Catch a falling star

A story from Alaska

I’ve often commented about how many of Alaska’s varied flight-for-hire operations were family-owned. The overwhelming majority of these operations never grew much above a half-dozen airplanes in size. Most, in fact, remained in the one- or two-plane category, with but a sole owner-pilot. The two companies involved in this story however, were exceptions to the rule, sharing so many interesting comparisons.

Olson Air and Ryan Air both started out the same as all the others, a way for a pilot to put bread on the family table. They were founded by their respective family patriarchs, Martin Olson and Wilfred Ryan Sr.

Both called the Seward Peninsula home turf: Olson Air based along the north coast of the Norton Sound in Golovin, a tiny village of no more than 200 hardy souls. Going 90 or so nautical miles east-southeast, crossing the frigid waters of the Norton Sound, you will find the (comparatively) much larger town of Unalakleet. Pronounced YOU-NA-LA-KLEET, it was home to a booming populace of over 500. And so it was that Ryan Air chose the larger town as its base of operations.

Another remarkable similarity between the two men were their families. Martin and his wife Maggie, and Wilfred with his wife Eva, both headed households each with three sons. Of course, quite unsurprisingly, all the boys in both families became flyers. They followed their father’s trails, crisscrossing the Arctic skies. But how much of a coincidence is it, that in each of the families, one of the trio of brothers both became medical doctors as full-time calling?

Unalakleet, Alaska
Unalakleet is a big city compared to Golovin.

As you might imagine, the bonds between the two families, despite a healthy rivalry in the skies, were deep and decades long-standing.   It only makes the following story that much more meaningful.

November 28, 1980, was supposed to be a day and evening full of joy for so many people, in Nome at least. A wedding was scheduled for that day. And, as the groom was a long-time airport ramp worker for Wein Air Alaska, the majority of the airport crowd was involved in the celebrations in one way or another, even if just an invitee.

Hence, it was with reluctance that I lifted my Cessna 207 off of Nome’s Runway 27 in the early afternoon that late autumn day. Woe is me, that I must miss a good party in Nome. With a 15- gusting to 20-knot southwest wind, and an empty cabin, the sled practically leapt into the air before I could finish feeding in full throttle.

Pulling back further on the yoke, I watched the airspeed settle back to 80 knots indicated. The rate-of-climb needle flirted briefly with 1400 feet before settling at 1100 feet-per-minute on the indicator as I soared upward into the snow-laden skies. Once again, something unforecast and unreported, was about to slug the Seward Peninsula. The visibility had started dropping a half an hour earlier along with the wind shifting to the southwest.

I’d had the briefest thoughts earlier about “dragging my feet” somewhat. See if maybe I could get “stuck” in Nome for the night. But, integrity won out.

My base (and home) was Unalakleet these days, and my employer, Ryan Air. I was scheduled to fly the morning Stebbins-St. Michael’s run the following day, and my absence would be more than just an inconvenience to the day’s planned schedule. Therefore, after unloading my inbound passengers from Wales, I dutifully pumped both fuel tanks full of Nome’s relatively cheaper priced 100 octane. Now, it should be one leg home to Unalakleet, where my sweetie was hopefully beginning dinner preparations.

Reversing direction, I was shortly passing abeam the centerline of Runway 17-35, already going through 2,000 feet on my way to a planned 5500 feet for the eastbound cruise home. I operated under a Special VFR departure clearance even though N73503 was fully equipped for full IFR, with all the nice gizmos, gadgets, and pushbutton switches one could ever want to see in a sled (Cessna 207). Although no more than three-fourths of a mile offshore from the south end of the runway, I realized that I could no longer see even as far north as the intersection of the two main runways. “That is just a little over a mile,” I remember thinking, just as the Nome ATC’s Flight Service Specialist’s voice penetrated the space between my headset encased ears.

