Alaska Raw, Part 5: When Super Cubs levitate in the wind


In some ways, and for reasons unknown, this is the stress some of us live for. There is a lot at risk and you wear the lump in your throat for hours on end until it feels like a new body part.

The last time we left the story, our three hunters had made it to Unimak, the first Aleutian Island, but they were met with rapidly increasing winds and difficult choices about how best to save the airplanes and the trip itself.  Scroll down to read parts 1-4 and find out where to buy the rest of the book. Chapter 1 continues through Sunday.


I ran to the high side to throw my weight onto the wing strut and yelled for help. I could hardly hear myself yell into the wind let alone expect Frank and my father to react, 75 feet behind me. Fortunately my father was watching the gyrations of the Cub as he helped Frank finish digging the last tire in on the Maul.

Having secured the Maul momentarily, they both jumped forward and grabbed on to the left strut of the Cub which allowed me to finish tying to the boulder and quickly grab the shovel and dig a hole for the free flying left tire and then pound in an anchor just forward of the left wing.

There were no wasted motions. The wind just kept steadily building. The three of us beat back the wind demons attacking the Cub and secured it one limb at a time. We then immediately ran back to the wildly bouncing and shifting Maul to affect its final exorcism. Already this was not working out as planned.

The hill we parked up against was chosen to give us cover. The big rock was a bonus. But the wind direction had shifted in the 15 minutes or so we had taken to fly several patterns and inspect the site, confer on the radio, and then get the planes on the ground. Once on the ground it became obvious that the wind was gushing over and around the hill like water in a stream moving around a pebble. We were not much better off than being in the wide open, with the exception of the big rock which proved to be priceless.

After all, the winds are notoriously wicked and unpredictable on the Aleutians. This fall storm could have easily built to 80 or 100 mph and the rock was the only immovable protrusion from the landscape for miles. No trees, no brush, just rolling tundra and sand.

Moreover, we were stuck there until the winds tapered off enough to re-launch, something that was not going to happen before nightfall. We started prying out the tents and bags and trying to divine a clever method of erecting a tent in what was now a steady 50 mph blow.

After a couple of attempts we got the four man “Bomb Shelter” tent standing tight up against the backside of the boulder with tie lines going every which way, reaching back to driven stakes and tied to various parts of the Cub which seemed to be holding its own.

We managed to get enough of camp established to be able to overnight, and after spending some time scraping the sand out of our ears, teeth and eyes, we settled into the tent to listen to the power of the warring meteorological gods. The tent’s door position allowed me to peek at the Super Cub from time to time, to see if my $100,000 investment was going to be slowly deconstructed and rendered to scrap.

Our tent was square in the lee of the rock but was still getting hammered and by now it was leaning away from the wind at increasing angles, straining against all its tethers with each new pummeling. Inside, on one cot and two folding stools, the three of us had positioned ourselves so that the force of the wind shoved the tent against our bodies to provide more of an immovable anchor, a human hedge against the raging furry on the other side of the 6 mill nylon. Dad was on the cot. Frank and I manned the stools.

I continually maximized my anxiety by unzipping the tent door six inches and peeking out at the airplane. I felt like a tightly wound dope fiend all spun up and looking through a crack in the drapes for invading spooks that had no shape, and about which absolutely nothing could be done.

In some ways, and for reasons unknown, this is the stress some of us live for.  There is a lot at risk and you wear the lump in your throat for hours on end until it feels like a new body part.

Each big gust that slammed the tent bent the aluminum poles a little further downwind. It was still building. During one particular gust that got everyone’s complete attention, I looked over at my father lying prone on his cot, jammed tight against the heaving wall. The shrieking blast lifted the tent wall and its attached floor section which, in turn, had lifted his entire cot off the ground several inches with him in it. The Cub was now fairly regularly hovering hard against its tethers, literally levitating in its parking stall a few inches off the ground.

A big gust would hit and I would look out and see the tires jerk up out of the depressions we dug and the airplane would strain against its ropes, the tail would raise and it would fly until that gust bled off enough for it to settle back to the ground. This is when you know you are close to losing an airplane.

Besides the visuals of your expensive toy flying without you, the roar in your ears is unrelenting, and the tent is being held up only by a community effort of our backs being pressed hard into service on the windward side. In those moments you hope for just a little something to go your way.

On one of our several high velocity trips outside the tent, which we made to check and tighten ropes, we actually took some video. Frank crawled in the cockpit of the Maul which was shielded somewhat from the wind since it was parked just behind the Cub and the rock and the tent. Video from inside the Maul showed the airspeed indicator hitting 55 mph in the few short moments he was in the plane filming.

I estimate some of the larger gusts in the middle of the night were over 70 mph. Incredibly, there would be no break. The chaos continued all night and into the next day until around noon. It was a night of zero sleep and long faces. We lost nothing but I did have to replace the set of tent poles on the Bomb Shelter, a brand of tent made to hold up to just about any weather that anyone would want to camp out in.

That next afternoon, after the wind died off to about half, we dosed heavily with coffee, broke our temporary camp, and launched a spotting mission to try and find some big bull caribou. Just south of Urilia Bay there are some great feeding areas for caribou and we weren’t in the air 15 minutes before several small, scattered groups of cows and bulls were logged into the GPS for locating during the next day’s hunt. Another hour of flying further south and east did not result in finding much else, only a few stray groups of small bulls with cows and a few really nice bulls that were too high in the hills for my father to hike to.

We circled back to a location several miles square that was in the crux of the several groups we had selected and began the same systematic check, looking for a smooth landing spot with wind cover that was close to fresh water. Finding exactly what we were looking for after just a few big circles, we set the airplanes down and taxied up against a steep cut bank that was again to be a fortress wall, deflecting the wind now coming generally out of the north. All hands began to unload and give shape to base camp. Walking just behind the cut bank delivered you to a 20-foot wide stream, shin deep but clear and running with purpose.

As Frank and I admired the stream for a moment, a well fed nine foot brown bear emerged from the low brush that was lining the bank to the right.  It  appeared to be a boar, square nosed and dark toned. It was at 75 yards and slowly closing the distance, walking in the middle of the stream bed, fishing for salmon, head down, oblivious to us and upwind. The current rippled with fish trying to outmaneuver the bear’s determined prospecting.

The bear was probably 800 pounds. He did not see us and we did not linger, but slid back around the cut bank quietly retracing the 100 yards to the airplanes, hoping the brown would just move on by and not take an interest in the cooking we were planning later in the evening. We never saw it again.

Click on this link to read Part 4, and Parts 1-3:

Alaska Raw, Part 4: A night in the Cold Bay ‘hotel’, and beach landing in a howling gale