Robbing two pieces of luck from my box of experience

I was really looking forward to this winter hunt for ptarmigan and snowshoe rabbits. Cold? You bet, at about -25 degrees F, but that’s pretty much what one quickly learns to expect of interior Alaska. After all, this trip was to be made during the cold weather month of January, 1957. Our planned trip would center on an area around Mendeltna, a wide spot in the highway leading from Anchorage to Tok Junction and on to the Lower 48 states. Mendeltna was in the high plateau country around Lake Louise, an area that I would later come to know as well as I knew the backs of my own hands.

Three of us had planned the cold weather, snowshoe assisted hunt. The other two were Gene Hock, my friend since high school days, and then Assistant Right-of-Way Agent for the City of Anchorage, Alaska. The third guy in the party was Bob Moore, Gene’s boss at city hall. All three of us had a wealth of hunting experience behind us.

Matanuska River
That river is a VFR route in Alaska – but what happens when you can’t see the mountains?

My companions had planned to drive up the night before the scheduled hunt itself, but I had neither the spare time nor the inclination to drive the 165 miles to the hunting area we had picked out. My pilot logs show that I had a total of 30 flying hours by then, a handful of those on skis, so the flight between the mountains didn’t put me off at all. And so it went, my hunting partners leaving Anchorage well after dark on a Friday night – Anchorage enjoys only about five hours of daylight at that time of the year – and I expected to preflight an Aeronca Champ at Merrill Field on the following morning.

Saturday morning was bright and sunny as I made my way to the aircraft, N7448B, and began my preflight chores. After having later earned my private pilot certificate, I would see this same airplane crashed halfway between Anchorage and Big Lake, as a gravel strip named Goose Bay. It was perfectly vertical, with the nose buried and the tail pointing skyward. Both passengers had been killed, of course.

En route to the hunting area we had selected, my route would take me to Palmer, about fifty road miles north of Anchorage, and thence up the Matanuska River to Sheep Mountain and on to Mendeltna. I didn’t get quite that far.

Beyond Palmer, and following the river upstream toward the great Matanuska Glacier, I noticed a very low stratus layer ahead. I was by then flying below the highway which was just off my left wing. Impressive mountains were quite near on both sides, and I noticed that there were at least two separate layers of stratus above me. I could see that the lower level shrouded the glacier ahead, obscuring most of it. I could also see that, if I continued beneath the lowest level, I would soon fly into the face of that glacier right at its moraine. I wasn’t fond of that picture. I decided just to climb above the lowest level and proceed between layers. Did I mention that I had only 30 hours under a seat belt at that time? I had already climbed to an altitude that would seal my fate when my mental alarm bells went off, telling me that I was then making a fatal mistake! I circled around and descended to get below the lowest level again and have another look.

I took the time to look at the Anchorage Sectional Chart, were I discovered a route that might save my bacon. I was flying at about 550 feet MSL, and knew there were mountains off either wing rising above 6,000 feet on the left and above 8,000 on the right. The mountains rise sharply from the lowlands at the point where I was flying, and my little flight path had been pressed down to less than two miles wide.

I knew that, at the very foot of the Matanuska Glacier, there was a small radio tower just off my left wing, and atop a small, sharply pointed piece of rock. On the back side of that rock was the Glenn Highway that led to the Alcan Highway itself.

It would be a squeeze, but if I could skirt around that little radio tower off my left wing, I’d be over the road and just five miles or so from the Sheep Mountain strip. That strip, according to the old Alaska Airport Directory, measured 2,200 x 80 feet, and was silt and gravel. The REMARKS column states: Caution advised as airport has severe gradient dropping from SW to the ENE. Hill 200’ higher than strip 800’ NE. SW is favored approach. ENE end rough with small gullies across runway. Charter service available. ACS telephone available. Boundaries marked by 55 gal. drums. With the earth covered with a blanket of snow, it was hard to read all that from the air, but 2,200 feet was certainly more than enough for an Aeronca Champ on skis.

Sheep Mountain
Not a long runway, but it will have to do.

I made the strip – just barely, I admit – and settled down to a smooth landing. I missed all the gullies. I hoofed it up to the lodge building and wrapped myself around some hot, black coffee and a generous piece of homemade cherry pie. That gave me time enough to gather my wits about me, and I was soon ready to harness up, start the little ski plane, and scoot on up the road to meet my friends.

