The Worst Day of My Life

My accident took place over 30 years ago.  It has been hard for me and my loved ones to get passed this devastating time but, with God's grace, we eventually moved on but not forgotten.  What a wonderful time this was supposed to have been.  Our daughter was getting married and my family was in Alaska for the first time.  I couldn't believe it turned into such a tragedy.  I was overwhelmed with sadness, as I knew I was responsible for the loss of a loved one.

With that, here is my story.

In the spring of 1985 AAA Alaskan Outfitters purchased a PA-18 or what’s better known as a “Super Cub” from Tim Orton.  Tim was one of our first spring brown bear clients. 

When I was in the Air Force I got my pilot’s license while I was a member of the Elmendorf Aero Club.  A few years later I went to Pat’s Flying Service on Merrill Field and used my GI Bill to obtain my Commercial pilot’s license.  While flying at Pat’s I received instruction on tail dragger aircraft and also picked up my float rating.  Now that AAA has a super cub, I got some needed off airport instruction from Tony Lee.  Tony is a friend, guide and a good super cub pilot.  For two months or better I practiced on Knik River sand bars and any other short strips I could find.  I was feeling fairly comfortable for our up-coming season.

My daughter Kimberly was getting married on August 3.  My mother, my sister and her family came up from West Virginia for a vacation and the wedding.  Since this was their first trip to Alaska, we were excited and had many things planned while they were here.  My brother-in-law, Larry Buchanan, loved hunting and fishing so I decided to take him to our new camp in the Wrangell's.

It was July 18, 1985 that became the worst day of my life.  It was one of those beautiful Alaskan, sunny summer days when Larry and I excitedly left Anchorage in the cub for Bryson Bar.  On the way up we spotted a 60”+ bull moose laying in a shallow lake and a herd of bison running up the Chitna River.  After we landed at Bryson Bar and had lunch, we went looking for sheep in the mountains above camp.  We spotted many sheep and a few goats before heading back.  We were going to Big Bend Lake to fish for Grayling.  I had only landed on that strip a few times in June.  The altitude at Big Bend Lake is 4,000’.  The strip was grass and was about 600’ long.  It had a little side angle to it with a swamp at both ends.  It definitely wasn’t a great strip.

What was left of the aircraft

What was left of the aircraft

After a great afternoon of fishing with the mountains reflecting in the lake Larry told me this was one of the best days of his life.  It was just a little after 10 PM and I asked him if he wanted to see if we could spot a grizzly on one of the hillsides around the area and he replied yes.  So I checked the hanging surveyor’s tape that we had for a wind sock on the tach shed.  It showed the wind very light and variable the same as it had been most of the afternoon.  I decided to take off from the end that had a slight downhill angle.  I pulled the plane back and dropped the tail wheel into the swamp.  I took a picture of Larry standing by the plane and then we got in.  After starting the engine I held my brakes, checked the mag’s and gave it full throttle and adjusted the mixture for max RPMs.  With half flaps down we started down the strip.  A little after midway of the strip I felt that it didn’t seem like I had full power so I reached up to make sure and nothing changed so I popped the flaps.  We lifted off but slow.  I kept the nose down to gain speed but the plane started to settle.  I know now that it was a downwind breeze that pushed the plane down.  We had to clear the 5’ high alder at the end of the strip and we did but as we settled the 30” Air Streaks hit the alder about 50’ past the end of strip and the plane did a slow roll.  As the right wing hit it separated and if you know how the old cubs were wired, the electrical and gas are at the right side wing root so a spark ignited the gas and we were instantly in a blaze.  I could hear the windshield break so while upside down I released my seat belt and scrambled out of the burning plane.  I was on fire so I rolled in the swamp and put out my fire.  As I looked back at the plane the flames were 5 to 10 foot high and I was screaming for Larry to get out.  I got to within 5 or 6 foot of the roaring flames and he finally crawled out.  I immediately picked him up and carried him to the cabin which was about midway and above the runway.  I had a first aid kit in the cabin which had a good first aid book and Percodan for pain killers.  I gave him water and the pain killers.  The first aid book said to give lots of water and I did but he started throwing up.  I was later told that he was burned over 80% of his body with 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns.  He passed away at 7:00AM that morning.  I attempted mouth to mouth resuscitation with no success.  I put him in a sleeping bag and waited for rescue.

The ELT (Emergency Locator Beacon) in the airplane had burned but I had one in the cabin that I turned on during the night.  While I was waiting for rescuers to come I got a fire ready with some old roofing and gas that would send up lots of smoke.  I had a signaling mirror ready so now all I could do was to wait.

During the night as I sat with Larry I had many deep thoughts, especially about my sister and her three little boys.  What had I done?  My wife Karen doesn’t like little airplanes and was concerned that something like this would happen.  I had tried to convince her that they were safer than the big planes and I really still believe this but after such a major accident with the loss of a life, I made the decision to quit flying.    

About 3 PM a C-130 flew up the middle of the Chitina River, which was about 5 miles from the Big Bend Lake cabin.  I tried signaling with the mirror but the plane continued up the river.  About 5 miles up the river the pilot turned and started to come back.  When the plane was straight in front of me he turned and went 180 degrees away from me then after a few miles he turned and came straight toward me.  I knew he was homing in on the ELT signal.  I had set the fire and was now signaling again.  As they flew over me they circled and then dropped me a parachute with a radio.  Once I had the radio in hand and started to tell them the status I broke down.  I had made it until I talked to the first person.  They told me there was a civilian helicopter working in the area and that they would have it pick us up in about 30 minutes. When the helicopter arrived, we loaded Larry and me in and we were flown to the Gulkana Airport.  There we were loaded on a C-130 and flown to Elmendorf AF Base.  Since I was retired Air Force my burns were treated at the base hospital and I was released.

The next day after things had settled down some and I was alone with Karen, I told her that I had decided not to fly anymore.  She said she would rather I not fly but that I should give it some time and make sure I could live with that decision.

I loved flying but having the responsibility of someone’s life in your hands is “huge.”  I never took that lightly before my accident and now that I was responsible for the loss of a life it would forever be on my mind.  To this day over 30 years later I can still hear the windshield breaking and roar of the flames and the sight of Larry after he came out of the airplane.  It is etched in my mind forever.  I would tell any young pilot or I guess any pilot that when you have a passenger in your plane, you basically have their life in your hands.