Oh, sure, I’ve seen my share of blizzards. Anyone who has lived in the Arctic or sub-Arctic for more than 15 minutes surely has. I’ve seen plenty of williwaws and Chinook winds, too. My first experience with a real blizzard occurred on the 10th day of December, back in 1953. I’ll never forget it.
I was at that time a Senior Aircraft Control and Warning Supervisor at Elmendorf AFB, assigned to the 10th Air Division (Defense). I had a three day break coming up, and had decided to drive down on the Kenai Peninsula and hike the Lower Russian Trail along its three-mile mountain route to the Russian River Rendezvous Lodge at Lower Russian Lake. The 25-mile trail I took was the largest part of that trail led to Resurrection Pass through the Kenai Mountains – a part of the Chugach Range – that terminated at the City of Seward.
I had driven the Seward Highway down to the old wooden covered bridge at Schooner’s Bend, near Cooper Landing, where the three-mile trail followed the Lower Russian Lake upstream to the lake. The Russian River Rendezvous Lodge was located near Bear Falls, just downstream from Lower Russian Lake. A friend of mine, Bill Roberts, owned and operated that lodge in those old days before a half dozen years statehood.
The night of December 9th saw the snow beginning to fall. It became harder and harder as the night progressed. By the following morning, the new snow depth was beyond 30 inches, and all the roads in that part of the state were closed.
The military is a bit fussy about seeing someone miss a military formation or a scheduled call to duty. More than that, we were in the middle of the Cold War with Russia, and our radar-facilitated chores were considered “guard duty.” To illustrate how serious the military was about that sort of thing, remember that anyone who fell asleep at a radar scope in those days was to fall asleep on guard duty. The penalties, in both the old Articles of War and its replacement, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, went all the way to death for such an infraction!
At any rate, I had strapped on a pair 10” x 58” trail-style snowshoes and headed out the three mile mountain trail. I figured that, as long as I made a real effort to get back in time for my scheduled crew shift, I would be all right. I figured it would take six days of hard snowshoeing, though surely the roads would be cleared before that, presenting an opportunity to hitchhike and find a ride that way. I could later get a lift back to my car.
On the way out along that trail, I met two trappers that I knew. They persuaded me to abandon such a harebrained scheme and that I should return to the lodge, as the roads would surely be cleared by the following morning. Which I did, the result of which was that – when I returned to duty one shift day late – the Commanding Officer, Captain Green, hit me with an Article 15 and took a rocker from my stripes. I had been given a choice between an Article 15 and a Summary Court Martial, and I had been a witness in one of those court martial affairs. I surely didn’t want stockade time for my error, so had selected the non-judicial squadron punishment.
My defense that the blizzard, having been an act of God, was the cause of my tardiness brought the response that I was in Alaska, during the wintertime, and snow was to be expected.
Sixty days later, Captain Green notified me that I was to meet the upcoming promotion board to get my rocker back. I told him that I didn’t want the promotion (my new wife and I were expecting a baby, so I didn’t need the pay boost that the rocker would bring.) The good captain told me that he would court martial me if I missed that promotion board, since it, too, was a military formation. I countered with the fact that I was scheduled for a crew shift that day, surely also a military formation of some importance. The war between us was then on!
The blizzard to which this tale appends is the blizzard of November, 1974. And that one was a real doozy!
I had earlier discussed scheduling a winter moose hunt for Bud Root and his friend Pat. Both these guys were architects and were good friends of mine. At that time, I shared an architectural office with Bud’s wife, also an architect. Bud would later go on to become an accomplished and successful political cartoonist.
We had determined that they would like to leave for the bush on Saturday, November 9, 1974. I had suggested the upper reaches of Drift River, at the northern entrance to Lake Clark Pass. When we lit out that Saturday morning with three souls and camp gear aboard – yes, an overload in my 125-hp agricultural model Super Cub – the weather was down around our ankles and we had to abort the trip.
The next day, Sunday, we were able to make it down the west side of Cook Inlet and thence west to the selected camp site. We had spotted several suitable bull moose within 300 yards of their proposed campsite. So far so good. I helped Bud and Pat set up their camp and then headed back to Merrill Field, careful to avoid flying over the moose. We had planned that I would be back on the following Saturday to begin the flights that would get them, and their meat and horns, back to Anchorage.