The ground here rises from the 2,700 foot MSL strip to the plateau itself at around 3,500 feet MSL. That 800 feet of vertical space seemed enough to me, and I plunged ahead even as the ground around me rose and rose. I was surprised when I slammed into the clouds before the ground beneath me leveled out. All I could see was the black-painted back of the spinning propeller.

Those were the days long before any instrument training was included in flight instruction leading to the PPL exams. My goodness, we hadn’t even heard of the 180 degree turn that would get us out of scabby weather. IMC hadn’t even been coined, but that’s where I found myself. In IMC weather clear up to my earlobes.

I rolled into a quick right turn, certainly at more than a standard rate of turn, since the wings were approaching 90 degrees to the earth. And I didn’t notice that my right foot was still pressing the right rudder almost to the floor!

I had been flying at about 50 feet above the scattered black wintertime spruce. When I dove through the overcast, all I could see was the snow-covered earth and a few dangerously close Sitka spruce. Thank goodness for the Champ’s effective ailerons. I was just able to clear the spruce trees and head back to Sheep Mountain Lodge and another piece of pie with good, black coffee.

Did I learn anything with that flight? You bet I did! I learned that I had just dipped into the box of good luck, robbing two pieces of luck from my box of experience.

My first decision to avoid flying between layers was a good decision, and was lucky in and of itself. And though the ground sloped upward from Sheep Mountain onward, and I honestly thought I could make it on to Mendeltna. I learned to never, never fly on when you don’t know for sure that you will make it. “I think I can” applies only to little locomotives…

I also learned that a 30-hour wealth of experience does not a bush pilot make.

6 Comments

  • Despite your 30 hours at the time you were still smart enough to recognize a couple bad choices.

    Probably explains the continuing accumulation of years and hours in a tough environment, thanks for writing/hangar flying.

  • This story is well written and captivating! My friends, Fred and Randi Hirshmann live across the river from Matanuska Glacier. My wife and I have traveled the very same route you describe in a Cessna 172. However; when I flew it, I had higher ceilings….at least most of the time! Well done!

  • Good article.

    Oh yeah, definitely good choices following bad choices… but, sometimes ya gotta try.

    The 180 maneuver is a tough one to make. It almost feels like defeat, besides it being bald-faced evidence of having made a bad decision in the first place. But, it certainly saved my bacon a couple times.

    Many years ago, with only a few hours on my own PPL, a friend was preparing for her solo student X-C. Her confidence level seemed quite low, and she was apprehensive about the exercise. Offering encouragement, I reminded her of the importance of remembering that a 180 was always an option. I tried to stress that there’s no shame in it. (OK, almost always.). As it turned out, she encountered an unexpected low ceiling near the end of the first leg of her planned flight, recalled my suggestion, calmly executed a 180, and returned to base… and I got a hug for my advice.

    Perhaps she could have made it in and out of that airport with little problem. I don’t know, because I wasn’t there to see exactly what she faced. But, either way, when a pilot (especially low-time) faces any situation that exceeds their confidence/experience level, an escape plan and retreat is always “the better part of valor”.

    As an addendum, I’ve always opined that the most dangerous hours for beginning VFR pilots is somewhere in the 200-300 range. Just enough experience and luck to foster overconfidence and begin thinking they can get themselves into and out of any situation… and end up over their heads.

    Remember the 180, and be brave/wise enough to use it.

  • Three years ago, my wife and I flew from eastern North Carolina up the Alaska Highway through Tok, and then down to Anchorage (Merrill) in our Husky A1-B, and the area around the end of the Matanuska glacier is pretty tight in places, but spectacularly beautiful in clear weather. We did it in July, when the weather is often nasty in Alaska, but it was pretty good that day. Due to weather, on our return trip, we followed the AK Hwy from Fairbanks down through to its end in Canada.

    The addition of cameras at various pass locations in AK is a really big help in making go-no go decisions for VFR flights. Many years ago, not long after getting my pilot’s license, I realized that an instrument rating was going to be necessary if I wanted to be able to consistently get from where I live east of the Appalachians to anywhere west of them. I file IFR about 2/3 of the time I need to go over the mountains due to IMC (they are lower than the Rockies, but no less treacherous if caught unexpectedly in IMC).

    By the way, Mort’s latest book is a “must-read” for anyone wanting to fly in Alaska!

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