Where is North?

Rob would go flying for the same reason the bear goes over the mountain: to see what he can see. This past October, flying around the Susitna Valley, he would assist in the rescue of the pilot and passenger of a downed Super Cub, and execute maneuvers as severe as any night aircraft carrier takeoff and landing and come to the rescue of a victim of an accidental shooting.

It all began on a day like any day with a hole in the sky that needed filling. Well, at least that’s the reason Rob came up with for firing up his Piper Super Cub. He was answering that call of nature: the call of a pilot’s nature to fly.

When most of the leaves are off the trees, it is perfect for spotting game. Hunting season had ended for all but one area near the Kahiltna River. Here was Rob’s last chance at any legal moose that showed its horns. The weather was great, if he needed to spend the night the conditions were perfect. His fuel gauges were full and he had a mission. Not a really important mission, a leisurely Autumn Sunday kind of mission. He decided to fly the west side of Cook Inlet to see what he could see.

Heading out over Mt. Susitna and following the foothills and heading up the Yentna River, he swung around to the west end of the Yenlo Hills and overflew the Kahiltna River, the area still open for moose. An hour or so was all he planned, just enough time to stretch his wings and get home for dinner.

“3343 Tango, cleared for takeoff,” was the call in my David Clark’s, “I was off to take in whatever there was to take in.”

This is my favorite time of year for animal viewing. When the leaves are gone, the game really stands out. Moose bear and wolves would be easy to spot. With hunting season all but closed, there would be fewer planes out and the game would be less spooky.

Sure enough, I counted several moose, several bear and a cub, not a bear cub, A PIPER SUPER CUB! I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was: an upside down Cub with two people anxiously waving their arms. I throttled back, circled around and wagged my wings. I could not see the relief on their faces but am pretty sure it was there.

They knew they were found. I tried to get them to use their radio, but in their excitement they did not think to crawl back in the Cub and turn on the radio. Maybe they were concerned about spilled fuel. I had an Alaska Supplement with me. They work great for writing a note and dropping a message. They’re heavy enough to aim. I wrote that I would call Kenai Flight Service and report their location and that I would stay in the area as long as my fuel would hold out, (I had to stay on station). That’s what the big boys would do. I did not have my GPS. Usually it stays in the plane, but today it was in my truck. I was not able to give Kenai the exact latitude and longitude. I wanted to stay to be able to direct the Blackhawk to the bent Cub and its survivors.

Kenai advised me that help was on the way and they would contact me on 122.9 for specific directions. I knew that I probably could not orbit, (rescue talk), for the amount of time it would take them to get out. I circled around for about thirty minutes looking at a lake, a very small lake, talking to myself. We decided I could land. It’s funny how you can ask questions and give yourself answers. Carburetor heat, throttle back, flaps full, for better of worst I was down and stopped. The easy part was done; I still had to get my (now) very heavy twenty-thousand pound Cub off this very small pond. My mom would say, “What is done is done”. I would worry about that later.

I was too far to make the hike to the downed Cub and its survivors, but I was close enough to make sure a rescue crew wouldn’t waste any time getting to them.

I waited for what seemed like days, when I hear that wonderful clop, clop, clop sound of the Blackhawk. I now know what the troops mean when they talk about their Hueys. It is a sound that sings, “Help is on the way!”

“Piper 3343 Tango, this is Blackhawk 57 Echo Foxtrot, over, do you copy?”

“Roger.” I talked them into my location. I wanted them nearby when I would have to try to get my twenty-thousand pound Super Cub off its little pond. I knew they were several miles out. I warmed up my three horse power Piper and made my blast off. I could have used JATO (jet assisted take off) about now. I turned on my autopilot; it seems that when you have to do the very best with the very least, you do not really have to think of each step. All of your time and experience jells like Jell-O in a bowl. You just do what you have to do.

I called the Blackhawk and told them what I was going to do and requested they over fly my position first, hoping I would not need them. There was a decent wind from the south, a blessing for this take-off. Little did I know, I would later be cursing this same south wind?

They call it the Right Stuff, and thankfully, I had some of that stuff. Well, I am not really sure, maybe some of that would be in my boxers. I held my three horse power, twenty-thousand pound Piper Super Cub on the water until the very last second. Thank goodness, the shoreline was only a few feet above the water. I held it on to the very last second that my autopilot would allow. I popped into the air. Tall grass and no trees were the order of the day. As I stared to breathe again, I climbed up to about one thousand feet, the Blackhawk had me in sight and we flew to the hurt cub.

