An upside down landing on a remote Alaska strip

I had already circled the snow-covered strip at Mills Creek two times. It looked as though the snow cover was somewhere between eight and twelve inches deep, but I wanted just one more look before I committed to the landing. A set of moose tracks laid diagonally across the strip seemed to agree with my appraisal.

It was a cold Saturday, that 24th of November back in 1962. Keith Johnson — school teacher, bow hunter, and one day to become one of Alaska’s premier Master Guides — Jack Rodriguez, the plane’s co-owner, and I were looking over the small group of moose yarded up at the northern end of that small airstrip. Keith wanted to bow-and-arrow one of the bulls into his family’s larder for the cold winter that was already upon us.

Cessna 170A
The Cessna 170A is a fine bush plane, but it likes skis when there’s snow around.

The Cessna 170A with its 165hp heavy case Franklin engine and low pitch prop had turned out to be a pretty good bush plane, considering its comfortable price tag. A set of hydraulic wheel/skis had come with the standard gear, but Anchorage had had almost no snow up to that date, and I had been a little lazy about changing shoes on the Cessna. That’s why I was giving the Mills Creek gold mine strip such a good looking over.

Finally convincing myself after the third low-and-slow pass that the Cessna and its 8.50 x 6 wheels could handle the snow cover, I reminded my passengers to check and tighten their seat belts. As I turned onto a short final, I pulled down the full 40 degrees of the Cessna’s anemic little flaps. The big barn door Fowler flaps wouldn’t grace Cessna’s wings until the 170B model later came out.

I decided to make it a tail wheel first, full stall landing, and to carry a little power for the unknown snow condition. When the Cessna settled into the snow, it slowed immediately. The landing distance was only about 40 feet. The tail started up, and I firewalled the throttle, the control wheel already in my lap. I thought for a moment that I had saved the landing. When the Cessna went up ever so slowly, pausing when the cowling slipped into the snow cover, I still thought we’d be all right. Instead of settling back to earth, though, the tail paused for an eternity—and then went slowly over to put us upside down on this very remote bush strip. Our world was upside down and we were now really in for it…

I closed the fuel tank selection valve, killed the radio and master switches, and switched off the magnetos. After we had all exited the inverted Cessna, I crawled back in to activate the low frequency radio. The Cessna wasn’t blessed with VHF. Though the wire antenna was buried in the snow, I tried to transmit anyway.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Cessna 5417C, Cessna 5417C, emergency at Mills Creek Strip, emergency at Mills Creek strip, anybody read 17C?”

Almost instantly there was an answer. “5417C, we read you. We’re a Civil Air Patrol Beaver just off at Kenai and returning to Anchorage. How can we help you?”

I recognized Andy Anderson’s voice at once. They were more than a hundred air miles south of us. Incredible!

“Hey, Andy, glad you’re out and about. I flipped my Cessna over up here at Mills Creek. Nobody hurt, but we’ll need some help getting out of here in the morning. Got any good ideas?”

“Sure, Mort,” Andy came back. “How ‘bout we pick you up around nine o’clock in the morning? If you’re all set ‘til then, we won’t make the trip tonight.”

“Nah, nine o’clock’ll be just great, Andy. Look forward to it. We’re three souls, but nobody’s looking for us yet, so don’t worry about that. Okay?”

“Okay, I’ll let Anchorage Radio know your situation so there’s no panic down here. We’ll bring the Beaver to make sure we’ll have plenty of room. See ya in the morning, then.”

“Right, Andy, and thanks. See ya then.”

Thermometer 50 below zero
There’s cold, then there’s Alaska cold.

The Mills Creek strip served a gold mining operation. As was usual in such cases, a tool shack was located near one end of the strip, and we all repaired there to take stock of both our own dangerous situation and the extent of tools that might be available to us for the hard work to come. While Keith and Jack rummaged around in the tool shed taking stock of the possibilities, I grabbed a coffee pot and plunged through the snowy spruce woods toward a trickle of water I could plainly hear. The outside temperature stood at -41 degrees Fahrenheit, but the little creek had not yet frozen. Its blackness was easy to spot against the white snow cover, even though it was by then darker than the inside of my hat.

I sloshed the pot around to clean it, then scooped up a pot full of the clear, cold water and turned to dash back to our small shelter. By the time I had run that thirty yards and entered the shed, the water had frozen solid. Now that, I thought, is cold weather! It’s this sort of life-and-death situation that finds intelligent pilots carrying emergency equipment aboard for every flight that leaves the traffic pattern.