“Nome Radio. Special weather report, time 0014 Zulu. Nome, skies partially obscured, eighteen hundred scattered, ceiling four thousand overcast…” and I decided that, in keeping with the intent, as well as the spirit of my clearance, I would level off at 2900 feet until reaching the eastern edge of the control zone. I crossed the shoreline just over the western edge of downtown and watched as the Polar Cub building slid aftward beneath the left wing as I cranked the omni bearing selector on the number one VOR to 063. A few more brief moments and I was over the Nome VOR house. I dropped the right wing into a fifteen degree bank until the directional gyro read 70 degrees. I knew I would need at least some slight wind correction angle to the south side.

I was somewhat surprised as I noted two anomalies almost simultaneously. My groundspeed readout off the King DME, midway up the center panel stack of avionics was showing a rather hard-to-believe 170 knots! And the seven degree wind correction angle was not moving me over to the 63 degree radial either. With the VOR no more than two miles behind me at this point, I should’ve been skipping across the electronic beams. But I remained stubbornly stuck to the north side of my desired electronic track. I added in another five degree correction to the right, and with a new heading of 75 degrees, a 12 degree correction, I began to close in on the desired flight path from the north.

Cessna 207
The sled, or Cessna 207, is a workhorse of the Alaska bush.

Once established on Victor 452, backing off only two degrees of the 12 degree correction kept me on course as I both broke out of the weather, and reached the edge of the control zone at the same time.

“Ryan Air’s 73503, a Cessna 207, clear of the Nome control zone to the northeast,” I reported on 122.2. As soon as the Flight Service Specialist at Nome answered me and unkeyed his microphone, another transmission came instantly, directed at me.

“Hey, CloudDancer, go company.” I quickly double tapped the push-to-talk red spring-loaded button mounted on the upper portion of the left horn of the Cessna’s control wheel to acknowledge hearing the transmission. Then, reaching up to the top of the radio management panel, I rotated the transmitter selector to the number two position.

I again hit the transmit button with my left thumb, as my right hand began cranking the propeller control to initiate a further climb. “Hey, Boss Man!” I sang out to Boyuk Ryan. “Where you at, cat?”

“Hey, Cloudy. I’m showing about 33 out, inbound. What’s going on with the weather? Center said somebody had the zone?”

Quickly I brought him up to date on the special they’d just issued, as well as throwing in my own two cents worth. “Hey, I’ll tell ya’ bub. I think somethin’ BAD is coming. I’m climbing out of 3,600 feet now and I’m having to STILL hold a 10 to 12 degree southerly wind correction and now… yeah… now I STILL show a 160 knot groundspeed an’ I’m climbing. What you got over there, Boyuk?”

“Yeah. My groundspeed has been pretty good all the way across, but it’s just starting to drop off now also. About 30 DME out. Did you get everything out of Wales in one load?”

Over Nome Radio, I heard a Munz Islander request be denied a Special VFR clearance out of the Nome control zone. He was advised that there was a Cessna 402 inbound from Unalakleet on an IFR clearance for an approach to Runway 27.

After assuring him that our Wales customers had indeed be taken care of, we yakked for another minute or so. He informed me that he and Vickie were planning on spending the night in Nome and were invited guests at the wedding of Bobby Walsh and his bride-to-be Patricia. I’d worked with Bobby years earlier while flying Wien mail for Munz. He was a great guy and Patricia was a catch for sure. It was going to be a big night in Nome and a great party no doubt.

By way of signing off, I transmitted “Well BOSS man. You just go ahead and have your fun tonight. An’ don’t worry about the rest of us out here slaving, so’s you ‘n your woman can spend all your time frolicking about the Norton Sound, carousing with the riff-raff. And if you happen to remember, tell Bobby and Patricia ‘Congrats’ for me too.”

Wilfred (Boyuk) bade me goodbye and safe flying home just as I began to level my aircraft at 5500 feet. Powering back to 23 squared and closing the cowl flaps seemed almost to have no effect on the aircraft as the groundspeed continued to climb. Still holding the same ten degree southerly correction to maintain my course line, I was surprised to see that my groundspeed readout was now 180 knots! It was a good 43 to 45 knot tailwind.

This was definitely, given that the most current forecast had been nowhere close to this, worth reporting. And, as I switched the transmitter selector back over to the number one radio, I laughed at the sudden vision I got in my mind. I pictured the groom in a tux, stumbling over the huge snowdrifts that would most certainly appear in Nome that night, carrying his betrothed in her gown. “Hello Nome radio. This is Ryan Air 73503 with a PIREP… ”

Somewhere Out There

E6B calculator
The whiz wheel doesn’t lie… Something has changed in the atmosphere.

