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For those who like airplane stories, here's one from yours truly:

Back in the early days of the first North Slope airlift, there were airplanes in the sky from Fairbanks to Point Barrow, separated by approximately 30 minutes between airplanes, in both directions. There were hundreds of airplanes in the sky at the same time. When a pilot landed his airplane on the icy airstrip, he had 30 minutes to unload, and then load, whatever he was taking out, and be back up in the air for the return trip to Fairbanks.

I had two passengers on that trip back from the oil exploratory camp. One was a young man on his way home. They worked three weeks on and got two weeks off with pay. So, this guy was on his way to Seattle. The other guy was a great big man. He weighed close to 300 pounds, and he wasn’t fat. He was simply big. He got in a fight with one of the other construction workers and the guy he was fighting with hit him in the head with a ball-peen hammer. It stuck in his skull and I was ferrying him to Fairbanks for surgery. The big guy was in the back behind the pilot’s seat. The other man was upfront next to me.

About 75 miles from Fairbanks, we hit an icing condition and ice was building up on the leading edge of the wings. That usually isn’t a problem because I had “Boots” on the leading edge that inflated when the ice was sufficiently thick enough to break it off. You had to be careful not to do it too quickly because then you caused another problem of too much ice building back up behind where the boots were installed, and the boots wouldn't break it off sufficiently. That can be bad.

The reason for the boots is the leading edge of the wing causes an oncoming wind force hitting the leading edge of the wing to develop “lift.” That makes the aircraft fly. Without lift, you come down. Ice forming on the leading edge of the wing distorts the lift and causes the airplane to lose the effective flying ability, or the capability to stay in the air, making the aircraft unable to continue to hold altitude. I had boots on the propellers and the tail section as well, in case ice accumulated on them. It's an excellent system when it works properly. As I watched for the ice to get thick enough before activating the ice boots, I could see I was already losing altitude, slowly, I couldn’t maintain the altitude I wanted, and we were losing lift. I was steadily adding more power to stay in the air. I couldn’t see much of anything because it was snowing hard, and we were in a condition called a “White Out.” That didn't matter because I am an instrument-rated pilot and I always fly by the instruments anyway, even in VFR conditions, (Visual Flight Rules).

There are a lot of mountains and other hard things on the ground, and hitting anything was usually fatal, so it was not a good thing to be losing altitude. I decided it was time to inflate the leading-edge boots. Nothing happened. Stunned, I tried again, and the ice kept building up. I grimly realized we were going down and there was nothing I could do about it. The boots weren't working. I sent several “May Days” over the radio and yelled to the guy in the seat next to me, “Brace yourself, we’re going down.” I watched the altimeter showing my altitude was getting lower, the hundreds of feet sped up and spun quite fast.

There are two hands-on an Altimeter one registers thousands of feet and the other, hundreds of feet. The hundreds of feet hand was steadily going in reverse. Not fast at first, but speeded up. It was showing I was losing altitude fast.

It spun faster. The last thing a pilot wants to do is to pull back on the yoke, which ordinarily will direct the position of the aircraft's nose up. If you keep pulling back on the yoke when you cannot maintain lift, you stall out totally and then go into a spin which will ensure you will hit the ground probably nose first and at a speed of well over a hundred miles an hour. Nobody walks away from that. I was straining to look out the windshield for a clearing that hopefully, we could put down in. I was also saying a prayer because in the back of my mind I was getting this message, “You’re about to die.” Being only 28 at the time I didn’t want to die, but of course, we don’t always have a choice in the matter. One consolation: if you die in a crash, it is usually quick, with no suffering in pain. Sort of like a bug hitting the windshield. Boom and you’re dead. Then I saw it. We broke out of the snowstorm and there was a clearing dead ahead. There were trees, but they were the long skinny ones, not the great big solid ones. In the Alaskan Tundra, there is a condition called “Permafrost.” A permanent layer of ice below the surface of the ground and the trees in that area cannot grow roots that support a large solid tree, so they grew tall, but skinny, with a shallow root system.

The altimeter was reading about a thousand feet above the ground by then, and I knew this was it. I yelled to the guy next to me, “This is it, brace yourself the best you can.” By this time, I had to be careful not to stall out completely and I was fighting the almost overpowering urge to yank back on the controls. The loud noise of the trees hitting the airplane sounded like a machine gun firing as I hit the treetops. The stall warning horn was going off warning me I was about to stall, "No s***"! That’s when I pulled back with all my might and the airplane hit the snow-covered ground with a whooshing sound followed by a whirring noise. Tree branches were hitting the windshield, and then they disappeared in an instant. It seemed to go on for a long time, and then we stopped with a lurch.

I heard someone talking on the radio, but I don’t remember what they were saying. I reached down and felt my legs and they were okay. Usually, when a pilot crashes his plane, his feet go through his shoes. There was no pain but a ringing in my ears. The guy in the seat next to me asked, “Are we dead”? It made me laugh. I asked him if he was okay, and he said he was. I couldn’t see anything out the windows, just white, and it was strangely dark in the airplane. The instrument panel remained lighted up with red lights, and it was warming in the look it gave off. I busied myself shutting everything off, Mags, Master Switches, fuel, and remembered the radio so I turned the master’s back on to make a call. I waited and nothing happened, so I turned the master back off. I didn't want to risk a chance of a fire.

I tried opening the door, and it wouldn’t budge. The guy next to me turned himself around in the seat and began kicking at the window. It cracked finally and snow fell through the hole. The snow-packed tight in the crash. When we had two of the cabin windows broken through to the outside, we began digging with our bare hands. The problem was we didn’t have any place to put the snow we were digging through. I didn’t like the idea of suffocating, so I continued to dig and pushing the snow aside and behind me almost like swimming. It took about an hour and my fingers were screaming at me from the cold I was feeling. We dug a tunnel through the enormous pile the airplane had made as it plowed through the snow on impact. Finally, we were out of the buried alive situation.

We only had one choice, walk back toward Fairbanks, or freeze to death. I had a small compass in my jacket pocket and got it out. I saw the direction toward Fairbanks and remembered the guy with the hammer and my firearms down in the cockpit. I always carried a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun with a Choate's extension on it and a Smith and Wesson .44 magnum. You never knew when they would come in handy, and today was that time. Everything in Alaska during the winter is always hungry. They're meat-eaters. Reluctantly, I crawled back through my snow tunnel to retrieve the firearms and tried to make the guy with the hammer in his head as comfortable as I could once I was back inside the buried plane. Me and the other passenger talked about it, and we realized we could not drag him all the way to Fairbanks. We would have all froze to death in the effort. I yelled through the snow tunnel to the passenger, and he agreed, so I crawled back out.

It took us seven days to get to Fairbanks. We tried to pinpoint where we went down, but the rescue crew could not find the airplane. The snow had covered it up. We didn't have GPS back then. They found it early the following Spring, and the wolves had eaten the guy with the hammer in his head. They ate through the side of the plane to get to him. There wasn’t much left of the big guy. A belt and buckle, his shoes, some pieces of clothing shards, and some buttons, and of course the hammer. My other passenger never returned as I recall, and when the airlift shut down later, I went to Africa and never returned to Alaska again.

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