A shortcut over mountains and glaciers between Nelchina, Alaska and Valdez turns ugly.
|Flight Into Fear
It was to be just a quick flight—a shortcut through the mountains and glaciers between my parents’ home at Nelchina, Alaska and Valdez, Alaska. We were going to take an aerial look at a spot near the Shoop glacier that we felt was a promising place to stake a gold claim.
Our bush pilot, one of the best in the state of Alaska at the time, filed his flight plan and carefully checked the weather along our route and got the all clear.
My mother served up a big breakfast that morning. Dad had joked, sipping his coffee, “You gotta eat a big meal before flying the glaciers because if something happens and the plane goes down, and you’re lucky enough to survive the crash, you’ll need plenty of energy to make an attempt to walk out.” I laughed as I ate my breakfast, not giving it another thought.
So with a tank full of gas and clear skies above, we set out in the float plane. There were four of us, the pilot, my husband, my father and myself.
I knew we had some survival gear along as a precaution but shortly after takeoff I was somewhat surprised to notice that there was no radio of any kind on board.
The early part of the flight was enjoyable, but uneventful as we flew up the glacier towards our destination. I hadn’t flown much in light planes so I had my face pressed against the window the whole time so as not to miss a single second of the panorama below me. I didn’t even want to blink, the view was so breathtaking.
Our plan was to fly up the glacier valley to a basin where several glaciers came together. Our pilot knew of a pass that would allow us to fly through to Valdez on the other side. He said it would be much too risky to fly over the top of the mountains from the basin.
When we got to the basin, it began to snow and I couldn’t see much on the ground anymore. I looked up and around and in just a few minutes—it was snowing a lot!
The pilot turned to us and said, Sometimes these mountains just make their own weather!” Still, he didn’t seem worried, so I relaxed. After we had circled about four times, I realized that the pilot was looking for something—the pass! He couldn’t see it because of the heavy snow falling. Even the pass through which we had entered was no longer visible. We were in a white-out! The pilot continued circling, turning slightly each time the mountainside became close enough to be visible—all the time looking for the pass—any pass.
We continued in this manner for what seemed like a very long time. I remember looking at the windshield as the snow and ice pounded against it without letup and thinking to myself, “This is how it happens in the movies; first there is snow and ice all over the windshield and then the plane has some kind of mechanical problem and goes down!” It was at that moment I stopped being a casual observer and realized we were in trouble.
We flew on, circling, in silence except for the drone of the engine. None of us had spoken for a long time. I looked at my father in the front seat and he looked back reassuringly, but I got the niggling feeling that he was putting on a confident face because he could see a growing sense of fear rising up in me. It helped, though not enough, I was already terrified. I began to realize just how long we had been in the air—in a white out—in the basin surrounded by peaks of an altitude not favorable to attempt to fly over with the plane we were using. It had been over 3.5 hours since we had entered the basin with a nearly full tank of gasoline.
It was about this time that the pilot told us we were getting low on gasoline. It was imperative that we find a way out. So we circled, searching for that elusive avenue to safety.
It’s funny how you feel when you think you might be just about to die. I felt remarkably calm. I even fantasized about how the news account would read in the papers back home. I thought to myself, “At least I’ll be remembered—since this is a whole lot more glamorous than getting hit by a truck on the freeway in Minneapolis!”
Then suddenly my thoughts were interrupted. Looming directly in front of us was the side of the mountain. We were flying straight at it! There was no time for the pilot to turn to either the left or the right. He did the only thing he could—he pulled on the stick and tried to go over the top. If we were anywhere close to summit, we sure couldn’t see it!
Miraculously, that mighty little plane carried us just over the top. What a sight! I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful in my life than the emerald waters of Prince William Sound as it came into glorious view. Once out of the mountains, the weather was clear and our worries were over—except that we were still alarmingly low on fuel.
There was one other pressing dilemma at this point. It had been over four hours since we had taken off and the need to relieve ourselves was extremely urgent. Our pilot said he would land our float plane in the sound for that purpose. It occurred to me that landing and taking off again would use up even more of our precious fuel and I meekly objected. The pilot assured me that the town of Valdez was very close and we still had enough fuel to reach it.
It was late August and the Columbia glacier had been calving a lot. The waters below us were littered with floating icebergs of several sizes. I couldn’t imagine how the pilot could safely set down in that ’iceberg soup’, let alone take off again without hitting one of them. In spite of that, we landed safely on the water. The whole time, I was holding my breath.
Once on the water, it was easy enough for the three men to step out onto the floats and relieve themselves. Finally it was my turn, and with a lot more difficulty, I also managed to answer the call of nature.
We took off again, avoiding the floating ice, and set out for Valdez, a few minutes away. I can tell you, when I saw the town on the horizon, I let out a deep, relieved sigh.
We flew down, landed, and taxied into the harbor, filling up at the gas pumps usually only used by fishing boats and other seagoing vessels. The attendant made the comment, “We used to get a bush pilot flyin’ in here regularly, but he went down in the mountains back there where you just came from, some five years back.”
We left the plane and walked to the restaurant to have lunch. The men ate heartily, but I could barely touch my food. I was thinking of the flight back, rehearsing in my mind my speech to them that I was absolutely not getting back in that plane for the flight home if it meant going back through the mountains.
When we finished lunch, and it was time to return to the plane, I couldn’t find the words to say I was too scared to fly back with them. So I said nothing and quietly followed them aboard, my countenance that of someone going to the gallows.
We prepared for take-off and soon were in the air. My breath was shallow and uneven. Then, to my surprise and great relief, our pilot knew a much longer, but safer route home. As we flew uneventfully back, I looked out the window, reveling in the now beautiful and sunny view, and oddly, felt a twinge of disappointment that we weren’t flying back over those breathtaking glaciers.
Yes, I can truly say that never before, and not since that morning ‘flight into fear’ have I ever felt more alive!