My shift was over; my new best friends would be home shortly. A glance at my fuel gauges told me I had too much fuel on for the kind of take-off I’d just accomplished. Paul Piper would have been proud of this Cub’s performance. I had more than enough fuel to get back to Lake Hood. What I did not have enough of was daylight; my daylight gauge was past empty. It would be completely dark when I got back to Lake Hood.

Remember that friendly south wind I praised at take-off? When I called Kenai Flight Service and game them a pilot report on the rescue they advised me that the winds at Lake Hood were twenty-five knots, gusting to thirty directly out of the southeast and ceilings were close to minimums.

The weather was working against my good intentions. Snow had started to fall and visibility was getting poor. I stayed close to the river. I was about two thousand feet and ice was starting to build on my struts. Thinking, “Enough is enough”, I descended looking for warmer air. Air temperatures usually start to warm up toward Cook Inlet. I’m not usually concerned until I have to pull on my carburetor heat. I pulled carburetor heat and I was concerned.

Descending to five hundred feet, following the river, the ice did seem to stop building. The only problem with flying the river was that anyone else out there would be following it as well. I was tuned to 122.9 and thankfully I didn’t hear anyone else. Passing the Big Susitna and Flat Horn Lake brought Anchorage into view: it was a bright glow in the clouds.

They say that time stands still in the black holes in outer space. Pushing forward, I knew Lake Hood was a black hole somewhere beyond the pink glow of the city lights and time was standing still.

My forward visibility was getting better and the lights of Anchorage were becoming brighter when Hood tower cleared me into the airspace. It was completely dark now, but the weather was clearing and I could see Elmendorf’s runway lights, and beyond them the beautiful white lights of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Night landings on floats aren’t usual. Up here we have plenty of daylight during the summer. But this time of the year anyone with sense would have been out of the sky way before O-dark-thirty. Lake Hood has some landing lights in the east-west landing canal, but that southeast wind required more of that Right Stuff from me. I couldn’t use the canal. I’d have to land south east without lights.

I found a hurt Cub and its survivors, executed a short landing and take off from a mere puddle, flew threw a snow storm and into icing conditions. How hard could it be to line up this two-ounce Cub on final, south into seventeen knots, with gusts to over twenty in total darkness and land?

I couldn’t make out any reference points on the lake. Lake Hood was just a black hole surrounded by scattered lights. I could see the runway lights on Hood Strip, and the blue taxi lights running south away from the strip. The pot hole is just past the road with blinking stop lights and Ace’s fuel tank is on my left. Another wind check: seventeen knots gusting to twenty out of the south east. I stayed to the right of the new parking area lights and continued my descent. At the last minute I spotted the reflection of the float balls showing the taxi channel at the west end of the lake. I was too high. I cut my power and let the Cub settle; I had to lose some altitude.

Carrier pilots call it the’ Pickle’. On tossing black seas, lined up several miles out, you see the tiny light at the end of a heaving deck surrounded by total darkness. The world exists only in that small point of light. Navy Pilots are issued tons of the Right Stuff. Landing on a carrier on a heaving, pitching seas a night is the ultimate challenge. Tonight it would be the USS Lake Hood, with no Pickle.

Seconds drew themselves out for hours; my short flightseeing tour had turned into the twilight zone. When it gets down to a performance like this; all of the skill, the training, and experience comes down to reflex. You do what you have to do. You just do. You don’t think. If you had to think it through the impossible would not be possible.

My floats touched. Touched is really a pretty mild description of the contact made. The lake was awash in white caps (black caps, is more accurate). The rough water actually helped guide my touchdown. Landing in strong winds on any day is a challenge, but shooting a night landing when you can not see where the surface of the lake is, is like walking on a mirror. You just can’t tell how high you are.

I was down, but the nightmare would not end. I still had to taxi to shore. I felt like I was inside a bottle of black ink that someone was shaking vigorously. Taxing was like trying to turn a sailboat completely down wind. I let the wind sail me backward until I was close to the ramp. That guy with all the Right Stuff who’d gotten me this far came through again, and got the Cub turned around. I applied power and headed for the beach.

