The Master Pilot – Surviving Against the Odds
In 1972 a flight leaving Merrill Field in Anchorage and headed to Alabama crashes in the Canadian Rockies. One couple’s story of surviving against the odds.
Written by Michael Hankins, from the journal of Tallulah Hankins
Before my mother passed away I promised I’d write her untold story. It tells of a climactic event our family experienced 44 years ago. I was a senior at East Anchorage High School when the incident made print throughout the country and was broadcast on radio and television. The “Anchorage Daily News” covered it as well as the “Anchorage Daily Times.” All reporting centered solely on my dad’s (the pilot’s) thoughts. Mom recalled things from a totally different perspective. She kept a red vinyl notebook full of yellowed newspapers, clippings, and other memorabilia. Painted on the cover is a silhouette of their airplane along with “MY HERO” printed in bold letters. Inside is a 15-page detailed hand-written journal, its black ink faded, yet clear enough to reveal the whole picture.
January 22, 1972. The weather in Anchorage on that Saturday morning was perfect for flying, with a reported temperature of 0⁰ F and visibility at 15 miles. Skies were a gorgeous blue with mystic ice crystals glimmering in the slow rising sun. My husband, Troy, and I were excited about a warm weather holiday in Florida. It had been bitter cold the past two months. We’d fly to Orlando in our low-wing Mooney Super 21 airplane stopping in Columbus, Mississippi, along the way. My elderly father lived in nearby Vernon, Alabama and we planned on visiting him for a couple of days. Troy and I had made the arduous journey following the ALCAN (Alaska/Canada) Highway once previously with no problems. My husband was a qualified Alaskan pilot having 600 total hours. He flew equally in winter and summer.
We encountered a two-hour delay out of Merrill Field waiting for quick forming fog to dissipate—an ominous warning of things to come. I was thankful I’d packed extra cold weather gear including rations. A friend, owner of Petco Aviation, stopped by to lend us his ELT (emergency locator transmitter). Little did we know, that act of kindness would help save our lives!
At exactly 11:10 a.m. Troy took off following the Glenn Highway, heading north. Passing through Palmer, Pioneer Peak stood majestic with a veil of vapory white mist encircling the top. Something about sleepy little Palmer was to my liking, and I hoped to live there someday.
We checked in over Gulkana airport where it was a reported -48⁰ F. Things were toasty warm in the cockpit as the heater pumped out warm air. Coming to a bleak and desolate Northway, Troy decided to land and refuel. Unforeseen headwinds made our fuel consumption much higher than calculated. We hurried inside the little aviation shack and had coffee before journeying on. It felt good to stretch my legs.
Taxiing to the runway our plane became stuck in a soft clump of snow. A man at the flight service station came out with a shovel to help us. That delay marked another warning as we pressed on. Looking at my watch it was exactly 1:15 p.m. when our Mooney lifted. Troy leveled off at 4500 feet with airspeed just over 120 knots. Our next destination was Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (YT), where it was a reported -38⁰ F with scattered fog. By the time we landed it was dark and strangely there were no runway lights to guide us in. A man named Ray from Yukon Air Service met us on the tarmac and allowed our plane to be hangered while we waited another two hours for customs to arrive. After filling out essential paperwork, a taxi drove us to the Airport Chalet Hotel. Troy and I were tuckered!
Our plan Sunday was to have an early breakfast then get back in the air. Dense ice fog made that impossible and the total of three delays had me wondering. John, from “Klondike Chapel,” graciously offered us a ride to our bird. He said a prayer of safety before we lifted off at 11:12 a.m., with the next stop Fort Nelson, YT. I was beginning to have one of those ‘gut feelings.’ I believed we should turn back. From Whitehorse to Johnson Crossing, ground fog obscured the ALCAN Highway, but as long as he could intermittently view the road Troy wasn’t worried. Can’t say I felt the same. I thought of a little plaque hanging on our living room wall:
“Have Faith – Have faith in the Master Pilot. When the billows rage and roar; His steady hand upon the wheel will guide you to the shore.” – Jon Gilbert
We checked in at Watson Lake, YT, and were told it was -52⁰ F. It was probably even colder at our altitude. My old thermos came out as it was time for an inflight coffee break. Liard River and the spectacular Canadian Rockies were rapidly coming into view. The scenery was magnificent but a bit unnerving. Our white and red Mooney was a mere speck amongst the approaching peaks. When Troy radioed to report over Smith River his call was forwarded to Fort Nelson. The Smith River flight station was closed.
Muncho Lake was a frozen spectacle as we passed over. There were a few areas where wind-blown snow revealed smooth ice. I thought back to our years of driving along the perimeter of the lake during the summer when the water was a deep aqua. I’d never seen such a beautiful color.
At the junction of Toad River and the Alaska Highway there’s a sharp 90 degree bend. Ice fog heavily covered that section of road. We missed the turn and flew straight up Toad River Valley. A road below appeared to be the highway yet it looked unplowed so I quickly rechecked our map. By the time I saw we were following the old Churchill Mine trail it was too late. Mountains were getting closer by the second. Troy made a quick left heading up Yedhe River Valley. Unbeknownst to us it led into a narrow dead-end canyon.
Mt. Yedhe stood tall like a giant football player ready to block our passage. The only way out was an attempted climb to 8000 feet. At this point there was no room for turning. The Mooney windshield suddenly fogged over and Troy couldn’t see. I frantically tried cleaning it with my scarf as a look of absolute fear appeared on my husband’s face for the first time. The mountain rapidly approached much too high to clear. At this point I began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Troy maintained full throttle but the airplane shuddered and began spiraling downwards. Somehow he regained control. The engine then lost all power. It was only seconds before I heard a dull poof with a cloud of snow obliterating everything. It took several more seconds for me to realize we’d crashed!
