Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Part 2: Kissing the ground in Alaska

I promised I’d share about the rest of my transportation accidents in today’s post … though I’m sure now I won’t be able to fit them all in! There may need to be a part 3 or more.

Parking lots are dangerous places …

… particularly the parking lot of a high school! When I was a junior at Upland High School, a girl in our parking lot hit me as she was trying to escape (like a bat out of hell) after school, and I was walking across the lot. I bounced off her hood and onto the asphalt. She skidded to a stop briefly, gave me a dumb stare out the window, and seeing I was still alive (bruised, but not seriously injured), stepped on the accelerator and sped off. That’s the only time (thus far) I’ve been struck by a vehicle as a pedestrian.

… and so are storms in Alaska

Okay, so I’ve never been in an actual aviation accident. But what I am about to tell you is about as close as I ever want to come.

My brother Don caught this beautiful King Salmon during our July 1979 fishing trip to Alaska.

Several weeks before Darlene and I were to be married, my Dad invited my brother and I to join him on a fishing excursion in Alaska. It was mid-July and the king salmon were running up the Mulchatnah River, several hundred miles west of Anchorage. A stream called the Stoyahook emptied into the Mulchatnah, and my dad said the sandbar which connected the two was considered one of the three hottest fishing spots in the world. You could fish for salmon off to the left, and off to the right of this sandbar several lovely varieties of trout were feeding off the spawning salmon’s eggs.

We flew in from Anchorage in two small planes. In addition to me and my brother, my dad took a business associate and his son. We had a lovely week of fishing (despite grizzly bears wandering around in our camp each night), then it was time to leave. But our last day there a very bad storm broke. It was raining and the wind howling about 50mph. We were unsure whether the planes would return on schedule, or not, but we packed up just in case.

One float plane did return, landing roughly on the choppy water of the Mulchatnah, and after taxiing up to the sand bar the pilot shouted at us to leave as much of our gear behind as possible and to get in quickly. These pilots flew visual (no instruments) and we had to make it back in time before the storm closed a key pass between us and Anchorage. (The second pilot had turned around in the rough weather, concerned that he wouldn’t be able to make the pass on the way back.)

My dad and his business associate said they would stay behind and told my brother and I to get in, along with his friend’s son. As soon as the door was shut the pilot pushed back and told us not to put on our seatbelts until after we were safely off the water. And we saw the reason as we began accelerating for takeoff: The wind was whipping up squalls on the river that were actually reaching up high enough to splash the wingtips of the plane. He was worried about us being able to swim safely away from the plane if it went down in the water.

But we were soon airborne, and he shouted, “Seatbelts! Now!” And the reason for this was also apparent, as the winds tossed us to and fro like peas in a can.

My brother Don and I knew it was going to be a rough trip, so we made a wager about who would lose their breakfast first. (Our breakfast had been dried apricots, I remember this very distinctly for good reasons.) I was hopeful I might win, as I had always done better than my brother when it came to motion sickness.

The only way I can describe how rough the turbulence of that storm was is to tell you that after we finally landed in Anchorage, we had bruises across our hips from the seatbelts. We hit a few downdrafts which forced us down hundreds of feet, and when we finally did thread the needle through that pass, we only had about 200 feet of clearance between the cloud deck and the rocks below.

At the end of one freefall that seemed to last forever, when we finally pulled out with a huge bounce, I remember the pilot looking back over his shoulder and checking both wings. I saw raw fear on his face. I will never forget that.

Anyway, about 15 or 20 minutes into that flight, I glanced over at my brother’s face and saw that I had a good chance to win our bet. He was getting quite green at the gills, as our mom used to say. So I pulled out my secret weapon — a Hershey’s chocolate bar — and began chewing it noisily. That did the trick. My brother filled a plastic bag with the bright orange remains of his breakfast. And I think the infusion of sugar into my bloodstream actually helped me to feel better … I never did get sick despite three hours of extreme turbulence.

When we landed on the lake in Anchorage and got out at the dock, I knelt and kissed the wood. I was never so glad in all my life to be back on the ground again.

That’s just one of two close calls I had on a plane. The other was on a passenger jet in South Africa, but it was much later (2006), so I’ll save it for another post.

Next up: A close call behind the wheel!

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