White knuckle scud running

I know, I know – scud running is a no-no. Still, if you fly the Alaska bush, it sometimes seems as though it has become a way of life. During my time at it, we had precious few navigational aids, other than standard radio band broadcasting stations – Alaska’s many low-wattage village radios – and a limited number of LF radio ranges. We couldn’t file flight plans because there were no communication facilities of any kind at our destination points with which to close out the flight plans. Contact flying and ADF needles were our fare. So, please cut me just a little slack for admitting to the following experience.

It was a beautiful sunny Tuesday when we boarded my Cessna 180, N3140C, at South Lake Tahoe, California. Three of us were headed back to Alaska for a spring brown bear hunting trip. The date was May 4, 1965, now a long, long time ago. I had planned to follow the inside, overland route through Canada to Anchorage, where we’d license up, get the appropriate big game tags, and fill out our list of the necessary supplies and grub. I had chosen the inland route because following the offshore overwater route offers precious few beaches suitable for landings.

One hour and 17 minutes after takeoff from the airport at South Lake Tahoe, we slipped into Alturas, California, for coffee and pie; and then it was off for another one plus 37 to Redmond, Oregon, for a fuel stop and to check the weather ahead. From there, it was another one plus 27 to Troutdale, where we had to replace the cylinder head temperature thermocouple; and then another easy two hours into Port Angeles, Washington, where we would stay overnight with Al and Anne Goerg. Al was easily the world’s most famous and capable pioneer handgun hunter.

Inside Passage
The Inside Passage is more forgiving than the coastal route, but it’s hardly flat terrain.

Al and I had hunted together back in 1961. It was then that I had guided him to both the world’s largest moose and the world’s largest caribou ever taken with handguns. For those interested in calibers, the former was taken with a .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk Ruger, while the caribou was taken with a Remington .221 Fireball. Those hunts were featured in Al’s book, Pioneering Handgun Hunting, as well as in several prominent hunting and firearms periodicals. Al and I had more recently scheduled a handgun brown bear trip for later in May of 1965.

The following morning, it was off to Vancouver, then the river trench to Williams Lake, and on to Prince George, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and thence to Northway, Alaska, where we would have to clear U.S. Customs. From there it was another short flight – only two hours – through Gulkana to Anchorage. The entire trip had taken 22.8 flying hours, all of it in bright sunshine. It had certainly been unusual weather for that route.

After a comfortable night in Anchorage, we found that the weather had gone south on us, and we did our shopping under a pretty scabby overcast which was loaded with the light rain and snow that is typical Anchorage weather for that time of year.

The following day, we made it on down the west side of Cook Inlet to Chinitna Bay, where we would stay in a friend’s fishing cabin, as it was still too early for the salmon seasons and the cabin wouldn’t be in use by the owner.

The weather was definitely unfriendly. The angry wind-driven bay waters were pounding the beach, our cabin, and our little airplane, at that time tied firmly to some large boulders and nearby spruce trees.

The lakes were still frozen solid. Al Goerg’s planned hunt, commissioned by a popular outdoor magazine, was to include the handgun taking of a brown bear on the fishing streams, complete with photos. That wasn’t in the cards, given the horrid weather and with the mantle of winter still shrouding the earth there. Besides, it was really much too early in the year for the salmon runs.

I made a flight back to Anchorage – picking up a little airframe rime ice on the way – to telephone Al and suggest a fall season trip, almost guaranteed to fill all his requirements. Al wouldn’t hear of it, and said he’d still make the spring trip. If need be, he would charter a Super Cub pilot from his home town in Port Angeles for the trip. I begged Al to not consider a trip into the Alaska bush with an out-of-state pilot, but he was adamant.

Well, Al did make that trip, and he flew with a stateside pilot named Pennington. It was the last flight for either of them. Outdoor Life magazine later published a very long article about that sad trip. It had been several years before the Super Cub’s wreckage had been spotted by a fishing boat far below the crash site. The plane had already been stripped by bush pirates. The accident site was just a mile over the ridge from our old hunting 1961 camp.

Our own 1965 hunt was an absolute failure, largely due to the weather, and on a scabby Monday morning, May 31st, we lit out from Chinitna Bay headed back to Anchorage. Two days later, we lifted off from Merrill Field, said goodbye to my hometown, and headed northeast for Northway – to pick up on some pie, coffee, and fuel of course – thence, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, two hours ahead, for Canadian Customs clearance and additional fuel.

The weather had cleared somewhat between Northway and Whitehorse, and we departed Whitehorse under sunny skies. We were climbing through nine thousand looking for ten when the 230-hp Continental engine suddenly went deathly silent. The Cessna was fully loaded, of course, and we had left the comfortable Alcan Highway for a more direct route to Watson Lake, BC. Emergency landing spots were somewhere between zero and none at all as I quickly scanned the panel for a clue to the loud silence. In only two or three seconds, the engine came back to purring life. Perhaps only a bead of water in the latest fuel load? Who knew? Back to Whitehorse to have a look for the reason for the engine burble? Nope.