On Wednesday, the 13th of November, I became aware of a real storm that had come ashore at Nome, nearly 1,000 miles to the northwest. The cold Bering Sea was driven over the seawall there with such force that the water crashed through the front of a local pool hall, throwing the snooker table clear through the rear wall. This was indeed a serious storm!
When the Kuskokwim Mountains didn’t slow it down, I doubted that the Alaska Range would protect my hunters, either. I lit out on Friday, November 15th, to haul my hunters back out of the bush, whether or not they had bagged their moose.
Flying south along the shoreline of Cook Inlet, with the tall Alaska Range not far off the right wing, I was very happy to have the aerobatic harness that held me firmly to the seat of bouncing little Super Cub, now banging along at 30 feet AGL in turbulence that surely went to nine on a scale of one to ten.
Visibility in the heavy snowfall was down to less than a half mile and getting worse. After having passed Tyonek, which was above me, and I couldn’t see it, I scooted by the Nikolai Creek strip, elevation 30 feet MSL, but it too had disappeared in the low cloud cover. And that cloud cover was now pressing me ever lower.
When I hit the south at the fork of the Chakachamna River, I knew I couldn’t go any farther in the visibility I now had – surely not more than 200 yards. I put the bigfoot Super Cub down on the beach there, shut ‘er down, and climbed out to sit on the big tundra tire on the lee side of the plane. I lit a smoke and noted the time. In the next twenty minutes, it had snowed another four inches. The wind was still howling down the eastern slopes of the Neacola Mountains, a part of the great Alaska Range.
In another few minutes, the snowfall seemed to slack off just a bit, and I once again strapped on the little Super Cub and took off, still headed south. I was now flying with partial flaps, at an indicated airspeed of around 50 mph, and at an altitude that required raising the plane just enough to keep the lower wing out of the roiling Cook Inlet waters when I had to make a shallow turn. The snow was now falling so fast it was no longer melting as it hit the unfriendly water, my last visual tie to the earth.
The Super Cub dashed past Drift River, and the oil camp strip there, unseen. Suddenly, a shadow shot past the right window, and I knew I was flying along the west shoreline of Redoubt Bay, with 10,197 ft. Mount Redoubt not far off the right wing. I also knew that, given the really horrid visibility, I was about to fly past Harriet Point. And, if I did that, there was a good chance that I’d just fly right on out over the North Pacific Ocean and vanish from the face of the earth.
I knew that the shadow I had noticed was from the three Sitka spruce trees I knew were growing hard against the beach, the only trees in that neck of the woods. With the airplane still bouncing like a monkey riding a football, I checked the panel-mounted clock, raised the nose just a tad, and rolled into a 45-degree left turn out over the angry water. I had just started the teardrop turn that would, hopefully, take me back to the beach for an emergency landing.
I flew that compass course as closely as I could for one minute, then began the standard rate right turn of 180 degrees that should allow me to intercept the beach again at a 45 degree angle, and headed roughly northwest. With the Super Cub’s very sparse gathering of instruments, I was flying true partial panel for this teardrop turn. After about a minute of this inbound course, I found the shoreline where the slushy and silt-laden water hit the beach, throttled back (I was already flying with full carburetor heat), pulled one more notch of flaps and settled onto the beach. The landing roll couldn’t have been much more than forty feet. As I turned the little Cub 90 degrees to the left to get it a bit higher on the beach, the spinning prop threw a wealth of snow from a three-foot high snowbank there. I starved the little Lycoming engine into silence and finally relaxed. While I usually enjoy flying bad weather, this flight had so far been a bit beyond the pale.
After shutting down the little 125-hp Lycoming engine, I climbed out to swing the tail around about 240 degrees and up over the beached cottonwood log that had been concealed beneath the snow bank that the spinning prop had hit, securing both the tail and the right wing to the log. That called for another cigarette as I listened to the cooling cylinder fins and the roaring wind. The plane was now well protected in the lee of those three trees.
When I looked behind the headliner where my emergency supplies were supposed to be strapped to the starboard longerons, I discovered they were gone! I later learned that a friend had thought to remove them so they wouldn’t be stolen. GREAT! Now all I had was my custom Holubar, goose down sleeping bag, which I had carried to the plane before departure that morning.