While we were mulling the situation over, we heard another airplane flying nearby. In that remote location, it could only be one of the Talkeetna pilots, Don Sheldon or Cliff Hudson. We went outside to watch the airplane circle the little strip, and then line up for the landing. I knew the pilot could see our plane upside down in the middle of the strip, so I was reasonably sure he wouldn’t run over it.

I could tell from the sound that the plane was a Cessna 180. As it landed and taxied to where we were standing, I saw that it was a friend, Don Sheldon, subject of the book Wager with the Wind. I reckoned that he was just returning from his little observation cabin at the 8,000-ft level on Mt. McKinley’s (now Mt. Denali’s) Ruth Glacier.

He asked if we needed a ride out to Talkeetna, but we told him that we were all set for the night. About that time, Keith decided to change his mind. He’d take a ride with Don as far as Talkeetna and worry later about the next 100 miles needed to get him back to his family in Anchorage. It took only a few minutes for them to load up, taxi out, dash down the snowy runway, and lift off in a gentle left turn that would take them to Talkeetna in another fifteen minutes or so.

The next morning, and right on schedule, Andy and his observer arrived in the Civil Air Patrol’s DeHavilland DH-2 Beaver. I stuffed my list of required materials inside my down jacket, and then Jack and I boarded the rescue plane.

Beaver skis
Call the cavalry.

When Andy had landed and come to a halt with the Beaver, he had cycled the skis up so that the wheels were in the snow. This was a precautionary anchor of sorts. Now ready for departure, Andy told me to stand behind and between the pilot and observer seats to operate the hydraulic gear pump. It would take about 50 full pumps on that handle to get the skis down and back under the wheels. By the time I had finished that little chore, I was convinced that I had paid for the rescue. That was some pumping…

Once back in Anchorage, I telephoned my long time friend and number one assistant big game guide, Artie Brauetigam, Jr. Along with his being a great hunter and good friend, he was also a master meat cutter. Beyond all that, though, was the fact that Artie was a strong as a full-grown polar bear. We would need his tireless strength.

For the next 21 days, the temperature would remain locked at -41 degrees F. During that time, Artie and I would have to dig a six foot deep, six foot diameter hole in the earth in order that the nose could pass through it as the tail was hauled up and over to right the little four-place aircraft. Once the snow cover had been removed from the earth, the ground would freeze another 18-inches each night. It was a pick and shovel operation that was to last for 21 days. During the later lifting operation, the old Manila rope line we had found in the tool shed broke, which is another story entirely.

When we had finally put the plane back on its feet, it was wearing a huge pair of helicopter skis, a new prop, and a starboard wing strut stiffened with a 1 1/2” x 1 1/2” steel angle bolted through the strut. The wrinkled fuselage had been strengthened with a steel angle on the outside, bolted through a 3/4” piece of plywood inside. A piece of 1/4” Plexiglas had been heated with a propane torch so that it could be fitted over the cracked windshield. It was then drilled so that I could secure it to the plane’s windshield with thru-bolts. The pitot tube was gone, so I’d have no airspeed indicator, which doesn’t much bother an Alaska pilot with all his seat-of-the-pants flying anyway. The bent, lead-filled rudder counterbalance had been amputated with a hatchet. All in all, it was a strange looking Cessna.

The night before I was to depart Mills Creek, the temperature warmed and a cold rain had begun falling. The next morning, after I had climbed aboard soaking wet and had warmed the Franklin engine, condensation built up between the two windshields and I could see only shadows when looking forward. The takeoff would be made with my window open so I could follow my progress by watching the trees at the edge of the strip.

With an empty high-performance airplane, the huge helicopter skis, and almost no load at all, the takeoff run was minimal. I climbed to a comfortable 2,000 feet and trimmed to an estimated 80mph for the one and one-half hour trip. It was still overcast, still raining, and the air was as stable as it would ever get. There wasn’t a bump in the entire 100-plus miles to Anchorage. When I finally landing at Merrill Field, after 21 days at -41 degrees F, I made one of my smoothest landings ever.

Just as well, since my mechanic later discovered that the trailing spar in the starboard wing had been broken somewhere along the line. We both knew that the first real bump in the air would have caused that wing to fail, leaving both the airplane and me in a big pile somewhere in the Susitna Flats between Talkeetna and Anchorage. An ignominious end at best.

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