EXCLUSIVE SERIALIZED TRUE ADVENTURE FOR MUST READ ALASKA READERS
(Editor’s note: Must Read Alaska presents a Fathers Day special for readers. Scroll down to catch up on Part 1 of Alaska Raw, by Bob Lacher. Chapter 1 is running in serial format through Fathers Day. You can get a copy of the book through the link below. Meanwhile, continue reading Chapter 1 with Must Read Alaska. The next installment is June 8.)
When we last left Bob Lacher, his father and Frank, they had made it in their small airplanes to the coast near King Salmon and were headed south to the Aleutians to beach-comb and find a big caribou….
We pushed on down the coast taking it all in, straining our vision onto the beach, moving past in relative slow motion to hopefully detect a whale vertebrae or skull or a walrus carcass.
Wind was still fairly brisk coming onshore at about 30 and causing a heavy crabbing attitude of the planes to keep them flying straight down the beach.
Sitting in the pilot seat the view straight ahead in the cockpit appeared to be about a 35 degree angle heading hard out to sea, when in fact the path of travel was straight down the beach. It was an oddly cocked but steady and predictable gait that had your vision focused continually through the left window with a crooked neck.
Far ahead I started to make out another of the large chunks of tundra and dirt bluff sections that periodically break off the shore bank and are pushed by the tides and wave action to the middle of the beach. From a half mile away, the size of a small car, they often look like a potential walrus carcass, same size, same color, same profile, which is to say a lifeless brown blob. One can hope. After approaching and then passing many of the giant teasing dirt mounds, half buried in the sand, disturbed only by the breaking surf, I tried to continue to pay attention.
The one coming up was unusual in a telling way. An eagle lifted off of it as our aircraft got nearer. An eagle is not interested in dirt for dinner. It was a great looking walrus carcass!
As I zipped by at 65 miles an hour I could look down and see part of one ivory tusk. Bingo! I banked the plane up on one wing and came around for another look. Frank and my father dropped in behind and followed my pattern around.
As we turned the wind became a quartering tail instead of quartering head. The downwind run had the aircraft going about 95 or 100 MPH, too fast to see detail of what the beast really had for tusks and if it was worth risking a beach landing in the crosswind. The quartering upwind passes were where we got a decent look, making several sweeps around it to finally decide we were going in.
I set up full flaps and attached my vision to a section of sand that pointed as correctly into the wind as I could get and not risk an overrun into the surf if I could not get stopped on the steeply sloped sand.
The first section of the landing zone sloped somewhat less for perhaps 200 feet, while the remaining 200 feet was heading down the bank at a stiffer 15 degree slope, terminating in the crashing waves… if you somehow failed to get it stopped in time. There were rocks at one end and a couple of root balls blocking the other which forced the angled landing headed toward the water. It was not great, but with the quartering headwind component it should have been a pretty good bet to get it done in the first two hundred feet.
I dropped a wing low on the windward side, slipping and crabbing the bird down toward the spot of sand I wanted to hit. Slowed to the limit of stall, I made first contact with the windward side tire.
In a single, coordinated, fluid motion I immediately kicked the tail up wind and fully straight to my direction of landing, chopped the throttle to zero, dumped all the flaps, and smashed all of the brakes the sand would allow. I was stopped in the first 200 feet. I pulled forward out of the way and shut down. It was Frank’s turn.
My wingman circled a few more times to see just what the zone looked like with a plane parked on it. This is a good visual reference where there may be no other. It’s a way to put distances and angles and slopes in perspective. The second guy in usually has the easier time of it. It’s mental if nothing else.
Frank lined up just as I had and descended toward the sandy sweet spot well marked by my first tire impact. He had been flying in that same crosswind for the last two hundred miles so that was no issue. He just needed to be right on his toes, and to slow the airplane up well, work the left rudder to the firewall when called for…then once everything is squared away and looking good, to get on the brakes hard before the salt water did the braking for you.
There was nothing to it, especially for Frank who had thousands of flight hours and a long career as an Air Force aviator. Frank’s approach looked great. I could see both him and my father sitting side by side, eyes wide open, locked in on the ground they soon wished to be walking on. The crab angle looked good, the appropriate wing tipped into the wind perfectly. Flaps at full, steady…steady… and…contact.
The touchdown was nice and slow, perhaps 45 mph. Then, for some reason, Frank thought he was done with that particular landing. He thought he could relax, that with all those perfectly made moves during the approach…that it was a sure thing. His mind may have already moved on to the grand prize, the walrus, the ivory booty, or maybe the stories of harvesting it that he would tell his grandchildren.
The Maul settled in perfectly, spot on and with both wheels initially pointing directly down the strip.
At this point is exactly when the sharp wind blowing from your right will want to push your tail hard left, thereby pointing your nose at the breaking waves coming up fast on your right. It is at this point that you also must jam the left rudder to the floor with your boot with roughly the same determination and full commitment that it takes to kill a crocodile by stomping on its neck.
And if that crocodile doesn’t die under your boot, you stomp a bunch of left brake to help out the left rudder. You force everything the airplane will do to make the nose go left and stay out of the water, and you do it instantly. You do it by pure reflex.
As I watched the beginning of a perfect touchdown I thought it odd that Frank allowed the tail to swing with the wind a little wide, then….wider. He was allowing the plane to roll out as though there was no crosswind. The jack boot to the left rudder never came.
It looked like things might get salty.
The airship was headed for the water. This was not at all amusing, mostly since my father was at some risk, being over 70 and unable to swim a lick. My dad, like many Alaskans who have never learned to swim because it’s so damn cold here all the time, is not a big fan of ocean water. Moreover, he has only one hand, which is paired with a much less handy stump due to an electrical accident that happened in his mid- thirties. Ice-fucking-cold-ocean has a nut-shriveling effect which I was certain my dad was not looking forward to.
Just then I could see sand shooting off the left outboard wheel, the brakes coming on hard (finally), and that sent the plane into a ground loop to the right, toward the water, but the left wing tilted down so hard it impacted into the sand. The effect of all the skidding, ground looping and heavy breaking was just a little better than going into the drink.
Frank and my father came to a stop just short of the final down slope heading to the breakers. In slow motion the plane tilted up onto its left tire and struck the left wingtip, threatening to flip altogether, but rocked back down on its three wheels. Not great, but it could have been so much worse. I asked myself: Now how far away from help are we? It was time for a walk around and some deep breaths. Dad bailed out. Frank fired up a Camel and checked his panties for shit stains.
It was a challenging but perfectly land-able set up. Frank is a good pilot, with a full suite of skills. He did all the hard parts and then checked out. He cooked a perfect seven course meal, then took a nap in the recliner and, forgetting the oven was still on, burned the house down.
I had a few emotions of my own, selfish certainly, all surrounding our ability to continue the trip to Unimak and find a big caribou for my father.
Our first concern was if the Maul was flyable, or if it could be repaired. If yes… could it be done on the beach, if yes…could we do it with the tools we had onboard. The actual damage was not severe.
No buckled landing gear, but the final two feet of the wing was well bent upwards as was the aileron. We jaw boned the “what ifs” of the landing, took turns gawking and pawing at the bent parts, and generally opining on how “this or that” amount of force “here or there” may cause some miracle of aeronautical metallurgy to occur.
Come back June 8 for the next installment, Part 3: Bent wing and dead walrus, then onward to Cold Bay — on a wing and a prayer.