The OAT showed the free air temperature standing firmly at 30 degrees F, and each snowflake that hit those spruce trees melted to form a big, wet water droplet. The earth beneath the trees was an ankle-deep puddle of cold water. I did try to set up a temporary camp there, but in no time at all the sleeping bag became so very wet that the goose down was as effective as so much wet Kleenex. I spent the next several days huddled inside the little Super Cub, cold but relatively dry.
In the middle of the night on Friday, the 15th, two and one-half days after the landing, I looked out the left side window and back up the inlet to see a glow in the dark. Though it was still snowing, the wind had abated just a bit. I knew the glow was from the gasses being burned off the most southern of several offshore oil drilling platforms. I thought that, if I could see that glow, I could see well enough to fly.
I climbed out to walk one hundred paces north along the snow-covered beach. I knew that 250 feet was much more than enough to get the empty little Super Cub airborne. I was about to leave my little prison.
I gathered up a spruce limb from beneath the three trees, broke off most of the small limbs and sticks, and used that to sweep off most of the snow from the wings. I knew that I hadn’t gotten it all, what with no light with which to see, but the Cub’s wing was pretty forgiving, and I was sure that whatever snow remained wouldn’t do too much to its flying abilities. What I didn’t know was that, when the spinning prop had hit that snowbank, it had also struck the cottonwood log beneath it, altering the prop’s pitch a bit.
Satisfied that there were no rocks, logs, dead seals, new springs, or other impediments to my snowy runway, I untied the Cub, lifted the tail from the log, and walked it around until the plane faced north along the beach.
The faithful little Super Cub started right away and, after warming the engine until the oil temperature needle had come off the peg, it was time for the slow addition of full takeoff power.
The takeoff took just a bit longer than I had anticipated, a fact I gave to the snow most likely left on the upper wing surfaces. What I also didn’t know was that my spruce limb broom had ripped a score of gashes in the wing fabric.
I leveled off at 200 feet and called Kenai Radio, about 30 miles ENE and across definitely unfriendly Cook Inlet. I learned that Anchorage was still holding a 300-foot ceiling, 35-knot winds, and 1/8 mile visibility in blowing snow. I doubted that I could successfully make a return flight along the west side of Cook Inlet in the complete darkness, without instruments, and decided to head directly for the town of Kenai.
I also learned that my two hunters had walked out along the oil company’s sand road to their headquarters camp, and were even then warm, dry, and well fed. Thank goodness for that!
I headed directly for the oil platform and its welcoming gas-burning glow. After making two complete circles around that mentally warming glow, I realized that I couldn’t just fly around and around until my fuel load was exhausted, and I finally took up a course for Kenai, still several miles away and west across the dark, wet world I was living it at the time.
After a seeming eternity, I could see the white that indicated solid, if snow-covered, land. When I hit the beach, I turned south to find the Kenai River. There, I made the 180-degree left turn that would line me up on Kenai’s blacktop runway, where I made a smooth landing. After taxiing in to the transient tiedown area, I tied the Super Cub to the earth and went inside to report my return to the living, call my lady friend in Anchorage, soon to become my wife, and called for a taxi to take me into town for a huge T-bone steak dinner and a good, warm night’s sleep. While en route to the motel, all the lights along a 450-mile stretch of highway went out. A power failure of monumental proportions that darkened every light from Homer to Curry, north of Talkeetna, had just occurred. A blizzard indeed!
I reflected that, had the power failure occurred only thirty minutes earlier, I might still be circling around over the chilling waters of Cook Inlet, hugging the warm glow of flaming burn-off gasses.
When I returned to Anchorage’s Merrill Field, I discovered all the damage I had done to the little Super Cub. I stripped the fabric from the wings, yanked the prop, and had my mechanic detail strip all the rest of it, ordered a new 150-hp Lycoming engine, a full panel of instruments, including marker beacons and other gadgets to make my Cub into an IFR machine, a complete rebuild from the tubing out. Never again did I want to fly around one of those oil platforms like a moth to a light bulb.
