Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t become a shoe salesman. My biggest problems would be the traffic on my way to work.
The wind was getting stronger, the ceiling was dropping, I still had a long way to go and I didn’t see anywhere below me that looked like a great place to spend the night. The thought of being stuck in rush hour traffic somewhere didn’t sound too bad right now.
Thirteen days ago we had dropped four hunters and three guides into two lakes east of Cordova for a three-day goat hunt. The next day one of those deep lows that are so common to the Gulf of Alaska in the fall moved in and had been pounding the coast with wind and rain ever since. I tried for nine days to get to them and was beaten back each time.
That morning at dawn, the wind died and the rain stopped and we were able to get in to pick them up. I was in a Super Cub, Dennis in a Cessna 180 and we had seven people and their camp gear to get out. Since we were thinking we only had one shot at this, the math didn’t work so we called Tom Madsen in Cordova to meet us in there with his Beaver. While Tom was en route, I started ferrying people from the small glacier lake down to the big lake where Dennis was waiting.
Tom arrived in time to help me out and we got everyone assembled at the big lake. They were in surprisingly good spirits after enduring unrelenting wind and rain for so many days. I had to gas up out of five gallon cans and, while I was doing that, the other two planes loaded the people and some gear and took off. While I was frantically gassing the Cub, I could see the other end of the lake disappearing in rain and mist. Finally, the last can was in the tanks and I blasted off for the trip back to Cordova. What we didn’t know at the time was that the storm had closed in again and the route back to Cordova resembled the Second Coming of Christ.
I picked my way down to the coast so I could follow the beach back to the Copper River. From there I was sure I could find Eyak Lake at Cordova. The fly in the ointment was that visibility was only 50 to 100 feet. I could make that estimation from the fact I was 50 to 100 feet in the air and I could only see straight down to where the surf was pounding the beach into submission. The turbulence was incredible. Every few seconds I was thrown hard against the seatbelt and shoulder straps. The airplane was making a lot of noise that I didn’t like. Luckily the low was to the south, which meant we had an easterly or tailwind because it was blowing well over 60 with higher gusts.
If it would have been a headwind, I could have gotten out and walked alongside the Cub. If someone could have accurately described the turbulence and told me that a Super Cub could take that, I’d have called them a liar. Every few minutes I was giving my seatbelt another tug but I was still banging my head on the greenhouse. One of several thoughts which were going through my mind was that up ahead is a place called Point Katalla. I was out on the open beach and getting the snot kicked out of me. At Point Katalla, the mountains come right down to the ocean and with the poor visibility, there is no way to avoid going around into the lee of those hills. If you have done any mountain flying, you know this isn’t a good thing.
Since I couldn’t see anything, I didn’t know where those hills were, but when the beach took a turn to the north I figured I had arrived. That idea solidified when it seemed that someone threw a stick of dynamite in the airplane. All of a sudden I was totally disoriented, dirt and cigarette butts were flying around in mid-air and I could no longer see the beach out the side window. While frantically looking for the ground (my only point of reference) I looked up (down) out the greenhouse and there was the shoreline. Doing aerobatics can sometimes pay off.
I kicked one rudder hard and she came over enough so I could acquire the beach out the side window where it belonged. This trip was the only time in 30 years of flying that I seriously considered abandoning the airplane. I thought long and hard about just turning that thing into the wind and hovering down to the ground, opening the door and rolling out. I didn’t do it because it would have been the classic out of the frying pan into the fire situation. I only would have prolonged the inevitable. The cause would have just been listed as hypothermia instead of being in the middle of a smoking pile of steel tubing.
I finally made Eyak Lake, which was a churning sea of whitecaps. In order to land where we parked the planes, it was necessary to go up close to the mountains and make a 180 to land into the wind. At this point, I didn’t want anything to do with mountains so I started looking for plan B. On the south shore was a point of land which blocked the wind and took the edge off the waves. The relief I felt after getting that Cub on the water was almost orgasmic, but now I had to find a place to beach. Over on shore, I noticed a person waving me in so I headed in that direction. As I approached, I saw a seaplane slip, but it was 90 degrees to the wind. The person on shore was holding a rope so I made a pass by him to see if he could catch me.
“He” turned out to be a gray-haired older woman who shook out a loop in that rope and nailed the bow cleat with the prop spinning inches away. I bailed out and, between the two of us, we got the Cub wrestled up onto the slip and tied down. When the airplane was secure we had our first chance to talk and she fixed me with the most withering glare and said, “Just what in hell are you doing out flying on a day like today?” I told her the story and she replied very sternly, “Well, your people probably think you’re dead so take my pickup and go into town and let them know you’re alive.” This I did and we all retired to a local watering hole for some very intense debriefing.
The next day was too bad for flying, but the day after I got in the Cub to head back to sheep camp. Pulling and tugging as hard as I could only brought the ends of the seatbelt up level with my hips. There was still about a one foot gap to close in order to latch them. Two days previous, they had been latched and I was still hitting my head on the greenhouse. A Super Cub does have a lot of flexibility and adrenaline is a wonderful thing.
- Bush flying at its worst: a Super Cub caught in a storm - June 5, 2017