Section III: Images

Chapter 24: Emergency Landing (winter)

"'Good VFR,' huh?" my wife commented dryly, gazing through the windshield of the Cessna 180 at the snowstorm that surrounded us, her voice mimicking the weather briefer in Anchorage. "'Won't have any problems,' eh? Nice to know."

"Now, now," I said mildly, "you know how weather briefings are. They have to be taken with a grain of salt. Especially in the mountains."

"More like a truckload," she responded.

And I nodded, as we continued to creep from lake to lake at half-flaps, the visibility going up and down like a yo-yo, never leaving one landing spot until I was sure we could make it to the next (and glad the airplane was on skis, it was mid-winter, and the lakes well frozen). For while we had left Anchorage in good weather, and it had remained good as far as Chitina, the Chitina Valley was blocked with unforecast snow squalls and the day was growing late. We were taking a calculated risk in trying to make it home before dark, and we still had 50 miles to go. At our current groundspeed, with no more delays, that meant another 36 minutes...

"We're not going to make it, are we?" my wife observed quietly with a glance at the clock and another at the storm outside. To either side of us the walls of the narrow valley rose, in places to an altitude of over 16,000 feet, and around us were dramatic ice fields and glaciers and stunning vistas, but none of this was evident from where we sat. We were flying in a tight little visibility circle the equivalent of ILS minimums. And while we could leave the valley from our home base in the Nizina Valley on instruments using a private SID, we couldn't go on instruments from where we were. For all practical purposes we might as well be back in the '30's with silk scarves flying in the wind...

"No," I said as we crossed the end of the lake we were approaching and the storm closed in again. I came back off the power and applied full flaps. "This squall takes us over our time limit. We'll have to RON here."

From the corner of my eye I could see her shrug. She hadn't expected any less. Then the skis were gliding smoothly through the deep snow and we parked next to a spot where there was wood for a fire and a bit of shelter from the wind. In the intense silence after the engine died the snow swirled madly and the dark came rapidly upon us. A slight gust rocked the wings gently, then subsided. There was nobody within many miles of the lake and the temperature was -2 degrees F/-19 degrees C. The sense of solitude was profound. We were, as one always is in the deep bush, on our own.

* * *

There are some basic requirements for flying in the north, and one of them is the survival kit. These kits contain different items depending on where the pilot is operating and the time of the year, but basically there are summer kits and winter kits. Let's look at what is necessary, or at least advisable, for flying during winter in areas where some firewood is available. The wise pilot always carefully considers the contents of his survival kit, for when the going gets tough one of the ways to contend with the often changing and notoriously difficult weather conditions is to simply set down some place and wait it out. To the bush pilot, that "some place" could as easily be a gravel bar, snow field or frozen lake as a legitimate airstrip with a convenient hotel where hot coffee and a good dinner are waiting.

So, with this in mind, let's look over the items that need to be in a winter survival kit. It goes without saying that you should get the best quality items you can afford and not skimp. When you need your kit you need it badly, and quality differences can not only provide some comfort, but also make the difference between life and death. The reason for this is because comfort has a subtle psychological consideration going for it beyond the merely sybaritic, since the ability to pitch a comfortable camp goes a long way towards encouraging a sane and rational attitude towards safe weather operating practices.

While this completes the basic survival kit for the people on board, you still have to consider the airplane. It too needs its survival kit:

To this basic kit (people and airplanes), always add those odds and ends which personal experience, or your spouse, suggests are useful. And, since you always have weight and bulk to take into consideration, your decisions here will often approach the Solomonic.

Which brings us to a matter of psychological import. It is necessary to consider your survival kit as just another part of the airplane's basic equipment list, like floats or wheel-skis, and treat it as such. You need it to operate in the North, and that's the way it goes. The room and weight left over is for payload, and if an extra trip must be made every once in a while because of the kit's presence, so be it. Only a fool risks leaving it behind because of customer, boss, or family demands.

