Never Again

A Tern in the tundra

May 1, 1995

It was a sunny spring day in May 1990. I had purchased an Interstate Arctic Tern a month earlier and had flown it only a few hours. I was flying with a friend near the headwaters of Alaska's Portage Creek. I gradually applied full power to gain altitude before entering a narrow mountain pass. The engine sputtered and lost power; engine speed increased and decreased repeatedly.

I applied carburetor heat, enriched the mixture, switched fuel tanks, checked the gauges and mags, and scanned the instrument panel for anything amiss. Nothing improved, so I entered a 180-degree turn toward lower terrain. The Portage Creek Valley is thickly forested and strewn with boulders. The nearest safe landing area at that time of year — even for a bush aircraft — is about 50 miles to the south, unless ski equipped.

Having approximately 2,000 feet of altitude remaining, I surveyed the area for a clear ridge. A sloping bare ridge almost directly below was the only possibility. The ridge crest appeared to be about 12 feet wide, 400 feet in length, and sloped off steeply on three sides, with a mountain directly ahead of the upslope end. A touchdown in the first 10 to 20 feet of the ridge at full stall would be necessary, as is often the case on marginal bush strips. The Arctic Tern stalls at 32 mph indicated with full flaps and is capable of stopping in less than 300 feet.

Winds were calm. I circled down, set up the approach, shut off the master switch, applied full flaps, and landed within feet of the intended spot. The tundra was uneven but firm and appeared acceptable.

We received a jolt upon touchdown and an unexpected swerve to the right. I applied full left rudder and left brake, managing to keep the Tern lined up on the ridge. The wings lost lift and the right wing settled lower than the left, even as I applied full left aileron.

I wasn't aware of it at the time, but upon touchdown we had struck a large tundra-camouflaged boulder, completely shearing off the right landing gear at the fuselage. As the airplane settled, the right passenger step plowed into the tundra. The aircraft immediately ground- looped to the right. I stared momentarily down a sheer drop-off. It appeared that we were going over and down the hillside, but the airplane pivoted neatly around the firmly planted passenger step.

The right wingtip was touching the tundra on the uphill side, supporting the wounded Tern. We exited the aircraft after collecting survival gear and a rifle.

After the danger of fire passed, we returned to the aircraft, surveyed the damage, considered our options, and removed camping gear. We had sufficient food for several days, as well as additional necessities for survival, and made a comfortable camp.

We were in a very remote area surrounded on all sides by steep mountains, with minimal air traffic. The air route between Anchorage and Europe over the North Pole was several miles to one side of us. I switched on the emergency locator transmitter and tuned the radio to 121.5 but left the master off to save the battery.

By nightfall we had neither seen nor heard any aircraft, so we made the best of the situation by settling in to the tent for some storytelling. I turned the ELT off for the night to save its battery.

Day two: Low-level clouds filled the valley, engulfing our 3,100- foot elevation at times. Rain fell intermittently. We listened for aircraft; took turns exploring the immediate area; and, through binoculars, watched moose and Dall's sheep to pass the time. I personally recommend the addition of a good lightweight paperback book to any survival kit. Reading the labels on bean cans and sleeping bag tags really lacks plot and becomes repetitious.

During the day we heard two or three jet aircraft above the cloud cover off to the west of us. Each time, I switched on the ELT and attempted contact on 121.5 until they were gone. The airplanes could be heard for only 25 seconds as they passed between the mountain peaks in the narrow valley.

In late afternoon, I finally received an answer in a foreign accent. We found out later that it was from a French airliner. I reported our position and indicated that we were uninjured, had camping gear, and that we needed a helicopter. His reply trailed off unclearly, and the airliner was gone without further contact.

Day three: The overcast lifted to 4,000 feet. From within the tent I heard the far- off drone of a small aircraft engine down the valley from our hillside position. I transmitted on the com radio, received an answer, and directed the aircraft to us. It was a Civil Air Patrol airplane from Anchorage. We made radio contact with its crew and discussed our situation as the airplane circled overhead. I assured them that all was as well as could be expected and that we did not need an air drop. The pilot agreed to send a helicopter to get us as soon as possible, weather depending. The weather deteriorated rapidly soon after the CAP airplane headed towards Anchorage, 160 miles to the south.

Day four: The weather was IFR. A rescue crew from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, flying a Sikorsky helicopter, reached us on their second attempt. They transported us to Talkeetna, where I reported the accident and made arrangements to retrieve the Arctic Tern.

The cause of power loss appeared to be a collection of slime or algae particles in the carburetor caused by old fuel stored in the Tern's fuel tanks for long periods before I had purchased it.

From this event I learned that a newly purchased aircraft should be inspected thoroughly for usage — or, perhaps more importantly, the lack of use. The CAP recommended that ELTs remain on continuously. The French airliner understood my position as Portage Creek but misunderstood the coordinates. There are approximately 10 Portage Creeks in Alaska, and the CAP had wasted valuable time searching the wrong ones.

Had we not packed for a 10-day hunt with plenty of food, water, clothing, and tools, our chances of survival would have been marginal, given the IFR conditions, terrain, and temperature. The airplane was repaired on-site with a new landing gear and wing strut and flown out within a week of our rescue.

R. L. (Butch) Loper, AOPA 1108874, a guide-outfitter from Talkeetna, Alaska, has accumulated more than 3,000 hours as a bush pilot.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from others' experiences. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.