Flying the Super Cub

Looking back on my accident, I had a total of 282 hours flying time. The insurance company’s representative told me that statistics show that around that number of hours is when first-time accidents are likely to happen and are quite common.  They also say that a major accident usually only happens once.  Our cub had a 150HP engine and I know now that a 160HP is much better at high altitudes. I made sure that our next cub was a 160HP.  They say you fly a cub by the seat of your pants; you actually feel or experience the plane.  This is so true.  I believe to this day that with my experience and a 160HP engine and doing everything the same but with a little more finesse in my reaction, I would not have crashed.  Every year I found myself landing in areas that I wouldn’t have the year before because of my experience.  Experience in your flying environment is the most important part of becoming an exceptional pilot. 

Landing at swamp camp, altitude 4000'.  This picture was taken by Demitrious Deoudes or better known as Dee.  Dee was one our top sheep guides.  He still works for AAA Alaskan Outfitters now as a pilot.

Landing at swamp camp, altitude 4000'.  This picture was taken by Demitrious Deoudes or better known as Dee.  Dee was one our top sheep guides.  He still works for AAA Alaskan Outfitters now as a pilot.

It was about a month after the accident that Paul Claus, who was flying for us at that time, was flying me back to Chitina.  He asked me when I was going to fly again.  I told him I wasn’t sure. He said he thought it was time and landed on a sandbar on the Chitina River.  He got out and said for us to trade places.  He told me that he had had a few accidents and if the plane hadn’t caught fire I could have flown it out.  He climbed in the back seat and said, “Let’s go.”  I think that take-off was scarier than my first solo take-off.  When I greased the landing at Chitina Paul said, “You’re ready.”

After we got our new plane I worked out of the Big Bend Lake strip with no problem as long as it was dry.  One year it was so wet I decided not to take anyone in and asked Paul to take a client and me in with his light cub.  It was about 150 pounds lighter than mine.  Being light is really important on short strips.  Paul dropped us off and later when he picked us up, told me that he had never liked that strip.

During my guide career, I continued to fly for another 4,200 hours in our second super cub, 1936A, with only a few minor incidents. The following are some of the experiences that I had while flying our new “super cub.”

Landing at one of our spike camps in our Western Alaska area.

Landing at one of our spike camps in our Western Alaska area.

The “super cub” is a workhorse and guides use them for about everything when it comes to logistics like hauling in supplies, flying clients and their guides into spike camps and picking up harvested animals.  One day I had 35 take-offs and landings picking up moose and moving camps.  These landing spots are usually just short little flat places that we find or our guides make with a pick and shovel.  They try to get as close to the kill site as possible.  They knew that I needed 300 feet into the wind.  There have been a few times when the guide or packer works for most of the day trying to get me a 300 feet strip and the wind is blowing 30 miles an hour and then I come in and land in 30 or 40 feet.  They’re not real happy.  They asked why 300 feet if you land in 40 feet?  Of course the amount of wind and payload is what makes the difference.  With no wind and a load, I need that much room for safety.  Some of our guides hated making the decision where I was to land knowing a mistake could cause an accident.  It is a big responsibly and they knew it. 

The big tundra tires play an important part in landing in these type areas.  We started out using 30” Air Streaks but when they quit making them we switched to 31” Bush Wheels.  Both worked great on rough areas.  They are like big soft balloons, especially if you run them with low air.

It is one thing to be on the ground looking for a place to land but most of the time I’m looking from the air.  Usually when I think I have spotted a place I will make numerous fly-bys from both directions as slow as I can.  I don’t land unless I have good wind, like 20 mph or so and not much gas on board.  I want to be light.  I need the wind to slow me down and to get out especially if it is short.  I remember one spot that I looked at for three years before I landed.  One day as I was flying by I had 30 mph winds so I looked it over and landed.  I used my small military shovel which also has a pick to knock the tops off of the humps and to fill some holes.  I marked it with surveyor’s tape and left to go get a packer and larger shovels so we could make it longer.  When we came back the winds had died down and when I landed I almost run off the mountain.  Wind and being light are the two most important factors.  This area turned out to be a great camp.  We use it for the next five years.

Canyon Creek Glacier in the Wrangell Mountains.  The white ice we land on is in the middle to lower left of the picture.

Canyon Creek Glacier in the Wrangell Mountains.  The white ice we land on is in the middle to lower left of the picture.

