Twenty minutes into the flight and all was green. The needles were sitting comfortably in their right-of-centre positions indicating good oil pressure and temperature. Michael’s scanning habit was spontaneous, characteristic of all seasoned bush pilots. When airborne, he would repeatedly check his cockpit environment as he did his flight path.
Today’s flight time would add 2.4 hours to his logbook and take him over treed bogs and scrubby cutovers. Inhospitable terrain for landings but ideal for moose and black bear. It was early May and the aspen buds were still closed but ripe. In 20 years of flying in the North, he never failed to marvel at his office view.
He was carrying a mixed load of food and sundries for a forest resources inventory crew that was due for replenishment after ten days of fieldwork. He looked forward to these trips – the crew was happy to see him and he enjoyed their company.
Michael was very familiar with the rendezvous point, a 1500-foot straight section of old logging road. The surface was hard-packed from many years of use and covered with powdery sand, two cm deep in places but not a problem for his plane’s tundra tires. Both approaches were clear of trees except for a young stand of jack pine northwest of the runway. The STOL capabilities of his yellow plane would not be challenged on this trip.
Familiarity breeds complacency but Michael scanned the horizon for competing traffic that might be converging towards his intended circuit. The odds were astronomical that anyone else would be flying in the same air space he was to occupy, let alone land on the same dirt strip at the same time, but situational awareness was a big part of his flying discipline. The winds were calm and the morning sun started to heat the exposed soil in the clear-cuts, causing slight convection that was strong enough to send a ripple through the fine branches of willow scrub.
Michael flew over the timber cruisers’ camp at about 500 feet to announce his arrival. He waggled his wings to enthusiastic waves from the party below and banked hard left to initiate his off-airport landing procedure.
Blindly calling out his intentions on 126.7, Michael initiated a high-level inspection at a thousand feet above the road. He perused the landing and takeoff paths as well as the length of runway for any obstacles. He’d land from the southeast, taking advantage of any small headwind and keep the sun on his back. Flying the circuit, he dragged the runway at 200 feet to look more closely at the surface, wing clearances and the condition of the turnaround area.
His touchdown was made good with full flaps and a landing roll of less than 600 feet. He taxied to the end of the runway and shut down in a clearing that was used many years ago to pile and scale pulp logs. He waited for the crew to arrive. They’d be coming on foot, traversing a clear-cut from their river-based, canoe camp that was about a half-mile north of his position.
The sun was warm and the flies were not yet in full swarm. The silence was deafening save for the barking squawk of a distant raven. There was no better job he thought, as four coverall-bedraggled forestry men emerged around the bend.
After some hearty handshakes, the group helped Michael unload the plane as they traded fishing stories and wildlife sightings. Their backpacks full, the timber cruisers thanked the pilot and again he found himself alone in the bush. The return flight would be a pleasant one-hour ride.
A quick walk-around revealed nothing out of place. The engine was still warm as he switched on the master, selected both mags and fired it up. Lining up into the prevailing breeze, he performed a run-up just to be safe and then taxied to the south end of the strip to begin his takeoff roll. Always cautious, Michael scanned his instruments moments before pushing the throttle to the firewall. Free of its payload, the aircraft was climbing by the time it reached the runway’s halfway point. The airspeed pegged at 75 knots, and his plane climbed at better than a thousand feet per minute in the cool spring air. A rate-one turn to the left saw the altimeter at 2000 feet when Michael leveled out and set the directional gyro to 1900 for home. But something was amiss.
It wafted in and out of Michael’s olfactory system almost imperceptibly –but the smell hit him like a ton of bricks. His skin began to crawl when he recognized the distinct odour of burning oil. The engine gauges indicated all was well as the tach sat at 2400 rpm without missing a beat. A quick environmental assessment positioned the return flight at about 70 nautical miles from base over spruce fens and bogs. If the engine quit now, his forced landing would most certainly be rough – would a precautionary landing be more prudent? He commenced a shallow climb to gain precious altitude in the event of an engine failure.
Almost instantly, the plane’s aluminum skin emitted a sudden banging sound as if a fist pounded the tail cone. The plane started to vibrate violently, and the tinny noise went straight to the core of his heart as Michael saw the oil pressure drop and temperature rise to the red line. The engine was in danger of calving as he saw smoke in the cockpit. The decision to land would not be his.
In two decades of flying he had never so much as scratched an aeroplane or hurt anyone on the job. And now he was facing a crisis that was so rare in aviation that statistically he would never encounter it if he flew for a thousand years.
But Michael’s flying skills were well honed and he felt as one with the ailing bird. He shut down the engine before it vibrated off its mounts, set his airspeed at best glide to minimize his rate of descent, pulled the mixture, closed the fuel shutoff to the engine, switched the mags off and popped his door ajar. The propeller stopped as if seized. Ringing in Michael’s ears and the faint sound of rushing air replaced the calamitous noise. He was flying a glider.
Looking for a suitable landing field, he spotted a boggy area clear of trees off his ten o’clock position – well within gliding distance. The master switch was still on and flaps retracted. His mind raced. No time or altitude for a crosswind approach, he’d fly it straight in to final with flaps extended when the field was made. If he was too high he’d sideslip but from his vantage point he had plenty of featureless bog to land in. He knew that it wasn’t the most ideal glide path but fate had chosen his course – a slight tailwind would add a couple of knots to his lowest touchdown speed.