Just before coming abeam White Mountain, I noticed my groundspeed readout begin to fall. In a matter of less than a minute, I had dropped from almost 180 knots all the way down to 142 knots. Using the black plastic whiz-wheel true airspeed calculator installed on the face of the instrument, I calculated my tailwind had fallen off to all of 12 knots. This was confirmed as well, by my wind correction angle reducing to only two degrees to maintain the airway.

Even though it was only three o’clock in the late autumn afternoon, the last gray light of day would fade fast before too long, as the sun was blocked by multiple cloud layers. I turned my instrument lights on full bright and switched over to the Moses Point VOR as I crossed the far northern edge of Golovin Bay.

Coincidentally, no sooner had I centered myself on the inbound course to Moses Point, I heard Martin Olson’s voice coming through my headphones calling Nome Radio on 122.2. However, there was something… I don’t know. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something didn’t sound quite right.

I’d only met Martin Olson in person once or twice in all the time I’d spent in the arctic. But, I’d heard his voice and talked with him frequently over the radio – more so recently, since coming to work for Ryan Air and spending more time around the Norton Sound area in the past couple of months. 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 4500 feet, and then a minute later, when asked to confirm his altitude again he reported his altitude as 5500 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 Martin’s 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 4000, or even 5500 feet to talk directly to Nome FSS only a half hour out of Shish.

I began a slow climb out of 5500 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 6200 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 5500 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?

clouds at night with moon
When the weather and the sun go down in Alaska, flying gets a lot more dangerous.

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 needn’t worry. The Nome specialist relayed it to Martin and encouraged him to head for Moses Point in the next transmission. Martin’s response was to again repeat that he didn’t 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 weren’t far from civil twilight now.

Deciding that I could be of no further use at this point, I rolled out of my self-imposed holding pattern and pointed the long snout of 503 southeastward toward the barn. Once safely back within gliding distance of the east shore of Norton Sound, I pushed the nose over and watched Shaktoolik race past the left wingtip. Calling Nome Radio on the RCO ten miles north of town, I got an advisory and canceled my flight plan all at once with Nome radio so as not to have to bother him any further.

With Martin still unsure of his position, and now also claiming his VOR(s) were not working properly, Nome Radio had his hands full this early evening. I closed by adding a current PIREP for Unalakleet and added that I would standby both the VHF and the phone at the office in Unalakleet until Martin was safe, in case I could be of any further assistance.

In those days, with very limited satellite relay capabilities, Nome as well as all other FAA Flight Service Stations operated multiple transmitters. These were often located hundreds of miles away from the station, and the Nome Specialist could therefore, at times, wind up with four or five planes trying to talk to him or her simultaneously, each unaware of the other. Therefore, it was common practice for the Specialist to hit a floor-mounted, spring-loaded “gangbar” transmitter that activated all his different transmitters at the same time, especially when they are starting to get saturated with inbound radio calls. By doing this, they effectively announce to all the airplanes on all the frequencies at once, “I hear you. I am busy. I will get back to you.”

Thus it was no surprise that I heard him, after acknowledging my transmission, to continue without a breath, as he started to issue an IFR departure clearance to one of our company Cessna 402s for a trip to Galena along Victor 452. And no sooner had he released the frequency, than Boyuk’s voice came over the frequency repeating the last of the clearance. Apparently my boss was now headed for Galena, and must’ve been in a hurry. He must have taken off even as the clearance was being read to him. For, only were he already airborne, could I hear his read back while approaching Unalakleet at a thousand feet.

I keyed my microphone and said quietly “Go company boss,” before flipping my frequency selector to do the same.

It would be days before I was able to piece together what had happened in Nome while I had been progressing eastward. I would come to find out that, upon arriving in Nome, as we always do, Wilfred had refueled his chariot, and put it to bed for the evening. It’s a process that, in the winter, takes about 15 minutes. And upon completing that task, he had ventured upstairs in the FAA building into the Flight Service Station, where Vickie awaited his arrival before they would proceed to town and join in the festivities.