* * *

The snow began to fall thickly as I put the plane away for the night, blocking the skis, putting the engine and wing covers on, and making tiedowns. And soon the only light was from the campfire where my wife was making dinner, the tent set up behind her with mats and sleeping bags already placed. Then she was beside me with a cup of coffee, and, as I took a sip, I made a final inspection of the airplane before accompanying her back to the fire. Beyond its circle of light the night was dark, and the snow made small hissing sounds as it fell into the flames...

Dinner was not freeze-dried from our survival kit, but salmon (the gift of a friend), potatoes, and vegetables, with a salad and cornbread and more hot coffee. Then it was time for bed after a long and full day, settling into our sleeping bags in the snug tent, and I was asleep almost before my head hit the rolled-up parka that served as my pillow...

...only to awake, what seemed just moments later, to find it early morning. As I opened the flap, the moonlight flowed in, casting gentle shadows, outlining the airplane waiting on the lake covered in its mantle of fresh snow. Beyond it, the mountains rose, clear and sharply etched, and above them the stars shone down with a hard brilliance. The air had the dense quality of deep cold, and, as I got dressed and put my mukluks on, it stung my hands, sending me reaching for my gloves.

Pouring a cup of hot coffee from the thermos my wife had thoughtfully filled just before going to bed, I wandered out onto the lake and over to the airplane for a look at the thermometer attached to the wing strut. In the glow of my pocket flashlight it read -44 degrees F/-42 degrees C.

Obviously, a high pressure system had moved in during the night, bringing with it a potential problem: the river in front of my place was still open in spots and this type of situation -- very cold, dry air over "warm" water -- was perfect for the formation of steam fog. Such fog, often forming very rapidly just after sunrise, could easily spread from one side of the narrow valley to the other, locking us out of our airstrip and forcing us to RON once again (although this time there was a friend's cabin nearby, which, safe from the fog due to its location, could be used if necessary). There was no question but that we had to get moving, and fast. It was going to get cold, seriously cold, and I had a feeling we were in for a spell of -60 degrees F/-51 degrees C or worse. A spell that could last weeks.

So, stepping out from under the wing, on my way back to the tent to start the fire, wake my wife, and begin the process of preheating the airplane's engine and getting the wing covers and snow off, my thoughts occupied with the task at hand, I moved around the tiedown rope -- and, as I did, something about the cast of the moonlight on the snow attracted my attention, its ethereal beauty, the way it appeared to lie not only over but inside the flakes, lighting them softly from within...and it seemed almost as if...

...I found I could not express my thoughts as my gaze moved over the lake in its stillness, taking it in, then climbed past the rugged mountains to the sky. And as I focused on the stars through the shimmering Northern Lights and the distorting lens of spacetime, the stars seemed to be asking the old questions, questions we have always had with us, but which now seemed as fresh, as new, as if whispered for the first time: who are we? why are we here? what is reality? what is the purpose of it all?...

Surely the deepest, most important of the mysteries.

Then, from the far side of the lake, came the howl of a wolf. Behind the camp, close, another wolf responded, the sounds flowing through the still beauty in a sense of ancient timelessness.

And somehow there seemed an answer there, more felt than understood, but an answer nonetheless.

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye as my wife came up beside me. She said nothing -- she didn't have to. We stood close together gazing at our world, its beauty and wonder and mystery, until dawn washed the stars out and served notice that a new day was beginning.

A little over two hours later we were in the air, our tracks behind us on the lake, camp clean as if we had never been there, and shortly thereafter we rounded the bend and saw our place before us. Out of the open spots in the river the steam fog was rising, spreading, licking the edges of our short strip, already covering one end, and I came back off the power, lowered the flaps, and touched down gently on the fresh-fallen snow. And, as I was tying down the airplane after draining the oil and putting the wing and engine covers on, I could not help but consider the experience and reflect that "emergency landings" and "survival conditions" were not all bad.

Not for those who are prepared both physically and psychologically.

$Date: 2005/05/06 19:16:05 $ Copyright © 1993 by F. E. Potts CSS XHTML 1.0 Strict