A once in a lifetime... ( is enough ) Plane Trip.
An Experience To Remember From Back In January 1980...
What started out as a routine plane trip ended up as a quick lesson in winter survival.
On this mid January day I was looking forward to going over to Alaska for a series of meetings and catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for some time. My pilot friend had graciously agreed to fly me in his 4-seater 170 Cessna over to Alaska, picking up a fellow missionary on the way who lived in Dawson City. A student from BC, who was staying with the pilot, had also come along for the ride, his first time in the North. Our attempts to leave Saturday were aborted as the pilot, attempting to fly to Faro, couldn’t get any farther than Carmacks, the halfway point, due to weather and had to return to Whitehorse. Sunday was a better day, but there were still pockets of snow and cloud all over. I waited at the airport and watched him touch down at 11:15. We put in 5 gallons of gas ‘just in case’ we needed it, as there are no fuelling stations until Dawson.
We left Faro at 11:45 and figured we’d get to Dawson about 2:00 p.m. The farther we flew the more we realized that there was lots of inclement weather, and we had to fly low to avoid icing. Just to play it safe, as well as see where we were going, we followed the Pelly River which connects with the Yukon River, which would take us into Dawson. About 20 minutes outside of Dawson, our hearts skipped a beat as the one tank went dry and the plane stalled; the pilot quickly switched to the other tank. Our pilot confided that due to strong head winds and following hundreds of miles of winding river we may not make it to Dawson. Ten minutes outside of Dawson our other tank went dry, and we tightened our seat belts. The plane sputtered what little fuel was left as we descended toward the ground.
The pilot quickly radioed the Dawson City airport, but at 2000 ft. we were too low to be picked up. He turned the plane around and saw a smooth spot on the snow-covered river on which to land. This was going to be very tricky as the plane was on wheels, not skis; flipping over was a real possibility. The nose of the plane was titled upward in order for the tail wheel to dig into the snow. As we hit the 2 ft. of snow the plane jerked forward a bit, and we stopped almost immediately, about 100 yards, much to our surprise and delight. He again tried to radio the airport, but nothing happened. We bundled up and headed for the banks with some gear. We quickly started a fire and chopped enough wood for the night, just in case.
It was 2:15 pm when we went down. The BC student and I figured it would be just a matter of time till Dawson airport knew we were late in arriving and they would fly out and get us. Our last word with the airport was that we were ten minutes out and following the river. Surely they would know soon that we were in trouble. We activated the ELT (Emergency Landing Transmitter) in case Dawson could pick it up. By 5:00 it was dark, and we doubted anyone would come. The pilot told us that they usually wait 24 hrs. before they send help. This is to be sure we didn’t land at another airport, on the road or even went across the border. This didn’t do much to pick up our spirits.
Just then we heard a helicopter in the distance. We knew they’d come! But the chopper never saw us or came close to us. We later learned that they had no idea we were down and they weren’t even looking for us.
We set up a tent and got some emergency food out of the plane. We prepared for a long, cold night. The temperature was ‘only’ -20C, and with all our moving around we were comfortable. After a quick drink of grapefruit-flavoured snow water and a few bites of emergency food, we decided to go to bed, as there was little hope of anyone coming that night. It was snowing, so the chance of a plane coming by was remote.
The hours from 7-9 p.m. seemed an eternity. We were cuddled in our sleeping bags but we didn’t sleep very much. If we could just make it through the night, we were sure that Search and Rescue would come by the next day. At 9:15 we heard a snow machine speeding up the river! The pilot ran out with a flashlight and tried to flag him down but missed him (our fire had died down and was not visible). He headed back to bed, discouraged, as we all were. Then we heard another snow machine. Again, a flashlight was used to signal our position. This time he saw us but took off! “He had to see us!” we queried. He had, but went to catch his friend. We later learned that the RCMP had called these two fellows to look for us. Eventually both snow machinists returned to our ‘camp’. They informed us that a Hercules had been looking for us that night and lots of people were very concerned about us. We were transported to the fellows’ cabin, about 7 miles from where we landed, where we spent the night. The search was called off and all involved were informed of our safety. Though thrilled to be alive after this ordeal, the trip to their cabin was the coldest and bumpiest trip of my life as we bounced down the river over the ice ridges, with a wind chill that cut to the bone.
The next day we went back to the plane to shovel out a runway for the plane. With a piece of plywood and a spade, we shovelled 300 ft. of 2 ft. deep snow. It had turned much colder, -30C, and the snow was like powdery sugar. We kept busy with our task, moving to stay warm and keep our minds occupied. At evening, a helicopter retrieved the 3 of us and took us to Dawson where we contacted our families to assure them we were all OK. The next day the pilot returned to his plane with some gas and, with a lot of effort, shovelled an additional 300 ft. and ‘tiger-torched’ the engine to help get it started . The plane was finally off the river.
I eventually returned to Faro—and to a trailer with froze-up water!