“The point when a lot of wind becomes too much wind is a difficult but very important moment to identify.” — Kevin Patterson, from his book The Water In Between: A Journey At Sea
Every year there are one or two. Moments, sometimes agonizingly long moments, when the successful outcome of a particular phase of a flight – be it a takeoff, a landing, the safe arrival overhead a destination in gusty winds or reduced visibility or freezing precipitation – is nagged by nerves and uncertainty. Always these moments pass, as moments do, and almost always they pass with “no harm done.” Of course they do, or no one would fly in airplanes, least of all us pilots. But if a bush pilot were to claim that he or she has never, not once, had a moment like this, and if they have been flying for a few years – well, all I could think to say (politely) would be, “That’s incredible. Literally incredible.”
We emerge from the far end of these moments chastened, sobered, and reminded of the physics of flight. And of frailties: frailties of our systems and our aircraft and our oh-so-human judgements and processes of decision. Reminded, too, of the power of wind and weather and water. Emerging, we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and climb back on the horse that just threw or nearly threw us. Sometimes in my work’s tense times I think of a remark I read years ago in an article about Navy fighter pilots, who were –now listen up here – landing jets, in the dark, on the decks of ships. (Yeah, you might want to read that last bit again.) Not that anything I do with my little float-and-ski fart-carts ever approaches that degree of sophistication or savvy, not to mention technological complexity, but there was a snippet from that article that stuck with me: “Night landings at sea are what we get paid for; the rest is just plain fun.”
Some of you already know, reading this, where this slightly ominous preamble is leading. The Reader’s Digest version of the July 18th “aviation occurrence” (sometimes sterile bureaucratic mumble-speak can be so comforting) would read something like this, if only the Reader’s Digest could loosen up its line spacing and punctuation:
Summer morning, unsettled. Blowing 20 at Yellowknife and piping up.
East to the Thelon in one long ride, pushed by that wind.
One sample-site done and on to Dubawnt.
Memories of a five-day blow there, late August of 1996, with Harry.
We land at the usual spot, in the lee of a low tundra spit,
taxi into wind, blowing gusty and hard, but there is shelter there, and the anchor holds.
Stefan and I step out onto the floats, and he does his work – another water sample.
“Windy!” he says. (Master of understatement.)
Anchor raised, we drift back, flaps down, rudders up, letting the wind push us into position for takeoff.
Seas “confused,” as the sailors would say, humping and peaking with some swells
rolling around the tip of the peninsula, some coming in from the west,
and the river’s deep current roils it all.
I’m gripped, but steady and still confident. Eager to get airborne and westbound.
Throttle forward, power coming in,
and just then a lurch and yaw on a steep crowned wave,
yoke hard over, but the right wing rises,
too high and too fast,
and every inch gives more grip to that gale.
I haul back on the throttle, try to abort.
Over we go.
As in over. Upside down. In the water. In the plane.
So that is how it all began, that afternoon. Upside down in the plane, hanging there in our harnesses, as time slowed to a crawl, as it always does in such moments. ELT on, find life-jacket, channel those swimming-pool Underwater Egress training sessions. Door-latch, seat belt, cold water coming in, both of us moving, out and up, a brief struggle and the satellite phone case lost somehow from grip. Now climbing up the struts of clean white floats, which still ride high as the plane settles deeper beneath them. Some vehement cursing, by yours truly.
I take the paddle from its rack on the float and we start trading off, fifty strokes a side, passing it back and forth, more to keep warm than to make any progress. Shouting back and forth to each other in the wind. Drifting very slowly, carried by current and swell, maybe a quarter-mile an hour? Cold. But we are going to do this, and it is okay. We are going to live. I can feel it already, and I think Stefan can too. After maybe an hour of this, the plane stops drifting, about 150 yards off a low shoreline to the north. A concerted effort to get some gear out – without diving back down and into the cabin (a move I briefly consider and reject) – yields some useful things and some trivial things, among them my briefcase, a quart of cream and a bag of carrots, the orange “survival pail” and a couple jerry cans of avgas, and two more life-jackets to join the ones we’re wearing.
