His hands let go of the stick.
His arms shot up at the sky while letting out the ultimate cry of a soul about to meet his maker: “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
In a split second I saw my life go up in flames before my eyes.
The Alaska Highway had always had a fascinating pull on me since the first day traveling it from Anchorage all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia.
I had been thrown out of the US with a two weeks notice after a successful singing engagement in Anchorage spanning 18 months.
The oil pipeline was being built and North Slope crews on their two weeks off were jamming the hotel lounge where I was performing to see and hear this “spaghetti cowboy” making waves around town.
It was a glorious time. A fun time. Time to work on my US commercial license. I had received my Canadian a couple of years earlier. The money was there and the day lasted well into the night. Glorious flights and glorious nights. It was almost a dream, but it was reality.
My childhood dream of becoming a singer and a pilot, in America, that always elicited peels of laughter among my family and friends, had now become a reality. In Italy no one was laughing anymore. My father, the old, decorated WWI pilot just couldn’t believe it. His shirt buttons were popping out every time he told about me.
George was one of my most ardent fans. A pilot, we’d often rent planes and fly formation around Southern Alaska. We would take friends along and have some glorious times together.
Over the months we dreamed of one day being able to fly the Alaska Highway. What an adventure that would be. We would camp under the wing all the way down.
A year into my marriage and with no children, my life was almost idyllic. That abruptly stopped the day the hotel manager and I went to immigration to renew my working visa. Without so much of a reason I was given two weeks to leave the country.
The same had happened to me in England. I was quickly becoming famous for being thrown out of whichever country I visited, whether for study or for work. All because of my voice and my guitar!
And that’s how my wife and I found ourselves crossing the border into the Yukon on our way to a month-long summer vacation down the Alcan Highway towards the unknown.
Muncho Lake, at the northern border of British Columbia, was a great spot to spend a week. Little did I know I would revisit it under such dire circumstances.
“You’ve camped here on Mucho Lake. Maybe we should go down and take a look.”
George had been hit by the beauty of the lake. He had brought his fishing poles with him.
The Cub had bush tires and he had landed on beaches and sand bars before. Today he was the PIC. Tomorrow would be my turn.
“I’ll do a slow pass over it. You tell me how it looks.”
As the Cub began climbing to go around I voiced my concerns: “You know, George, I don’t feel comfortable landing here. It seems too rocky.”
“I’ve landed on rougher beaches before. Don’t worry.”
At that time the voice in my gut told me to insert the stick into the control column.
The approach was faultless… then the ungodly sound of a wheel taking a hit.
I grabbed the stick and shoved it into my belly while trying desperately to keep the nose up as the Cub skidded on the beach, dragging its fallen right wing through the rocks.
My feet had never worked so hard in all my years of flying.
It finally stopped, fuel dripping out: the blood of a wounded eagle spilling over its wings.
I leaned over the pilot and turned off the master switch and ignition key amid his unending waling cries of, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
“Snap out of it and get out of here!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
I jerked him out of his seat, trying to shake him out of the shock that had grabbed him like a vice the moment the port wheel hit the boulder upon landing, sending the plane skidding at 40 MPH onto its belly, nose up, limping on one side, for what seemed an eternity.
The possibility of the plane going up in flames was way too real in my mind. A spark is all it would take. Amazing how your life can flash in front of you in an instant!
People were stopping on the side of the highway and rushing down to the beach. As I saw a man running down the slope towards us with a cigar in his mouth, the vision of fuel catching fire became all too real.
“Stop! Stop!” I yelled. “Put that cigar out! STOP! We’ve got fuel dripping here!”
He froze as if suddenly realizing the awful consequences of being a Good Samaritan.
“Are you all right?” he yelled back. I assured him we were.
George was shell-shocked. He kept circling the plane like a buzzard over a carcass, in a daze, muttering an unending litany of “Oh my Gods.”
The ominous clouds chasing us during the trip from Whitehorse to Dawson Creek were almost upon us. The wind was picking up. I knew the storm would hit us pretty soon.
I frantically unloaded the Cub and proceeded to set up camp far away from the broken bird, just in case the gods decided to strike it with lightning later on and light up the night, ending its life in a well-deserved funeral pyre for a legend.
George remained unresponsive, deciding instead to consume an unending numbers of beers to soothe the pain of having trashed a beautifully restored Cub. I’d have to let him go through the grieving process for a day or so. Nothing else I could do.
I thanked God we were both unscathed. If only he had looked at his chart—there was a landing strip less than a mile away!
Our families would see us again.
George ended up flying the Alaskan skies again for a few years and I am still flying at 81 years old, studying for my CFI-I.