It’s really strange, but several weeks before this ‘adventure’, I had put in several cable tie downs at the public ramp. I had had a problem finding a place to tie up to. I sure was glad they were there tonight.

Several State trucks met me at the ramp. The tower must have called and told them someone might need help. I hit the beach and my new friends grabbed my floats. I jumped out and the Cub came around. I was down and locked and I needed a warm place with some light and a pilot’s Pepsi. I needed to be around people. From the ramp I could see the Millennium Hotel my mind was racing. What had just happened? Had this day really begun and ended like I remembered? As I sat here at a table in the hotel lounge, the day’s ordeal truly seemed like a dream.

I drove home, at least I think I drove home, because as I sit here or really as I find myself collapsed in my favorite recliner, it all seemed totally unreal. How could so much happen is such a short time. Could this day really have happened? Here I go talking to myself again but this time as I fell deeply asleep, I did not answer.

My new friends in the wounded Cub were brought out of the wilds of Alaska, its pilot and passenger are fine. They would later go back and retrieve their plane.

A couple of weeks later, I was on another flight with my eleven year-old son, Mike, when the call would come again. “3344 Tango come in”

My son, Mike, loves to fly. It must be genetic. He’s been flying with me since he could walk. We decided to go flying in our Piper PA 12. I’m lucky to have a plane on wheels AND one on floats. It was just about a week since my last flightseeing trip. The one that turned into a dramatic rescue assist complete with successful impossible landings and take-offs.

Mike and I headed out to rediscover the Susitna Valley; we’d only spent a few hundred hours flying the valley together over the past thirteen years. What better did we have to do with a wonderful October day in Alaska?

The tower cleared us to depart on 3-1. Mike slid the throttle forward, Braille’s law took effect and we lifted off. We were cleared to the boat hull, the reporting point on the west side of Cook Inlet.

We decided to fly over to Tony and Kelly’s farm at Point McKenzie. They have a great strip. We’d just stop in to say hi and do a few take-off and landings. These are great times to spend with your son. I love to watch his excitement as we glide down final to land.

From the farm, we headed up the Little Susitna toward its headwaters in the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains. There are a lot of strips in the Valley. Wolf Lake is a residential airpark, another of our friend’s lives there; we overflew their place then headed up the Knik River Valley.

I called Palmer radio to give a position report, telling them I was over-flying the airport and heading up the Knik. The cleared us through but came back with a request.

“Piper 47747, would you look for some people who’ve had an accident?” Apparently a couple who had been floating the Knik needed help. Palmer radio advised that the Troopers had been notified. They asked if we could look around and see if we could spot them.

“Roger, Palmer. I’ll look for them.”

The Knik drainage is a short distance from Palmer. It didn’t take us long to spot the canoe. One look at the scene and I knew this was a situation that could not wait for the Trooper helicopter and the paramedics. Help was needed now. Someone was doing CPR on another person beside the canoe. I had to act fast. I called Palmer with their position (I had my GPS this time). I advised Palmer and another plane in the area that I was going to try and find a place to land.

The Knik River Valley is a large braided drainage fed by the Knik Glacier. There is usually one main channel with a lot of smaller rivulets. You can land on wheels most any place. A lot of pilots use the gravel bars for practice maneuvers.

Of course, when you need really need a gravel bar, you can’t find one. I searched but, the only one I could locate was not very big. I did have a good approach, though. If I could land, there would be several of small rivulets that I would need to wade across to get to the canoe and help.

“Hang on Mike; this will be a tight one.” Carburetor heat, throttle back, flaps full, I slid down on final. I’ve heard where some pilots use the first few feet of shallow water just before the gravel starts to get more landing distance. Mike and I were going to make one of those landings. I needed all the room I could squeeze out of that gravel bar. The approach was great, I was able to drag in over the water and get my speed just right. I could see the gravel in the water; it was getting shallower as I approached the end of the bar. I know I must have touched the water just a few feet out, and then I heard the sound of gravel on my tires. We were down.

Mike knew what was happening. He knew he would stay in the plane while I hiked to reach the people in trouble. I guessed it at half a mile, with two small crossings. The first was only to my waist, the second on a bit deeper. Glacier water is cold, guess you knew that. It was very cold, but the healthy shot of adrenalin it gave me seemed to help. I did not even think about the water temperatures, in situations like this your autopilot kicks in.

