Wings
Flying has always been the chosen frontier transportation, getting you somewhere in hours rather than days of wilderness trek, or dogsled, or even sno-machine. Planes have helped us win wars, explore our continent and entire globe, and still it is evolving into new technology, such as the unmanned drone, and U- 2 surveillance, and not to forget spacecraft to “yes” Mars. But the pioneers of yesterday are not to be forgotten. Mine was just a few short years filled with learning, adventure and practical flying.
Before my dad passed away, he had been flying a Cessna 207 out of Fairbanks, delivering supplies to a gold mine by Chandalar, and that was my last flight with my father. Before I start, I am only saying it was the last time to fly together!, not the end of him or myself!.. but after loading the cargo and as we headed north out of Fairbanks, I might note that the forest fires had left a blanket of smoky haze over the TananaRiver, and forty mile country; leaving us diligently seeking landmarks to refer to. We got to the Mine landing strip safely, landing upwards, uphill and he said, “son, hurry out and set that big rock behind the nose wheel!” I did and getting out of the plane I saw why: it was quite a slope back to the end we had touched down on. He said nonchalantly, yep son, the last pilot who flew this run forgot to chock his wheel and his plane had rolled backwards and ended up in a ball at the bottom!”. (I thought; ok??) I wondered how dad did it when he flew by himself. On the way home it got really smoky and we only saw the Tanana river once in a while, with visibility becoming “nil” finally. I did not know honestly what my dad was thinking or what he was planning to do as we weren’t IFR equipped. Thicker and thicker it got. I did NOT want to ask my dad was he crazy to get us into this: So I tacitly said, “Dad? Have you practiced any emergency procedures lately?” Well, he was famous for chewing his gum, and looking forward, seemingly unconcerned, and that was his poise now. A little bit later I suggested, “Dad? I think we are so far south by now we are in the Mt.Mckinley range; you know dad it’s only a few miles south of Fairbanks?” (we had not seen the river or the ground for quite a while at this point, though usually an experienced pilot has a sort of uncanny sense of location built in). “He answered me this time, So son, what do you suggest?” I tried not to act excited, and answered him that I knew a special procedure and this might give me a chance to practice it; so he relinquished the controls over to me and I instituted a radio call to the Fairbanks Tower, and asked to implement a DF steer procedure; that we were inbound (hopefully) and with a heavy smoke cover. So surprisingly, not only were they crisp and clear, they said the entire airport is clear, (I wonder why) , and they had me bank 20 degrees to the left, and acknowledged they had me on radar, and then.. oh my gosh, my heart fell out of my boots, not believing what I was hearing!! Cessna 2029 you are positioned and on a one mile final for runway (I think it was o6 north, I will have to go to my flight supplement to verify.) WE WERE HOME: My dad and I were silent, and I don’t think we ever spoke of that moment in the years following. I know I did say to him, “Dad I can’t believe you had it pegged that close!” and I wondered following this event if I had HIM worried unnecessarily, as overall he had lots more experience and sense of direction and even experience with divine guidance that had brought our family through the years. I do know we got a remark for the tower saying “job well done”; even though I’m sure old bush pilots slid in barely but still making it time and time again. I’m so glad that I had a mentor in my Dad , showing me confidence that you can do things your never dreamed if you set your mind and heart to it!.
Again, flying is the future and electronics, as well as aircraft technology has leap-frogged into the nano-future by leaps and bounds… Airlines are scarce of experienced pilots, Charter lines are always seeking capable navigators to man their fleets and the industry of aeronautics and Aviation safety and navigation aids, has catapulted in the recent years: If you have interest in, or feel you can be a Specialist in Control tower technology, then get yourself involved and begin your education! You are needed!.
This is my story. I reserve the right to add as I can to the stories, because I know I forgot some!
May 24, 2013
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