The Story of a Private Pilot II.
Starting out as a boy, I have both fond and sometimes scary memories of flying in my dad’s airplane. The first memory is of his flying by himself in a Piper Colt from Palmer to Sterling Alaska, to visit friends there who were missionaries. What I remember of this story is that Kenneth French saw my dad buzz the house as usual when visiting, but because the landing field normally used had been bought and plowed for planting, he rushed down the highway in his suburban, and got there just in time to see where my father had landed and flipped the plane over.. It was on fire, but as the only passenger, Dad made it out of the side window safely with only a scratch on his hand. To tell the truth also, my mother had inner forebodings about his trip about an hour before he crashed, and she loaded some safety gear into our Landrover, and began the arduous drive towards Kenai, which is 150 miles below Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. She said prayers for him all the way down, and I have no doubt that it was her prayers that saved him that day!
Living in Delta Junction Alaska during the years of 67 & 68, Dad (Jimmie) would daily fly up the Tanana River to work in the city of Fairbanks, where he was the sales manager of A&B auto sales. On Saturdays just a few times he took us boys south along the Alaska range and into the Granites. Once I remember he was practicing emergency landings with us boys (me & my brother Steve) on board and he sat us down on a rough old logging trail, in the midst of stumps and road ruts. Not a fun landing, neither was it soft! Not to mention we DID get airborne safely and continued our flight to Black Rapids Lodge to visit friend Loyd Hansen, and there we had a blast driving his red go-cart on the grass air-strip near his house by the Richardson Highway.
I was married in 1980, and moving to Anchorage to help JR Blackshear build a church in South Anchorage, we had no idea that with our then one daughter,(Naomi) we would be invited to move to King Salmon, Ak., along with Bill and Rena Crumpacker. During the process, and the planning, he encouraged me to start flight school, and so soon after becoming residents there, I received my VFR pilots license. It so happens that about the same time that JR obtained his Pilot rating, and shortly thereafter he was buying and selling small aircraft, leading to my purchasing a Piper Cherokee 4 place cruiser from him. It quickly became our supply wagon for ferrying us and groceries back and forth to Anchorage and Kenai from this fly in only community where I worked as a maintenance man at the school district, and later worked there as an airport equipment operator, doing everything from airfield maintenance to acting as ARFF firefighter and airport manager on the swing and night shift, as the airport agent on duty. However our original and overall purpose in going from the start was to be assistants in a mission outreach along with our friend’s the Crumpackers. During that time we met and got to know a lot of wonderful people and had another wonderful daughter (Rebecca)to raise as well.
My becoming proficient and gaining confidence as a pilot came slowly. A lot of Saturdays Bill and I would practice long field landings at the King Salmon Airport and sometimes land at other small gravel airstrips.. My early airplane ownership was plagued with an unknown electrical problem, and for all the world no one, mechanics included, could not find out why my plane would not start easily.. I remember being stranded out in Pilots Point once, and after a few attempts to start my engine alone by manually “propping” the starter, finally a good friend and well known airman (Eddie King)came along and assisted me, allowing me to return home without spending the night with the ever present brown bears of that area.. Well, no wonder considering the magnitude of salmon which were available to them along the ocean shore of Bristol Bay.
But before I was to finally find out what the problem was with the plane, I would have more episodes of near disaster. Namely, flying with a F.A.A. flight service friend in the fall of 1995, who also was a IFR instructor, Bob and I were about to return from Anchorage over the mountains in my little aircraft one Saturday, and with clouds lowering as we approached the Alaska range, he made the decision to fly outside of true IFR requirements, and relied only on my Loran, and old king transponder to take us up and over the top.. at 13,000 ft and still climbing, we were pushing to the limits of this single engine aircraft. We believe we were somewhere above and past Mt. Illiamna, and perhaps on down by Pedro Bay when my power went completely utterly out on all instruments and radios. We were flying completely by “seat of the pant’s!” (A term used for such outlandish flying adventure, if you could call it that). All I know by that time is that Bob wanted to descend, and I was certain we were not far enough south to be out of the mountains. I told him WAIT! I sincerely and prayerfully and desperately was looking for a hole in the clouds so that I could see if we were safe to drop altitude. Navigational instruments were of no use at all to us at a time like this. I could see big drops of sweat on Bob’s brows.. I was praying as I had seen my mother pray at desperate times. Just as we had all but given up hope, a small hole opened up in the clouds below and I saw a green patch of mountainside.. of course I spoke.. keep altitude Bob! Then I had time to work with the wiring, and suddenly a patchy radio signal came through.. is this 2212F? (We had intermittently called our ID and approx. location and King Salmon tower had put us on an emergency status.) With several tries, we got instructions to head in a southwesterly direction and to drop altitude in 40 minutes at present speed and compass bearing. We had made it home safely, glad to see our wives and children one more time, thankful for help from above!
In the end I had self diagnosed an electrical shortage in an old original battery cable that extended to the engine compartment by under the side panel by the pilots seat. It was aluminum, and every single strand of this double OO cable was burned and separated and blackened by now. I tried hard on a Saturday to get help at Merrill field, and mostly I just had to replace it myself with a new copper cable and got someone to sign the logs after it was inspected. That little plane started up like a baby hungry for food every time from then on! It was a 0-240 Lycoming, and provided good service for me and my family.
Once ground looping the Cherokee at Pt. Alsworth during spring break-up on a soft airfield on the way to Kenai. Once flying Delton Carnley around the bay, and with a 30 MPH wind, we elevatored to a landing at the first ten feet of runway at Igiugik, no one the worse for the wear. Once flying south over Alaska’s largest lake in the evening, returning home with supplies, with darkness coming faster than expected, leaving me without a clue of what I was approaching, either sky or land or Lake Illiamna. It was all dark and looked like sky, or wait, was it lake? Always there was a challenge to surmount!
Another time, flying into King Salmon creek 17 mile camp in a super-cub owned and piloted by Lynn Shawback, knowing when we landed that alders had ripped the already worn wings and it being -20 below zero. We were zooming at low altitude along the creeks looking for caribou bedded down, so we would know about where to head out hunting the next few days…
When we left Bristol Bay in 1996, we were ferried out in two Cessna’s owned by J.R. Blackshear, and with my youngest daughter Rebecca in one plane, just about where halfway point occurred, I felt my heart do a distinct flip-over unexpectedly, and the words “This is the last trip out” came into my heart and mind; though a couple years later I did make a trip back to help the Hall family with a new roof on a portion of the missions home they lived in, but that was the last time that we were there as a family and as a team in the missions field of Alaska.
Flying back and forth in the Non-Dalton, Illiamna area was interesting and very scenic and rugged.. things I experienced over the years including beautiful sightings of brown bears; caribou hunted and flown off of frozen lakes, flying in a severe thunderstorm, not by choice, but following a Bell Helicopter through it knowing we were going to make it, yet flying through the thundering and lightning which was relatively rare in Alaska;
I hope that more young men will venture into the field of flying, with owning their own aircraft as a choice and as a useful means of transportation in following years. Weighing the cost against ground transportation is important and being committed to studying aeronautics, weather and being sensible is about general aviation, along with having a good dose of common sense and being able to act and react quickly with the controls.