A woman was still performing CPR on the man lying on the ground when I approached. She seemed totally exhausted.

They had been floating the Knik, stopping once in a while to do some target practicing. There was some kind of an accident with the gun and the man had been wounded.

Time does strange things. It speeds up, slows down, and it just stops. I took over CPR and tried to comfort the woman, time stopped. What seemed like days was only about an hour. To my great relief I hear the chop, chop of the rescue helicopter. Help arrived; my shift was over. Paramedics from Anchorage who’d come on the helicopter and an ambulance from Palmer were on the scene. I was really glad to see them.

When Palmer radio asked me fly over and look, little did I expect to become this involved? I cleaned myself up a bit and gathered my thoughts. I now had to get back across to Mike. He’d been waiting at least two hours, and it was getting dark. I can not imagine the thoughts going through his thirteen-year-old head.

The trip back seemed to take much longer. I did not realize how far I had gone. When I ran for the scene of the accident, I was operating on total adrenalin. Coming back I was operating in a state of exhaustion.

It was getting dark and it was impossible even to begin to find my tracks. I had to find my son and my airplane. I found it only because Mike had the good sense to turn on a flashlight. I spotted the faint glow of light, faint as it was, appeared like a beacon on a bay to me. I still had to cross two rivulets to reach Mike, but at least I knew which direction to head.

Those rivulets can run the gamut in depth. And with the low light, it was impossible even to pick one that might look shallower than another. I waded into the first one, and thankfully, it was only a bit above my knees. My luck didn’t last, the bank dropped off and the water moved up to my chest. The water seemed colder than before. I drug myself across and then once more I waded in. This rivulet was deeper and totally took my breath away. I slipped back into Rob to the Rescue mode again. This time I was the one who needed my help… I had to get to Mike. He was waiting in the dark wondering where his father had gone and when he was coming back.

It was hard to keep my mind free from worry about Mike sitting there in the dark not knowing when I would be back. I could see his light, but there was no way for him to see or hear me. A new surge of adrenalin surged through me and my exhaustion dropped away. Perhaps that Right Stuff is just adrenalin pumping through arteries. As I pulled myself from the second crossing, I did not feel how cold my body was.

I called to Mike as I neared, he heard and ran to me. If hugs could be measured, his would have won Olympic Gold. I gave him a brief run down, sparing him the real details. He said he heard the helicopter, and saw it come up the valley. At least he knew that I was not alone. It was amazing: he was more worried about me than himself.

The worst was over, we were together. The relief did not last long. I still had to get us out of there. The temperature had fallen to where they go in late October. I was drenched from icy glacier water. Staying was not an option.

By now, it was totally dark. I had looked over the area before we landed, and knew that there were no obstacles to worry about. Gratefully, the Knik drainage is a wide open expanse.

I did one of the most complete preflight checks I had ever done. I needed this space shuttle to get us up and out. I had to make sure I had not dinged anything on landing. I checked everything at least three-thousand times. It had to be right. If anything went wrong, there would be no Blackhawk hovering nearby. Mike and I were on our own.

I paced off the gravel bar and did not like the count. We pulled the plane back until the tail wheel was in the water. I let the engine warm up way longer than normal, which was hard to do because all I wanted to do was add power and get this take-off over. I bit my lip waiting for the oil and engine temps to get well into the green. I reached back to make sure Mike’s belt was really tight. I checked my own again.

“Mike are you ready?”

“Yeah, Daddy-O, go for it.”

It was time to reach down deep. Time to do what had to be done. No obstacles to worry about, all I had to do was keep my airspeed up, and the needle and ball and rate of climb where they belonged, and hold the faith. Everything was going to turn out.

I slid the throttle forward, the plane started to roll. The landing light shined off into total darkness. I felt the tail fly, felt the wings bite into the air, and I could feel the weight come off the wheels. Time stopped, and then it started to move, it moved slowly. We were airborne.

I called Palmer Flight Service and gave them a post rescue pilot report and got good weather news in return. The flight back was quiet. Mike and I did not need to talk, we were going home. Words could not fill the need for home.

Anchorage glowed in the distance. My cabin heater was doing its job. Time moved forward normally once again. My engine never sounded better than it did that night.

Rob is a regular Alaskan kind of guy from down South Dakota way. He exemplifies the best of Alaska’s general aviators. Hero’s just do what Hero’s do, and Rob just went flying.