The Caribou Mountain incident

I had flown west through Merrill Pass on my way from Anchorage to the Stony River country. I needed to set up a tent camp on one of the small gravel bars along the Swift River, a tributary of the larger Stony. A camp that would serve an upcoming trophy moose hunt for one of our German clients. After making an exhaustive survey of the river’s meager bars, I finally found one that was suitable for the campsite. I had landed, set up the tent camp, and was now flying along the southern slopes of the Neacola Mountains. I would locate a really large bull as the snows drove them down from the higher alder patches where they had been hiding from the bothersome flies of the low country.

I was flying around the north end of Caribou Mountain when I spotted a big bull coming down a wide draw above this isolated peak. I knew where he would move out of the draw, and it was now up to me to find a place to land on Caribou Mountain and to erect a spike camp, one from which we would hunt in a couple more days. The only place I could find on the low, tundra-covered mountainside was a relatively steep ridge marching up its northern slope. With the large 25x11x4 tundra tires that the bigfoot Super Cub wore, I knew I could safely put it down in the deep moss, tundra, and grass of that ridge.

Super Cub in snow
Not a quick fix.

The landing would be a bit unorthodox, since I would have to fly directly toward the face of the higher mountains, roll left more than 90 degrees–past knife-edge flight–for a very steeply banked 180 degree turn and descent, just before smacking into them, and then quickly yank on full flaps while still in the steep turn, roll out, and point the nose almost straight down toward the rising slope of the ridge only a few feet below. The required roll rate was asking for a lot from the Cub’s notoriously small ailerons. I would monitor all this through the smoke-tinted Plexiglas skylight of the Cub while looking almost straight up in order to see the ground.

After the turn was completed, I came well back with the stick and quickly added power for the uphill landing. It required full throttle to complete the landing and rollout. Rather than stop on the steep slope, I elected to power on up to the relatively flat top of the ridge. I would cool the engine and shut things down once I had reached the top.

What I hadn’t seen in the flat light of the heavily overcast day was a deep depression directly ahead of the plane, right where the slope stopped and the flat area should have begun. By the time I saw that 10-foot deep depression, at least 200-yards across, the Cub had already rolled over the edge, tipped its tail up, and plunged down into it. I learned right away that the bottom of the huge pit was a series of huge granite boulders hidden beneath a thick layer of moss, lichen, and stunted willows.

With the tail pointed skyward, I knew the prop was now useless. Vegetation had filled the engine’s air intake screen. The gear was damaged, too, of course. Worse, though, was the right wing. I could see it was bent upward almost 20-degrees at the midpoint of the aileron. All in all, the little Cub was a mess. In real time, it was just another bush accident, caused, as most are, by pilot error.

I was on the wrong side of the very impressive Alaska Range. As a result, radio communication was severely limited. This is truly remote country. I really should have stopped the little Cub somewhere along the ridge and, at the last moment, kicked in a full rudder to turn the tail wheel 90-degrees to prevent it from rolling back down the slope. That’s how we normally handle such landings. Ah, well–too late now.

I climbed out and made myself comfortable on the soft tundra, and then pondered my next step. There were several choices, and I was mentally going through them all. It was just about then that I heard the helicopter . . .

I jumped to the Cub, hit the master and radio switches, and then transmitted in the blind. I was hoping the chopper pilot was listening on the emergency frequency, 121.5.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday, Piper 1858 Alpha, Piper 1858 Alpha, north end of Caribou Mountain. Helicopter over the Stony River, you copy?”

“Yeah, roger on that, 58 Alpha. Are you the yellow Cub over there with the goofy parking technique?”

“Yeah, that’s me. How busy are you these days?”

“Just finished a job at Aniak, and I’m deadheading to Merrill Field. Looks like you could use a hand down there though, that right?”

“I’d sure appreciate it. Got time for a short visit? I’ve got a jug of hot coffee down here.”

“I could use the coffee. I’ll put this egg beater in your back yard there in just a minute.”

Over that cup of hot thermos bottle coffee, I learned that the pilot, a retired army colonel, had formerly flown with the crazy Jolly Green Giants out of Thailand and Vietnam. He agreed to lift me off the mountain and drop me down at my tent camp on the Swift. That would save me a seven-mile walk through some pretty tough country. After that, he’d help with the crippled Cub. First, though, he had another contract to perform. He’d be back for the Cub work in a couple more days.

He flew me about 40 miles across the Stony River to Cairn Mountain where Sparrevohn, a former USAF White Alice radar site, was located. At Sparrevohn, I was able to get a radio patch through to my mechanics back in Anchorage. Finally, the chopper pilot humped me back to my gravel bar campsite before lighting out for his flight through Merrill Pass and back to his home base in Anchorage. That left me alone to nibble on survival rations while a family of wolves watched with curious faces.

That night, snows moved down to the lower elevations, blanketing the area around my Bigfoot Cub and pelting my little tent camp with the cold rain that only Alaska can produce.