Instinctively he tightened his shoulder harness and lap belt with a quick look at the airspeed indicator. His mayday calls went unanswered as he shut off the master. Full flaps deployed he told himself to fly the plane to the ground. His gut told him to pull back on the control column away from the hostile terrain but he resisted the urge knowing that a stall would be deadly. Despite his critical predicament his mind wandered back in time when his favorite instructor briefed him on the most important lesson to remember if confronted with a forced approach – “fly it down, then walk the ground.”
His view on final was ominous and rapidly growing in detail. The once amorphous bog began to show signs of bumpy relief with clumps of sphagnum moss interspersed with little spires of dead spruce stems. He’d hold it off as long as possible with a nose high attitude but he knew the touchdown wouldn’t be pretty – too bad his landing gear was fixed he thought; either it will tear off or he’ll dig in and nose over.
He held the steering control in his stomach, feeling as if he was pulling the column out of the firewall. The plane bounced once as he was slammed against his harness. His head snapped forward and his teeth banged together cutting the inside of his lip. Still gripping the control column he uncontrollably smashed it forward against its stop as the force of sudden deceleration took hold. And then silence.
He was conscious, the sun was shining and the plane was upright. His first concern was for himself. As he slowly began to move his limbs to check for injuries, he noticed that the cockpit was relatively whole. Tasting blood, the smell of fuel filled his nose. Fighting panic he unbuckled his seat-belt and pushed on the door with his left shoulder. Sharp and radiating pain from the back of his neck froze him momentarily but he rationalized the soreness as a muscle strain caused by the G forces in the crash. Squeezing through the opening, he fell onto a moist carpet of moss and lay there thinking.
He would sit for awhile until the engine cooled and the danger of fire was lessened. He was wet and knew that night would bring freezing temperatures, but he had shelter and a survival kit with a portable transceiver. The ELT was last checked 2 months ago and passed inspection. If it failed to transmit its distress signal there was a good chance that his mayday call was overheard. Best of all, he filed a flight itinerary with an FSS, requesting search and rescue if he was six hours overdue past his initial departure time. His best bet would be to wait it out with his aircraft – he was about 60 miles from the nearest settlement, but if he attempted to hike out he would surely get lost and the walk through sphagnum bogs would take days. He started nibbling on a chocolate bar.
He realized that about two hours remained before sunset when he saw two contrails growing in close formation high in the western sky. Trying the portable handheld, he climbed onto the downed aircraft to elevate the radio antenna and improve his transmission. He inadvertently dialed the local FSS repeating his mayday but heard only static. Frustrated, he tried the air-to-air frequency on 122.75 to catch itinerant aircraft talking to one another but heard nothing in response to his urgent calls for help. He then flipped to 121.5, the international distress frequency and tried his luck. The response startled him. To his amazement, a woman’s voice, five-by-five, came back instantly after he released the push-to-talk button.
She was the pilot of a Canadian armed forces fighter jet on a cross-country training mission, flying with her wingman. Michael was lucid – explaining his situation in more detail and trying to pinpoint his exact location to the rescuers. The air force pilot relayed Michael’s information to a rescue coordination center that immediately dispatched a civilian helicopter closest to the accident site. She reassured him that help was on its way and to watch for a chopper from the south – ETA 1.5 hours. Michael thanked the captain profusely as he looked up into the sky to see the jet trails dissipate. Daylight was slipping fast.
He had no time to waste. A fire was in order. Michael’s extensive bush flying experience told him that a signal fire with smoke could be seen for miles from the air. And to further improve his chances of being seen by spotters, he’d use the red pup tent from his survival kit to prepare a distress marker on the ground in the shape of a V.
He sat quietly by the fire, sporadically throwing handfuls of sphagnum on it to create smoke. His neck ached. The air was cool without wind and the sky was a gun-steel blue with an orange glow in the horizon to the west. No movement, no sounds but for an occasional crack from the fire. A grey jay alit on the crumpled fuselage of his beloved aeroplane as if to inspect the fallen carcass, and then it flitted away. Michael controlled his breathing as he strained to listen for the chopper’s telltale noise of whipping rotor blades – dead silence.
But something else caught his ears. It sounded as if the wind was picking up but there was no air movement. He couldn’t ascertain the direction the sound was coming from – it sounded like a perpetual thunder roll without end but its volume was steadily growing in intensity.
All of a sudden, a grey fighter jet made a screaming pass directly overhead. Its lights, strobes and beacons created a pyrotechnic display of colour in the twilight as the rising smoke from Michael’s fire tumbled into a vortex in the fighter’s wake turbulence. Yelling with excitement, Michael jumped up and down waving frantically as the jet rocked its wings in recognition of its find. It continued its climb departing westbound, becoming a tiny speck in Michael’s gaze. He followed its blinking lights until he could barely hear its fading roar.
A pilot down but not forgotten, the bond between aviators bridged the heavens that night. Still looking skyward Michael was overwhelmed with emotion as his eardrums felt the whump-like staccato of a helicopter beating air.
About the Author
Paul V. Tomascik is a commercial pilot who makes his home in Ottawa Canada. His aviation career was built on remote sensing in the natural resource sector. Currently, he has his own consulting practice (www.tomascikmarketing.ca). He also writes and illustrates fictional and true aviation adventure stories and has regularly contributed his work for publication.