Editor’s Note: Mort Mason has been a popular Air Facts contributor for years, sharing his harrowing stories of flying in Alaska. He recently released a new book, What It’s Really Like: Flying the Alaska Bush, which is available from Sporty’s Pilot Shop.
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Mort– you certainly know how to make my palms sweat. My only consolation while reading this will-he-or-won’t-he tale was that I suspected you made it out alive. That or you were writing while fluttering silver wings and adjusting your halo.
Very interesting. For the other pilots reading this garbage don’t think that you need to emulate this feat to earn a hero-badge. There are no hero-badges, there are only sadness-badges when you fly like this author. Families and the entire aviation community suffer when this sort of idiotic pilotage occurs. I don’t much care if it took place in Alaska or Alabama, it is nuts to somehow think this pilot is a hero for this story. This isn’t a story about and emergency flight whereby the pilot is flying a heart to a clinic for a transplant. This isn’t a story about flying a vaccine to a community to save hundreds of lives. This is a story about a lot of very bad decisions, sadly it isn’t framed that way. One bad decision after another, and for no good reason. Very very sad and shameful to share this garbage with young pilots who don’t know any better.
Right on Jeff however there are and always have been pilots who took unreasonable risks and many of them died. Then there are pilots who make excuses for this kind of behavior. Both contribute to the lousy safety record of GA.
Assuming you aren’t a troll (and you may well be), I think it would be best if you climb down from your high horse, Jeff. Bush pilots, particularly those who flew more than a few years ago, had to take chances (calculated risks?) that those of us who live in the lower 48 did not (and do not) have to take. Either you take those chances or you find a new occupation.
Nobody is making Mort out to be a hero and I’m quite certain he doesn’t view himself in that way. He is sharing his experiences as a bush pilot and I am happy to read about those flights. Heck, I might even learn something! Have you ever read Ernest K. Gann’s ‘Fate is the Hunter’? My guess is that you would say something equally disparaging about that fine book.
Do you consider Red Bull racers, low-level aerobatic pilots, fighter pilots, bush pilots, ferry pilots, vintage warbird pilots, crop-dusters, fire fighters, carrier pilots, coast guard rescue pilots, air evac pilots… heck, even IFR pilots, worthy of your ‘garbage’ label? What about the spin training I had to do to become a CFI? ALL pilots take risks when we leave the ground and sometimes things don’t go as planned. Perhaps you are the only pilot (if you are a pilot) who has never had anything go wrong or has never made, in retrospect, a poor decision.
Apparently there are many of us who really treasure the aviation experiences of bush pilots and enjoy reading what you so eloquently called ‘garbage’. And I do not for one minute have an irresistible urge to replicate his blizzard flight.
We are so risk averse now that I wonder how we managed, as a people, to do anything great? Safety is indeed the top priority for pilots, but I want to be able to read about experiences when things go very wrong… I want to READ about those experiences, if you get my meaning.
Keep on writing, Mort!
Great writing Mort. Love reading about Alaska bush flying days.
Well, Jeff Welch, this flight was made to retrieve two moose hunting clients of mine. State statutes made me responsible for their health, safety, and welfare; no one else knew where they were. Under state law, having abandoned them would have set me up for manslaughter charges by the state.
The storm, the most horrific in many decades, destroyed a number businesses in Nome, one thousand miles away, and then crossed several mountain ranges without slowing. My clients were at serious risk. My risk wasn’t serious, given my already several thousand hours of flying Alaska’s terrible weather
(I was once snowed in on the 4rh of July one year at Cape Thompson). No one else knew where my clients were located; and the weather was too bad for the Air Force’s SAR helicopters to fly. What the hell would YOU have done? Abandon the hunters to their questionable fate?
We had learned to fly in Alaska’s ice fog, high winds, snow storms, and whiteouts. This storm hit us ahead of forecasts. And, no, none of us considered ourselves to be heroes. After 22,000 hours of that sort of flying, I’m still here, and if you wish to call that blind luck, you may. I had many friends that would have called your scathing commentary just so much drivel from a low-time and timid pilot. I have never recommend that sort of flying to another, nor do I now. Stories about clear, sunny days and picturesque sunsets don’t make very exciting reading, in my book. And, if that’s what you prefer to read, please don’t read any more of my Alaska flying experiences.
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