The plane has stopped drifting. Shore is way over there, and no one is coming for a long, long time. (We are 400 miles from Yellowknife, nearly 200 miles from Baker Lake.) No tough decision here. Ready? We swim.
Stumble ashore, deeply chilled, strip some layers, find some scrub wood. Pocket match-safe bone dry, and avgas with a Whoosh changes everything. “Fire, brother! This is what separates us from the apes!” We laugh. We are going to do this, and it is okay.
Moved camp after Stefan found a better spot. More wood, more shelter, and my red poncho strung up as a tarp. The wind still roaring, and squalls of cold rain. A long evening, and a short period of Arctic mid-summer twilight. Shiver, move around, heat some soup, shiver, doze. Long talks… we go quite a ways back, Stefan and I. Our conversation circles and loops. Dog-mushing, jobs, raising children. “You warm enough?” “Yep. O.K.” “I wonder what will come first – A Herc or a Twin Otter?”
There was no real suspense to our twelve-hour wait, because we knew all along we would be found, and relatively quickly. It is 2017, not the 1950’s. Trackers, satellites, phones, and Ops Manuals have changed the game. Kristen, watching the tracker back at the Hoarfrost, had sounded the first alarm that afternoon, and things rapidly spooled up after our “overdue time” came and went with no word from us, no arrival back at base. All night around that hot little fire, we were alive and remaining so, and we knew help was coming. We only wished we could re-assure those who were wondering. Our loved ones, and Stefan’s work colleagues, passed a much longer and more difficult night than we did.
It’s the Herc. 4 a.m., just past dawn. Low to the south we hear it. They circle, drop a handheld radio on a 30-foot streamer. I’m still cold, but is that the real reason my knee is doing the Elvis as I fumble with the radio? And then talking. “Roger, we are both okay, cold and wet.”
“We are going to drop you some gear. Stay out of the way.” Around again, a couple of times. Six-foot heavy sleds on a cargo chute, drifting down. We figure that’s it, and we haul the goods across the stony tundra to our little camp. Open the sleds up, and it’s Christmas in July – parkas, boots and balaclavas, cookpots, stove and food, tent and axe – hell, now we could stay a week, easy!
We tell them so, but they’re coming back. Two jumpers, drifting down, and in a moment walking over. Joel and Darcy –the Air Force is here! We shake hands. “Well, yeah, we know you said you were okay, but when we see a plane like that” – he points at the white floats, upside down, far offshore, with the red form of the wings and fuselage dimly visible in the cold clear water below – “we have a hard time believing everybody’s okay until we look at you.”
Joel gets on the radio. “Two crew, both here. They’re Charlie Green.” (I don’t know the lingo, but I’m guessing maybe C for Conscious and Green for uninjured. “Uniform Red” would maybe not be so good.)
Now it is late August. The Bush Hawk is back at our maintenance base in Fort Nelson, after a 400-mile sling ride beneath a Bell 412 helicopter, and a 600-mile journey south by truck. Insurers, adjusters, and owner / operators (that would be Kristen and I) all conferring with the mechanics and engineers. Estimates, timelines, and conjecture. The coming week will tell whether the airplane is to be repaired or written off. Only a thorough inspection will answer that big question. We are urged by others, more seasoned in this, who advise, “It’s just bent metal. Don’t get all sentimental about it.” Yep, bent metal. Wet metal, in this case, now drying. Just a damaged machine, yet I would have to be carved of stone not to be a little sentimental about a cockpit and a flying machine that has been my workplace for 3000 hours.
On a morning of low cloud and steady drizzle, I sit and ruminate on wind and moments and flying and floatplanes. Stefan is back with his wife and young children in Yellowknife, and has been working again on weather stations or water samples. Whatever the fate of dear old C-GROH, we two are both “Charlie Green” today, and Charlie Green we are happy to be.