The next morning, my two mechanics arrived in a Cessna 170-Special and, after we had again climbed the flanks of Caribou Mountain, began work on the Cub. Once the wings had been carefully removed, the two mechanics and I hiked back down to the gravel bar campsite.

Helicopter lifting Cub
A helicopter pulls the crashed Super Cub off the mountain.

The following day, the colonel returned with his chopper. It only took him two trips to sling the broken Cub from Caribou Mountain to our little gravel bar campsite. At that point, I squared accounts with him, and away he went, no doubt looking for yet another adventure.

Our first chore was to place the right wing upside down on the gravel bar where I could jump up and down on it to stomp most of the bend from the main spar. Many pilots might find that procedure just a little bit crude. On the other hand, it does work. The wing later got the Cub back through Merrill Pass and home to Merrill Field. A new wing would be installed before the Cub could fly again. The new one would be a 15-rib wing, rather than a 13-rib model that my 1952 agricultural model Super Cub originally wore on each side. A new 41-pitch Borer prop would be screwed on, the air intake replaced, and the landing gear repaired. The wings would require re-rigging, of course, but that’s an easy job. It calls only for a good spirit level, one wrench, and a bit of patience. After that, Mr. Piper’s tough little Super Cub would once again be ready for the air. It’s almost impossible to put a Super Cub completely out of commission.

Thousands of hours of Alaska outback flying had allowed me to become seriously inattentive and casual during a chancy bush landing several hundred miles from the nearest town or maintenance facility. It’s true that familiarity really can breed contempt. What did I learn from that experience? To always inspect both my intended landing spot and the overrun area beyond. Such inspection here would have saved me thousands of dollars, considerable time, and a very red face.

Editor’s note: For more of Mort Mason’s Alaska flying stories, see his book “Flying the Alaska Wild,” available on Amazon.

11 Comments

  • On my only Alaska hunting trip I was pulled out by a true Alaska pilot (and game warden) after being stranded for a week in the Brooks Range – thankfully a result of a very early season snowfall, not a landing incident. Flying Alaska is a different world entirely – as opposite the skies and strips of New York as anywhere one can ever imagine. I didn’t have to put a plane together to get out, but had to do a similar job on a four wheeler and a trailer about 10 miles from camp. It is a place that one better be prepare for true self sufficiency every minute of every day.

  • My Cessna 170 “special”, N5417C, was an A-model [the second generation with metal wings and notoriously small flaps], a Franklin 165-hp heavy case engine, and a “climb prop”. That’s a prop with a very flat pitch, sometimes referred to in Alaska as a “float prop”. It also wore the typical Alaskan Cessna wheels and tires of the time, 8.50×6.

    “Flying Wild Alaska” showed a flying service that was just a small part of a really large Alaska airline, ERA, which began as Jack Carr’s ERA Helicopters. Most of us who flew the bush didn’t give much credence to flying multi-engine aircraft to and from airports and improved fields. While the pilots were pretty good, the conditions under which they most often flew were not really considered by Alaskans as representative of real “bush flying”.

    • Hello Mort. My name is Scott Ziegler. My father, Donald Ziegler was telling me recently about some great Ziegler/Mason history. Upon his retirement last month, December 2017 at the age of 81, he came across your book with him mentioned in the dedication. It was a very touching story! He wanted me to try to find a contact for you. If you receive this and want to contact me regarding this, I can be reached at seziegler3@gmail.com

      Thanks

  • Yep, though I had often wished for Cessna’s larger barn door flaps. Sold her, and the last time I saw her she had been lying inverted on a mountain slope near Turquoise Lake on the west side of the Alaska Range. N5417C is still there, heartbreaking sight . . .

    • i have a 58 cessna straight tail 172 with the main gear where god intended it to be, conventional. repowering is crazy high priced.
      would you go fixed or constant speed on a 180hp conversion on this.
      i am thinking fixed, flat and big. (as allowed)

  • First off, I’d make sure I had big enough wheels/tires for a longer prop [perhaps a Borer flat pitch prop] to keep it from picking up gravel on less than blacktop strips. You may be surprised at the overall performance improvement that a constant speed prop will give you, though. Much improved takeoff performance and nicely high cruise speeds. A constant speed prop may also save you a bit on fuel, if you’ll settle back for maybe 60% or 65% settings. Over time, and with today’s avgas costs, you’ll soon get a bunch of your investment back. Only my opinion of course, and free opinions are worth just what you pay for them.

    • if you are counting pennies on gas, flying seems to be the wrong hobby.
      secondly, i have wondered about the benefit of constant speed prop on an engine 180 hp or less.
      thirdly, and goes hand in hand with secondly, if you are repowering a 170/172 you dont have a lot of legal usefull load to spare. so add a 30 lb constant speed prop ???? and what about the w&b?
      fourthly, i would bet you a nickle if you did a 210hp conversion and conatant speed prop, you will be money ahead if you sell your plane and buy a 180C. and have more carrying capacity, proven resale, better performacne. tg

  • You’re mostly right, of course. As to the C-180, it is surely the best all around aircraft that God ever invented . . .

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