Forced To Land

Flying small planes is an awesome experience for most pilots and for most of their passengers.  However, there are those who prefer to just stay on the ground.  That is the case with my wife, Karen.  She has never been a fan of flying in small planes and particularly didn’t like flying in a super cub.   She was constantly checking the gas levels, hated the noise but more than that she didn’t like that she could see everything around her, feeling unprotected.  That of course is one of the main reasons most of us super cub pilots love it.

I did convince her to go with me on a few occasions and believe me, I tried to make sure the weather was good, not windy with good visibility.

If I remember correctly it was April 1990 when I was itching to get out to our Otter Lake camp to see how it had wintered.  It was supposed to be a bluebird weather weekend.  After some encouraging, Karen and I were off on Saturday morning with plans to return late Sunday evening.  When I called flight service for my weather briefing, I was told that it was going to be a good VFR flying weekend with Sunday being even better.  The trip normally took three and a one-half hours which included a quick stop at Port Alsworth for gas.  The cub was on skis as most of the lakes were still frozen and I knew that the ice on Otter Lake would be thick.  During my ten springs out there, the ice in April varied from 24 to 48 inches.

The trip through Lake Clark pass went well with good ceilings and visibility and light turbulence.  When we landed at Port Alsworth I could see it was brighter to the south than to our west, the direction we were headed.

I had taken this route eight to ten times before including two with Tony Lee the guide that we purchased the area from.  He had shown me the key points to follow and they were really important if the ceilings were low.  The cub only had basic instruments which included a compass.  The problem with cubs is the compass doesn’t usually work well because it gets magnetized.  I had moved it to two different spots in the cockpit and had the plane de-magnetized twice but it didn’t do much good.  Not many bush planes were equipped with a GPS during that time.  So sight was my only navigational aid.

We took off from the lake at Port Alsworth and headed west.  The ceilings were about 2000 feet as we crossed the lake ice but I could see they were lower in front of us.  Everything was fine the first thirty minutes and then it started to lightly snow.  I followed a series of small lakes with scattered hills on both sides for the first twenty miles then it flattened out for at least twenty five miles.  After that there was a small 200 foot ridge that ran south.  The point at the end of the ridge was my route marker so I turned south heading for that point.  At that time I could see the point which was close to twenty miles away but I could only see about 50 to 100 feet of it.  The other 100 feet was in the clouds.  It started snowing harder however my side vision was still fine.  It seemed like the ceiling kept dropping though.  Karen was getting nervous and continued to ask if I could see well enough.  I could but I knew it was getting worse.  I told her I was turning around and I did a slow 180.  As I turned back the ceiling had dropped behind us and it was snowing harder that way.  I knew then I had to land.

Trying to set the tent up in the wind.

Trying to set the tent up in the wind.

There were numerous lakes around us but as I took a closer look they all had at least a foot or more of overflow on them and I didn’t want to get into that.  I had to find a long and flat enough place in the snow for me to land.  I also needed something to which I could tie the plane down.  There were a few scattered spruce trees and I spotted one at the end of a strip of snow next to a small lake.  I knew the wind had increased and was coming from the southeast so I got set up on a strip of snow mainly into the wind.  I made a very short landing and taxied toward the thirty foot tall spruce tree.  Once I was close enough to the tree I shut the engine off and got out.  Karen stayed in the plane until I got everything taken care of.  The wind had picked up and was blowing close to 35 MPH.  I got my ropes out of the plane and tied my left wing to the spruce tree.  Then I got out our small two-man tent.  The wind was blowing so hard that I had to tie the tent to the spruce tree just to get it set up.  Once I finished setting up the tent, Karen got out of the plane and into the tent to keep it from blowing away.  I moved our gear into the tent which included our daughter’s dog, Nikki.  I took my ax from the plane and went about a hundred yards back to the west and cut down a fifteen to twenty foot spruce tree and drug it back to tie down the right wing.  I had a spare five gallon can full of gas and I used it to put under the tail wheel to change the angle of attack of the wings to try to keep the cub from trying to take off.  With the chores done I got into the tent for the night.  It was really toasty with the two of us and the dog.

All set for the night.

All set for the night.

Karen bundled up for the night.

Karen bundled up for the night.

The next morning we woke up early to the sound of clicking hoofs of about 200 passing caribou.  The temperature had dropped to somewhere in the low twenties and the airplane was covered completely with at least a quarter inch of ice.   The sun was shining bright and all we had to do was wait for the ice to melt off of the wings.  It was afternoon before the ice was gone and we were headed back to Anchorage.

That was Karen’s first and last time spending the night out after being forced to land.  It was a great adventure that turned out the way we would all hope, safe and fun.  I spent two other nights out in similar conditions when I was on skis.   Once was with my partner Dan when we were trying to get to Dillingham and the other was with my son-in-law Sagen when we were again going to Otter Lake.