He arrived in the midst of the unfolding confusion, that was now turning into an all-out effort to aid an apparently very disoriented Martin Olson, airborne somewhere in One Echo Hotel. Aside from fielding Martin’s transmissions, and those from non-distressed aircraft, the Nome Specialist was on the landline to his counterpart at the Kotzebue Flight Service Station, 200 miles to the north. They too were still maintaining sporadic contact with the now apparently “lost” Cessna 206.

With the weather outside continuing to deteriorate rapidly, after the briefest of recaps on the situation from the specialist on duty, Boyuk had made the decision to launch into the teeth of what was now becoming a fierce blizzard. Howling winds and heavy snow downfall, along with the blowing snow, had reduced visibility and ceiling to near zero by now. Legality wasn’t even a concern. A friend is in trouble. That was all he knew, and maybe he could be of some help. It was only legal since the flight could claim to be operating under FAR Part 91.

Flight Service Station
Flight Service is helpful, but they can only do so much.

Somewhere along the way Lloyd (Stinky) Hardy of Nome and Mike Hoffman of Bethel got added to the airborne posse. Most likely they too were just hanging out at Flight Service, something all rural Alaskan pilots did from time to time, especially during storms. As darkness fell, Boyuk said he remembered to have Stinky get a couple of extra good strong flashlights, as he went back out to quickly undress his air machine and get it ready for flight.

“CloudDancer. I got ya’ on company now. Where you at and are you hearing or talking to Martin?” Boyuk spat the words out in a non-nonsense machine-gun-paced sentence. This was instantly followed by his voice on the number one radio stating to Nome Radio he was airborne and switching to Anchorage center. Then, just as quickly, he was back to me, “Wait a sec, while I check in with center.” And then finally again “Cloudy, go ahead now.”

In the next two-and-a-half minutes, he and I updated each other on all we knew since we had last talked over the radio, barely a scant half hour earlier.

In the meantime, I had flown across the top of the Unalakleet airport at a thousand feet and headed out west over the waters of Norton Sound. I had climbed my sled back up to an altitude of 3000 feet using the Unalakleet altimeter setting. The primary reason for doing so was to be able to “dead stick” the Unalakleet runway(s) should my engine quit while over the (still) late season open waters and thin ice patches. But also, I wanted to get one last accurate first-hand ceiling and visibility observation with my Mark 1 eyeballs, before the deepest darkness of true arctic nighttime settled swiftly upon us.

“Well, Boyuk, now that you guys are up there and you’re up to speed, I’m gonna’ go an’ head for the barn over here, but let me tell you first. I’m about a mile-and-a half off the west end of runway eight over here. The clouds are still somewhere above 3000 right now, ‘cause that’s where I am. Looks like there’s still maybe five miles or more of visibility at least to the south and west, although it’s gettin’ darker than ol’ Hailey’s 8-ball out there. But I can still see Shaktoolik from here. I’m turning final for Runway eight now and I’ll call you after I get set up on the ground, okay?”

“Alright, Cloudy. Good to know we’ve still got good weather somewhere. If we can just find Martin and get him over that way. Try to call me again after you are buttoned up down there. I want to stay on top of that weather over there.”

“Roger Wilco, Boss. Give Stinky and Mike a hello for me too.” I responded.

“They hear ya. We’re all on speaker,” came the reply.

Finding the Needle in the Haystack

In a matter of just a few minutes, I had landed, back-taxied, and pulled Cessna 73503 into the northernmost of the Ryan Air parking spaces facing west, and secured her tiedown ropes. I decided to remain outside with the airplane. I would then be able to better estimate the weather and visibility and respond instantly on any radio frequency necessary.

I killed all the radios one at a time until only one VHF remained on, instead of using the radio master on/off switch. And with almost no surface wind, I simply draped the goosedown filled engine cover over the cowling. I would restart the engine every 20 minutes or so, as necessary, to recharge the battery. I stood in the open right doorway of the maroon-and-black Cessna, listening to the sounds of the gyros. Over the radio came the voices of both Martin and Boyuk.