Landing on sand bars, creek beds, mountain tops and swampy tundra is one thing but the most difficult landing is on a high altitude glacier.  You must gain your altitude before you get there and you can only check it out from 300 or 400 feet above.  Once you find some fairly flat white ice which only occurs on a few glaciers you can usually find a spot to land.  We had such a place in our Wrangell Mountain sheep area. You must find your touch down spot and make sure that the water grooves are under 12” or so and there are no big rocks.  They change every year depending on snow levels and temperatures.  After about 5 or 6 years of landing on all the other type terrains I felt I was ready.  I ask Paul Claus if he would come up to my spike camp on August 9th and give me some hands on instruction.  He agreed and showed up the morning of the ninth.  We climbed in my cub with him in the front seat and we took off.  It was only a 5 mile flight.  We started at 4000 feet and climbed to about 6,500 feet.  Once we got to the white ice Paul told me again what I should be looking for.  He said, “Once you commit, you are landing.”  There is no-go around.  You always land going up the glacier and take off going down the glacier.  He made a great landing with both tires in different water grooves or what I call “ice creeks.”  We got out looked things over moved some big rocks and I marked my touch spot with surveyor’s tape.  Paul jumped in the back seat and I made my first take off from a glacier.  Thirty minutes later and I was back with my client and made my first glacier landing.  I was now ready for opening day of sheep season.

Looking down at the white ice landing area.

Looking down at the white ice landing area.

  Strong winds can be your friend on a short strip but it can also cause problems with turbulence. I have watched my GPS which normally indicated 87 mph indicate 8 mph in headwinds and turn back and have it indicate 160 mph with a tail wind.  On that day there were three of us flying in a spike camp to the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula.  We had a guide and client with us.  As we broke over the mountain ridge at a very fast speed we could see the waterspouts on the ocean so we knew we were in trouble.  We decided to turn back and were immediately caught by the strong leeside winds.  It was like we were in a suction.  For some reason because of my position to the ridge I was able to make it over with my GPS indicating 8 mph.  Gary Bishop who was beside me made it over but his GPS flat lined or indicated 0 mph.  My partner Dan Schwarzer was flying backwards and could not make it over no matter what altitude he tried.  Dan ended up doing a safe landing on the coast where we were headed and didn’t make it back to camp until the middle of the next day.  Not one of my favorite flying days.

One fall on the Alaska Peninsula the winds and weather were especially bad.  My right elbow got so sore from fighting turbulence that I had to use my left arm until I was about to land then I changed back to my right arm for the critical movements.  Once I was in turbulence so bad my head hit the ceiling with my seatbelt tightened all the way.  I don’t know how that’s possible?

In the fall because of losing daylight and bad weather it seems like you are always behind the curve.  You end up pushing the daylight.  I made me some runway light markers for the ends of the runway at our Otter Lake base camp.  They used D-cell batteries and had to be physically turned on.  If I knew it was going to be close I would turn them on before I left.  If I didn’t it was up to our packers to come over and turn them on.  It always worked out.  Before I made the runway lights we used Coleman lanterns. The packers would put one on each end of the strip.  For spike camps or late evening pick-ups we marked my landing area with a flashlight on a space blanket to mark touchdown and a flashlight at the other end for direction.  It always worked but it was always better to be on the ground before you lost the light.

In our Western Alaska area most of our spike camps were accessed by landing on mountain tops.  When I checked on or serviced the spike camps I would land, leave the plane and take the supplies down to the camp.  There have been numerous times when I returned the cub had been blown backwards and almost off the mountain.  As you know from a previous story the winds did come up one day and blew it into Otter Lake which was our Western Alaska main camp.

Landing on skis at a frozen Otter Lake during spring brown bear season.  Photo was taken by one of our spring hunters, Ken Farrier of Torrington, WY

Landing on skis at a frozen Otter Lake during spring brown bear season.  Photo was taken by one of our spring hunters, Ken Farrier of Torrington, WY

As I have said before the “super cub” is a workhorse.  I had a lumber rack on the bottom of 1936A.  I could carry up to 10 sheets of plywood depending on the thickness.  I would saw it down the middle so it was 24” wide and 8’ long.  You sandwiched it between the rack and three square bars using six 16“ long all-threads.  The longest lumber that I carried was 16’ long 2x6’s.  I could only carry four of them at a time because of my gear legs and the rest of the load would be 2x4’s either 8 or 10 footers. That was always a funny looking load with the 2x6’s sticking four foot forward and four foot behind.  I hauled enough to build a 14’x16’ cabin at the Dog Salmon base camp and a few tent platforms both at Otter Lake and the Dog Salmon camp.

I also had a removable spreader bar used for the back seat.  I would take that out and put in an empty 55 gallon gas drum.  Then I would go to an airport or a location where we had gas and would fill it up and fly it back to camp.  After we landed we would siphon it into another 55 gallon gas drum or 5 gallon gas cans.  That was the cheapest way to get gas to camp.  It took many trips but they were well worth it money wise.

Just flying

Just flying

As you see working off airport can be challenging.  I have always told new pilots to learn as much as you can from classes, books or any other information sources.  However, I feel your best shot is to learn from those who do it the best.  I was always talking to and learning from other “super cub” pilots.  I learned the most from Tony Lee, Gary Bishop and Paul Claus all exceptional “super cub” pilots.  In my opinion Paul Claus is the best mountain cub pilot in Alaska.

Some of my most fun flying days were the blue bird weather days during the spring brown bear seasons on the Alaska Peninsula and Western Alaska.  I have had many fun flying days.   But as you read above, I have also had some tough flying days and anxious moments as well.  By the time I retired I felt I had become an exceptional “super cub” pilot.