Watson Lake
Watson Lake, a lonely outpost for fuel.

Two hours later, Watson Lake didn’t look very good, but we landed and refueled there, immediately departing, and now looking for Fort St. John, another two hours and forty-five minutes ahead.

The weather continued to deteriorate as the ceiling forced us out of ten for much lower altitudes, only a few hundred feet finally. Still, it was comfortably flyable, and we plunged ahead, fat, dumb, and as happy as clams before the clambake. By now, visibility had us relying for the most part on our ADF, still strong and steady, locked solidly on the St. John LF transmitter.

We had passed a small airstrip about halfway between Watson Lake and Fort St. John. I gave them a call asking for the weather ahead. It wasn’t encouraging. I told them that, if the weather worsened, we might be back for a precautionary landing there. I was told in no uncertain terms that the muddy little dirt field was closed to all traffic, and that we wouldn’t be welcome there. Running a bit short of patience by then, I reminded him that we were flying a very capable Cessna 180, that I was an Alaska bush pilot, and that if he heard our airplane returning, it would wise for him to not be standing in the middle of his muddy little runway.

We were soon relying almost completely on the ADF, and were constantly skirting around the many hills that kept popping up just ahead of us. The tops of all these hills were concealed in the overcast.

We were now flying at about 30 feet above the tree-filled earth. I began hearing Fort St. John in my David Clarks. They were trying to raise us on their VHF frequency. I could receive but not transmit from our low altitude and with the many hills surrounding us. I knew from the broadcasts I was hearing that a pair of Okanagan helicopters were even then warming up for the anticipated search for our little airplane, now presumed down in the Canadian bush. Man, this was getting embarrassing. An Alaska bush pilot down in the bush? You gotta be kidding!

I’ve no idea how many hours I’d spent at this sort of flying, since it was sometimes a given when flying the Alaska back country. Still, this was not particularly familiar country, even though I’d made the same trip several times before. I was certainly red-faced at the thought of those huge helicopters warming up on the Fort St. John blacktop.

I was finally able to get a transmission through to Fort St. John at about the same time the airport came into view just ahead and slightly right of the nose of our Cessna. I called off the anticipated search, asked for and received the clearance to land, and overflew the airport. As I began the teardrop 180 degree turn to enter the left downwind traffic, I lost sight of the airport again in all that snow and low cloud cover. A few seconds later, I again found the airport and the rest is academic.

From Williams Lake to Penticton, we made an honest ground speed of 174 mph. That meant a tailwind of around 50 mph, an appreciated boost for us.

The only other concern we had on our return to Lake Tahoe was at Redmond, Oregon, where the crosswinds at their little airport were truly sobering. I had quite a conversation with the guy on the ground. I wanted to land almost anywhere except on the active runway. He wasn’t having any of that, so I gave up on my requests for a landing that made sense to me but clearly not to him. Redmond didn’t have a control tower, and I knew that the man behind the voice coming through my David Clarks couldn’t see us. I just picked out a convenient turnoff from the runway and landed on a taxiway turnoff and directly into the very strong wind. He never knew the difference. We topped the tanks and at last lit out on our last leg to South Lake Tahoe. All in all, the trip had been fun, even though our bear hunting had been a washout.

3 Comments

  • Mort, I won’t criticize you for skimming the trees…I learned to fly in the 60’s using ADF broadcast stations and pilotage for navigation, and I had a Narco coffee grinder that you could transmit on and navigate VOR but not at the same time. Navigation was basic but crude. I was wondering if you ever ran into a fellow named Ralph Calhoun in your Alaska travels. He was from Raleigh, NC and moved to Alaska in the mid/late sixties. He was a good friend of my Dad’s and left Raleigh to go to Alaska to fly the bush. Unfortunately he crashed not too long after moving up there. The folks at Tanana named their airport after him.

    • Greetings, Dennis,

      Nope, never came across Mr. Calhoun, I’m sorry to say. I’m sorry that bush flying got the better of him.

      I began flying in the fifties, and I know what you mean by the navigation impediments. Most of us were lucky to have made it through those years, I reckon. Though I flew throughout the 1980s. I was never fond of glass panels, and even flew IFR through Hurricane Kate with the trustworthy steam gauges . . .

      Thanks for the note

  • Mort, thanks for sharing. Sounds like you had some wonderful and exciting experiences.
    I am planning a trip to Alaska if not this summer next. Do you have any suggestion on books or information for me to study on how to plan the trip, where to land and stay?
    thanks,
    Hicks Milner
    404-364-0770

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