It was, in real life, the proverbial “looking for a needle in a haystack.” Only imagine if you will, that already daunting task, being further complicated. For tonight, the haystack is moving. And within the moving haystack, the needle you are so desperately searching for is moving as well. For Boyuk had already confirmed that the winds were howling a good 70 knots as he cruised along in the vicinity of Moses Point, now at 7500 feet.

Whatever audio tapes the FAA might’ve had relating to this incident, I imagine are long gone. The actual NTSB accident report of this event states the extreme barest facts as they were known at the time. Therefore, I will not further attempt much in the way of direct quotations. In the interest of preserving the integrity of this story, I am unable to do so, simply because of the escalating stress and emotion of the events, as this tale carries on to its conclusion. I therefore, dear readers, beg your indulgence of the apparent lack of details going forward. You may however, rest assured that the remainder of this saga, is related in as clear a vivid memory that remains in my memory banks after many decades.

From within warm cabin of the Ryan Cessna 402, three sets of human eyeballs focused intently and relentlessly on the skies about them, wishing no doubt for Superman’s x-ray vision. Just for a moment Lord… let me see through the snow. Let me spot that Cessna 206!

Snow in Alaska
A blizzard in Alaska can take visibility from good to awful in mere minutes.

I listened as time and again Boyuk tried to lead Martin by the hand, almost as if a child, in setting up his radios to determine an accurate position. With only occasional transmissions to Nome Radio to ask for DF position information, Boyuk had pretty much taken over the rescue effort on the radio. Yet, even as comfortable as Martin was talking to an old friend, it was quite apparent that something was drastically wrong with Martin. At times, he made no sense on the radio. If Boyuk could not get Martin to give him an accurate bearing off some radio fix, there was little hope of a midair rendez vous.

For over 40 minutes, Boyuk tried over a half-dozen different tactics to get useful information from the older pilot. Yet Martin’s answers were repeatedly confused, belligerent, or childish. Once he stated he was at 7500 feet and almost immediately thereafter claimed 5500 feet.

Martin would only fly northwest and southeast and repeatedly kept refusing Boyuk’s pleas to try a southwest heading. For Boyuk was already convinced that the storm-driven strong southwesterly winds aloft had pushed One Echo Hotel far, far from where ever Martin might think he was. He (Martin) claimed that his instrument lights were weak, along with his flashlight as well. And then, unimaginably, things got worse. Martin reported his engine had quit!

Switching his fuel selector to the left tank brought the engine roaring back to life which he quickly reported, much to the immense, if only momentary relief of all of us listening. But we were shortly dismayed again when he responded to Wilfred’s fuel status remaining inquiry. He said he figured he had less than a third of a tank left on the left side. At best, we’re looking at another 45 minutes.

The verbal hide-and-seek game played out in much the same manner over the course of the next half hour or so. Meanwhile the front edges of the coming storm were reaching Unalakleet as a light snow began to fall and visibility began to drop. This, of course, I reported immediately to Boyuk as I sat inside 503 running the engine to charge the battery and heating up the cabin for some much needed warmth for me. Initially at least, the snowfall, as it had earlier in Nome, began as light showers. I could easily see to the far north end of the north-south runway yet, and for some distance into the darkness beyond. I called it a guesstimate of three miles still.

And shortly after that Martin called out to Boyuk that his engine was quitting again. This time for good.

At some point Boyuk got the idea to switch Martin (and all of us) over to 122.8 on the radios. This was a frequency that was used in common by all the villages in the region. His idea being that whatever came through on the frequency, might be heard better by any one station that some others. Every piece of information was important now.

Boyuk was reminding Martin to trim the aircraft for his best possible slowest glide speed. For, now inevitably succumbing to gravity as he would, it was important to both stretch the glide as long as possible and to fly as slow as possible. Hopefully, by some miracle, Martin would break out of the weather and be able to see the ground, and pull off a decent “crash landing.”

But Martin had departed Shishmaref with a cabin full of frozen, quartered reindeer carcasses, and thus was unable to glide as slow as he would’ve liked to. He reported to Boyuk that about the best he could do was 75 miles per hour going down at 500 feet per minute.

