Alaska Air Tales – An Unexpected Emergency
by John Graybill as told to Larry Kaniut
– from the book Alaska Air Tales
As far as I could see in every direction, the entire Matanuska Valley was plugged with fog. Would I have to return to Rainy Pass to land?
Approximately 1979 I was involved with Sig Frohlich who was making a movie on Alaska. He wanted buffalo and we had set up a camp near Farewell on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim. We filmed buffalo for a week.
Sig was bankrolling this operation. Mel Quinnimo was his photographer and a German friend by the name of Nicky was along.
It became time to leave and three of us flew into McGrath and filled some gas cans. There was Andy Zywot with his Super Cub, Gary Fandell with his Super Cub and me with my Super Cub.
Gary Fandell helped fill up my Cub with gas. I took off first with as much gear as I could haul, including all the camera gear and the film.
When I came over the Alaska Range en route to Anchorage, the whole Anchorage-Mat-Su area was socked in solid with fog. The closer I got to Anchorage, the thicker and thicker the fog was. I called flight service on the radio and they said they knew of no openings anywhere near. I thought, “Well, I’m probably gonna have to go clear back, over on the South Fork to land or at least to Rainy Pass Lodge.”
About that time I ran out of gas in one tank. I switched tanks and looked at my gauge. The bubble was right down on the bottom. I didn’t know what had happened. I’d personally seen that we had filled both tanks. I learned later that Gary had left my gas cap off and the gas had siphoned out.
I knew I had to find a place to land soon. I flew on up the Knik River where I could judge by the mountain peaks sticking through— there’s always a high pressure area right at a glacier where the fog doesn’t lay and you can get down underneath. But this was one time there was no high pressure area right there. The fog was solid to the glacier; I couldn’t find an opening anywhere. By then my bubble was disappearing.
I could either come down through that soup and try to land or… I could see Pioneer Peak and right behind Pioneer Peak is a mountain. I don’t know how to describe it, a ridge; but its way too sharp to land on. That was the only land I could see anywhere. I headed right for it. Just as I got there, my bubble disappeared. I knew to the minute when those tanks were gonna run out—I had about a minute left.
I headed for the side slope which was quite steep. I hit it at a pretty good speed, at least twenty or thirty miles over landing speed, probably 55-65 miles an hour. I came in hot and flared out, nose up, tail down.
Actually there was a flat spot about twenty feet square at the top of the ridge. It had some rocks stickin’ up, but it was flat. I went hurtling up the slope and came to a stop right on top, like a sparrow would perch up there. I didn’t even have to block the wheels to keep it from slidin’ back down hill.
I could not have found a better spot. Oh, I was lucky. Very. It was due to no superior intelligence on my part.
So I sat there with my heart beating for the longest time. Just because I was down doesn’t mean I was out of the woods. I kept thinkin’, “How am I gonna’ get out of this situation?”
It was about ten o’clock in the morning. That afternoon about 2 all the fog just magically disappeared. The sky cleared up, dissipated. I was looking down into the Knik River. I thought of takin’ off, just pointing the snout downhill and givin’ it power. But if there wasn’t enough gas, I’d get to sputtering on the way down through the rocks and I’d just be getting myself in deeper.
After givin’ it much thought, I tuned my radio to frequency 122.9. I heard some fellows talking with one another. I butted in on their conversation and I told them what my problem was and where I was setting. I asked if they’d call my neighbor on the same airstrip where I live and tell him to fly five gallons of gas to me and drop it as he flew over.
Well, that was ridiculous. There’s no way that he could drop it to me on that ridge where everything was all rocks. It just would not have worked. So the guy that I was talkin’ to in the Cherokee said, “Okay, but I’m gonna’ fly by and look at ya.”
When he came by, he said, “Oh, my God, you’re in trouble. I’m gonna’ call air rescue.”
I said, “Oh, don’t do that. Some of them things can have bad endings when you bring them in on it.”
But he said, “No, I’m callin’ air rescue.” So he called. I sat there another hour and here come a great big helicopter with a red cross. I spoke to them on 122.9 and they asked, “How many injured aboard?”
I said, “No one’s injured. I got low on gas.”
They asked, “No one injured?”
And I said, “No.”
They said, “We’re MedEvac. We can’t help you. We only come in when someone’s injured.”
I asked, “Can you get me some gas?”
They said, “No, we can’t do that, but we’ll send this other rescue outfit back. They’ll come in and take you out.”
The guy came back and asked, “Are you ready to evacuate?”
I said, “No, I don’t want to leave my plane. I’ll never get back to it. The wind will blow it off this peak.”
He says, “I’m sorry, that’s all we can do for you.”
I said, “Wait a minute. If I had five gallon of gas I could fly it out of here.”
The guy said, “I don’t believe it would be proper for us to do that, but maybe I can do it. Do you have a place I can get some gas?”
I said, “Yes.” I told him where I lived, which was only ten minutes away. “Fly down there, land on the airstrip and get five gallons from my wife.”
They landed at my house on the airstrip but my wife had gone. My daughter Meri was there and she said, “Yeah, I’ll get you five gallons out of the gas pump.” She did and they brought it up to me.
They landed down the ridge at least a hundred and fifty yards to keep from blowing my plane off with their rotor blast. The main ridgeline was only a foot or two wide, just jagged rocks.
I walked down there and got the gas, returned to the plane and dumped it in the wing tank. The pilot of that rescue helicopter guy said to me on the radio, “You don’t mind if I stick around and watch you take off do you?”
I said, “No, glad to have the support.”
He sat there watching. The take off went very well. There was no problem with it. I just pointed the nose over the edge. These planes are built to fly.I flew off the north side toward the Knik River, headed for the house and landed there.
FAA asked me to come in and bring all the data and paperwork for my plane which I did. They seemed to think I’d done something wrong. I said, “Well, the number one rule is when you’re low on gas, land. That’s what I did. I really don’t see where I broke any rules.”
The guy asked me if I had a pretty good spot to land, and I said, “Oh, yeh. I had a good spot.”
He asked, “Is this a picture of your plane?” And there sat that plane on that peak.
That spot just happened to be there. Everything worked out. I think I had some kind of guardian lookin’ over me. You get in one of those tight spots and you start makin’ those wild promises, “Get me out of this one, and I’ll go to church every Sunday.” I’ve broke my promises so many times I don’t dare ask for any more favors.
Asking what a pilot thinks about the FAA is like asking a tree what
it thinks about dogs.
If you enjoyed “Alaska Air Tales – Unexpected Emergency” by John Greybill and Larry Kanuit, check out “The Master Pilot.”
If you love reading about Alaska air tales, buy the book: Alaska Air Tales by Jack Gwaltney and Larry Kanuit