Troy yelled for me to open the door and jump. Everything was blinding white outside. It was like leaping into a freezer. Wind instantly froze tears in my eyes. Smoke or steam rose from the propeller area and I thought the plane was on fire. Snow quickly came up to my waist and the real possibility of sinking further petrified me. All was quiet except for the wind and popping of our aircraft strobe. After a few minutes of stunned disbelief we decided to crawl back in. At that point my husband gasped, “What do we do now?” I tried reciting another prayer but couldn’t remember the words. Telling myself to remain calm, I suggested we put on winter clothing. Looking at my watch it was 2:11 p.m.
Going through suitcases in subzero temperatures proved to be no easy task. I sorted through things on a wing as Troy did the same. We left our two suitcases outside to give us more room. We dug out a sleeping bag, laid it in the back seat, and crawled inside. Right away, the zipper broke. Troy attempted calling on the radio several times, but didn’t receive an answer. We knew by late afternoon search and rescue would be alerted. Our flight plan called for us to check in at Fort Nelson, which would never happen. “More than likely they’ll find us come morning,” my husband reassured me. I hoped he was right. The wind chill calculator showed that it was approximately -80⁰ F outside the cabin.
Through Sunday night neither of us slept. At times the wind blew so hard it rocked the plane. There was a ravine close by and I feared we’d blow over. My mind began playing tricks on me and at one point I thought trucks were approaching. Condensation was building and our clothing started getting damp. Along with being terribly cramped, the wetness added to our discomfort. We dug out aviation maps and placed them under the seat for extra cushion. It briefly helped. At sunrise Troy turned on the ELT hoping rescue planes were in the air. We heard absolutely nothing. He eventually used a pocket knife to drill a hole in the rear Plexiglas window and stuck the ELT antenna out of the opening for better reception.
The rest of that day we worked on staying warm. It was difficult. Our little survival shelter was becoming frosty because of the moisture in our breath. Troy mentioned using suitcase lids to construct snowshoes. He believed we were nine miles from the ALCAN Highway. I thought his idea was totally insane and told him it was best to remain with the plane. At one point he got out to look around. When he didn’t return for what seemed like hours I became concerned. I had decided to go search for him, but Troy returned before I opened the door. My husband was shaking uncontrollably saying we’d have to try hiking out if they didn’t come soon. I didn’t like the idea but hypothermia was becoming a reality. We ate three cans of frozen Vienna sausages plus a candy bar knowing we needed calories. Scraping ice off the windshield I used it to help satisfy our thirst. Our coffee was gone and all other liquids were frozen solid. One thing we desperately needed was a camp stove. We thought about draining gas or engine oil to start a fire. That would have been virtually impossible with the aircraft fuselage flat on the snow. When no rescuers came by sunset I was totally depressed and didn’t think I could hold out much longer. My teeth were chattering as were Troy’s.
Throughout Monday night and Tuesday morning I hallucinated. I had a vision of my two sons walking across the snow bringing hot rocks to warm our feet. Another time I thought someone was knocking on the plane door. I yelled out, “Come in!” Troy and I were shivering and couldn’t stop. I mentioned removing the front seats and setting them on fire for heat. It was coming to drastic measures as the frigid cold was slowly taking us down.
Sometime around 11:00 a.m. Tuesday morning we heard an airplane. I was quickly out the door. Crawling onto a wing, squinting through swollen eyes, I gazed upward. Troy and I began frantically waving. The plane appeared to be so high I was afraid it wouldn’t see us. When it flew over a second time the aircraft wings rocked left to right. We instantly knew we’d been spotted. A few minutes later a smaller blue and white Canadian military DHC-5 Buffalo airplane flew over dropping a streamer which landed within a few feet of our door. Inside was a note:
Helicopter should arrive 4 to 5 hours. A possible
Para-Rescue crew could jump in to assist you.
See you in Fort Nelson.
It was approximately an hour later when a helicopter hovered above us. A smoke flare floated downwards to check winds. A few seconds later the craft landed and we were onboard. I hugged one of the rescuers sobbing for the first time. The pilot, seeing I’d lost my left hand mitten, offered me his glove. Another man gave us cups of hot coffee with the red Canadian maple leaf printed on the side. The same crew member told us they were assigned to Search & Rescue COMOX – Squadron 442.
As the helicopter gained altitude our little airplane faded from view. Its white fuselage blended perfectly with the snow-filled landscape, eventually disappearing from sight. Without a locator beacon there would have been zero chance of anyone seeing us. Looking to the heavens I whispered, “My Hero.” I’m sure no one heard me other than the Master Pilot. I gave all credit to Him for our miraculous survival, and for sending Canadian heroes to our rescue!
My parents were taken to Fort Nelson where they were checked by a doctor. Other than being cold and dehydrated, both were okay. They used their vacation funds to host a dinner party for approximately 40 people involved in the search. N7149U was eventually helicoptered off the mountain, taken to Fort Nelson, and repaired. Dad kept it a few more years before selling. Mom would never fly on a small plane again. The Mooney currently belongs to a couple in Colorado, and continues to punch holes in the sky. Dad, now 87, lives in Henderson, Nevada. My mother, Tallulah, is buried at Pioneer Cemetery in Palmer, where her embossed picture on a solid granite tombstone faces Pioneer Peak.
“The Master Pilot” – Surviving Against the Odds by Michael Hankins
Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Last Frontier Magazine