Standing again in the right doorway of 503, engine now shut down and dozing under its blanket, I was in agony. Somewhere, not too far from me, a star was falling from the sky. I could not see it. I could not catch it. I could only listen to it as it falls.

As a young bush pilot, the author learned some important lessons the hard way.
As a young bush pilot, the author learned some important lessons the hard way.

Martin told Boyuk, “Hey, Boyuk. I’m gonna’ call off every 500 feet. At least that way you’ll know what elevation to look for me at.” And Boyuk answered in the affirmative, still trying to get Martin to change his heading to southwest.

As Martin called off “three thousand feet,” you could hear a tenseness start to emerge in his voice. It was a disciplined, forced self-control against what had to be a rising level of anxiety, if not real fear. “Two thousand” snapped out as if fired from a gun. 1500. One thousand feet. And then silence. Boyuk’s voice quietly came over the speaker.

“Martin?”

Five long seconds pass, and then… “Boyuk! God a’mighty! Jeeeezus! Boyuk! I just came down through TEN THOUSAND FEET! I’m alive! What the… where AM I?”

Quickly Boyuk snapped a transmission at me asking for the visibility. I gave it two miles, and Boyuk snapped at Martin: “Martin. Tune Unalakleet. Tune North River NDB! Do it NOW!”

And inside his falling 206, Martin complied. “Boyuk. I got ‘em! They’re off to my right!” And Boyuk responded with “Put ‘em on your nose Martin” and relayed my weather report. No longer hypoxic, Martin sounded like Martin and was making sense. But he had no idea how far he was from Unalakleet. Boyuk again prodded him to fly direct to the navaids, now with renewed hope.

But Martin said he was now falling through 9000 feet. A moment of silence ensued, which Martin broke by saying, “Hey Boyuk. Do me a favor, will ya? I need you to give some messages to Maggie and the kids, huh?”

I remember Wilfred responding something like, “No way, Martin. You’ll do it yourself. Now just fly your airplane.”

Now with an uncluttered and fully alert mind, a cool-headed sounding Martin git back on the radio and said something about, “Well, just in case this doesn’t work out… You DO this for me, Boyuk. You tell Maggie I love her more than life. I couldn’t have asked for a better wife… ”

And over the next few minutes, I and much of the Seward Peninsula listened in, as a husband and father said a last goodbye to his family.

He named each of his children by name with a special message just for that child. And when he interrupted momentarily to say “six thousand feet and… hey, Boyuk, you gettin’ all this?” I listened to my good friend’s anguished and almost strangled reply over the frequency. “I got you, Martin. It will be done,” he could barely choke out. (Boyuk told me later that at some point during this final phase, his anguish was so intense he had to give the controls to Stinky for a few minutes.)

Martin finished with his last wish relays by saying, “…and tell the boys I said to fly careful. Tell ‘em I’m real proud of them.”

“OK, Martin,” came Boyuk’s quiet reply and then Martin said, “Five thousand. I’ll start every 500 feet now Boyuk.”

“You know, Boyuk. I guess I’ll be seeing your dad here before long. [The elder Wilfred Ryan Sr. had passed years earlier.] I know he’s as proud of you boys as I am of mine. I’m sure he knows how well you’ve done, but when I get to see him, I’ll be sure and tell him what great kids you all are.”

I can’t remember too much more. I’m sure Boyuk must’ve answered him – I just can’t remember. I’m pretty sure Martin called out 4500 feet, and maybe even 4000. But I can’t remember for sure.

What I can remember is this. The wind had picked up to a gentle breeze. And the snow was starting to fall a little heavier now. I could barely see the north end of the airfield anymore.

Then came silence, broken only by the sound of the still winding gyros. I ducked under the right strut and removed the engine cover and wrapped it around the right gear leg before reinserting myself into the right front seat of the sled and slamming the door closed and locked.

As I slid across to the left seat, I heard Boyuk calling Martin once then twice. The engine kicked off as the first blade passed through a compression stroke. I cranked up the instrument lights to full bright and watched as the ammeter hit the peg to the extreme right, only to begin backing off immediately. New plane. New battery. But, I was in no hurry. I gave it a good charge before shutting the plane down for a final time.

Over the speaker Boyuk’s voice comes weakly. “Cl-CloudDancer. You still there?”

“Yeah. I’m here my friend. Are you okay?” I respond quietly. “Did you hear anything more?”

“No, Boyuk. I didn’t. I’m just sitting here doing an engine run to charge the battery before I put her to bed. You coming here or are you going back to Nome?”

“I need to go to Nome. I’m sure we’ll organize the search out of there tomorrow. If I don’t go to Nome, Vickie will worry too much about me. What an unbelievable wind up here. We’re going slower than a sled. I’ll see you tomorrow, Cloudy. Thanks for the help. Goodnight.”

“G’nite, Boss man.” I replied.

Slowly and methodically I started at the top of the generous rack of King radios in the center of the instrument panel, and worked my way, one-by-one, to the bottom of the stack. Pausing two or three seconds at each tiny on/off knob or button, I very slowly exerted, little-by-little, just a little more tension or pressure until the control knob snapped instantly into the “ON” position. For time seemed to have little meaning right at the moment. I certainly wasn’t in a hurry anymore. Not for anything at the moment.

This time, the radio master switch did go to “OFF” before pulling the fuel control knob to cutoff. Jumping out the left door now, I quickly secured the greasy red engine cover about the engine cowling. Tie down ropes, all three secured. The “Master Switch” verified off and the yoke mounted control lock was installed.

I had a 300-yard walk ahead of me into a quartering offshore (cold) wind. The darkness seemed blacker now, the silence seemed louder now. The snow now fell slightly heavier, and with the first real discernible sideways, drifting motion.

With my cheeks still warmed from being inside the airplane, the snowflakes that landed thereupon lasted but a few seconds at best. Then converted to water, they spread across my face, silently rinsing away the tracks of my tears.

8 Comments

  • By the end of your story, Gary, I felt almost as cold and shaken as you must have been, walking away from the airplane and knowing a good man was lost.

  • Your article underscores just how vulnerable even experienced IFR pilots can easily become at high altitudes without oxygen. We don’t think or act right because our brain is starved of oxygen. Because of that, I keep a tank of oxygen in my airplane just in case for some reason I have to get above weather or I’m flying into an airport at night. Amazing how much better your night vision can be with a few puffs of oxygen. But surely everyone can afford a $13.50 can of Boost Oxygen for safety? See http://www.sportys.com/pilotshop/boost-oxygen-22-oz.html

  • Gary, I’m a private pilot and flown all over Alaska many years ago and you have a great gift for story telling…you made me feel right next to you in the plane all the way to the end…..which left me in tears

  • This story appears so figurative for the country of Alaska itself. A day of joy and of grief, gladness and sadness suceed each other…
    Reminds me at Sait-Euxpery’s “night flight”. But certainly feels different to experience it yourself…

    Anyway, I wan’t surprised to read in Gary’s Bio that he is the author of several books pulished. Great literary job.

  • A great literary job for sure. All his books reach that finish line of excellence. Most of us who have flown the Alaska outback have flown Bethel, Norton Sound, Kotzebue, Nome, Teller, and Cape Liz. But this most unfortunate series of flights and radio transmissions stand alone. Many of us have been in much the same pickle a time or two. In the end, it was always comfortable to have a voice out there, impossible to see, but comforting at the very least.

    As one of those 22.000 hours of Alaska bush flying, my sincere thanks for all you did, or tried to do. It says a lost about Martin, and a lot about the lot of you.

  • I enjoyed this story and read it about three times, but I didn’t fully understand it until I pulled up the charts on Skyvector and traced your route from Nome to Unalakleet and other places mentioned. Seeing the topography of the land and the sea really made the story come alive in my brain.

    So now I am full of questions about the entire incident, as I am sure some of the participants were at the time. But I’ll leave most of them alone if you or someone will answer just this one: Why did you dial in the 063 radial out of Nome when the chart shows V452 on the 069 ? Is there a reason for that? If there is I’d liked to know.

    Thank you for publishing this article.

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