The Last Flight
In the hangar at Petersburg, I was sweeping up and Mike, the mechanic, was running diagnostics on the Kodiak. There was a software update to be uploaded to the Garmin 1000. Buddy Guy was on the stereo. It was about 15:00 hours. An old man walked into the hanger. He was thin and really ancient, dressed in a red flannel shirt, wool pants and some antique jump boots. “Who’s in charge here?” the old man asked.
“He’s down on the dock fishing, but I wouldn’t bug him if I were you. He takes his fishing really seriously. What can I do for you?”
“I want a round-trip to Bronson Creek,” he replied.
“You got it. The Kodiak will be ready in about thirty minutes.”
“I don’t want to fly in that computerized contraption. Do you have any real airplanes with pistons and steam gauges?” He had a certain resolute determination in his eyes that took me by surprise. Cruiser was inbound from Klawock in N216EG, due in about fifteen minutes.
“We’ll have a radial Beaver here in about twenty minutes,” I said. “Will that do?”
“Perfect,” the old man said. He cast a contemptuous eye at the Kodiak, “We didn’t need that kind of crap back in my day.”
“It’s really a very nice airplane,” I said. “You ought to give it a chance.”
“Nope. Got no use for ‘em. So when does the real plane get in?”
I looked at my watch, and said, “In exactly thirteen and a half minutes. You can set your watch on this guy.” He asked me more questions: how many hours I had, where I had flown, my certifications, if had been in the service – he was definitely checking me out, and not taking anything for granted. In exactly twelve minutes, I heard the throb of N216EG descending through the gap. “That’s it,” I said. “Isn’t it a beautiful sound?”
For the first time, the old guy smiled, “Like music.”
Cruiser taxied up to the hanger, shut down and climbed down from the plane. I walked out to him and said, “I need to borrow your plane. I’ll take real good care of it.”
“What’s this about? The weather is getting kind of ugly.”
“Special Ops. I’ll explain it all when I get back.”
He got that skeptical look in his eyes for which he is famous and said, “I’m going to hold you to that.”
“Thanks. I owe you one,” I answered. We refueled and preflighted the Beaver. The weather really didn’t look good. The ceiling was low and a fitful wind whipped at the windsock.
“There’s one more thing,” the old man said. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to sit in the copilot seat.”
“Suits me fine. It’s easier to keep my eye on you that way.” He chuckled. We taxied out to the runway and I radioed my intention to take off to the east. He suddenly turned to me and extended his hand, “The name’s Buzz, Buzz Anderson.” I shook his hand and said, “It’s good to meet you, Buzz. You can call me Syd.”
Even during takeoff, the wind buffeted the Beaver and I had to really concentrate to keep it moving straight. “So, Buzz, you have no luggage, camera, rod and reel or rifle. Why are we doing this?”
He was thoughtful for a minute, and then said, “I’m a bush pilot, or I was until I got grounded. The old ticker is no good. I used to fly these hills back in the Forties and Fifties, back before you were born, I suspect. Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, V-J Day, the day Truman relieved MacArthur – all of these historic days when the world hung in the balance, I was up here in this god-forsaken wilderness in an airplane. It’s my soul, my life. I needed to be up here and see these hills again.”
I didn’t have anything clever to come back with to that. I was pushing the Beaver to get some altitude, and I didn’t like what I was seeing. The clouds covered the hills and hollows between them. The familiar landmarks were wrapped in gray wool. I glanced at the GPS to get my bearings. “We didn’t have those things when I was flying,” Buzz observed.
“Yeah, and a lot of you guys never got where you were going, either.”
“I always did,” he answered.
“Well, then you were either very good or very lucky.”
He laughed, “I was both.” He looked out the window, “This is perfect. This is just perfect.”
“You have a weird idea of what constitutes ‘perfect’,” I said. “In my dictionary, this is ‘lousy’.”
“No, I did this flight, and it was a day just like today, wind, low clouds, crummy visibility. I was flying some Army brass out to Bronson Creek for a hunting trip, 1943. I was flying a Noorduyn Norseman – loved that old bird – but a fuel line ruptured and the engine caught fire. I was up here, just like this in a burning plane, unable to see the ground.”
“What did you do?”
“I did just what you are doing. I completely over-shot Bronson Creek because I was distracted and couldn’t see. I thought the plane would explode any minute. I dived into the clouds, hoping the wind and rain would blow out the fire, and it did, but not before I was only a couple hundred feed above the creek bed. I think every one of those generals peed in their pants. Then the fog was so heavy, I didn’t think I could find the strip, but I knew the creek and I followed it. Suddenly, like a miracle from heaven, I saw the runway through the mist. I told the generals to jump out of the plane the minute we came to a stop because it would probably catch fire again and explode.”
I glanced at the GPS. He was right: I had completely over-shot Bronson Creek. I banked left and pushed the nose into the low clouds. There had better be a creek down there, or we’re toast, I thought. I broke through the clouds only a couple hundred feet above the creek bed, just as the old man had predicted.
“More flaps,” he yelled. I went to two clicks. “Full pitch, full pitch!” he yelled again. I pushed the pitch lever as far forward as I could. “You’re too lean,” he said, not quite shouting now.
“Set it the way you want it, Buzz.” He looked at me kind of funny, but then leaned forward and pushed the mixture lever up. I silently thanked the fickle gods of the air that this wasn’t my first trip to Bronson Creek. I fly the creek sometimes just because it’s so beautiful and I love the glaciers. I threaded my way slowly down the creek, still at two clicks of flaps to keep the plane as slow as was safe. Then, like a ghost, the Bronson Creek airstrip materialized out of the fog and mist. A gentle bank to the left, ease off the throttle, and our wheels banged down on the grass.
“Nice landing,” the old man remarked. We shut down the plane and got out. “This is right where it happened. This is where the plane burned. I really hated that. It was a lovely plane.” He kicked a little at the sod, looking for some remnant of the fire, but there was only dirt. Nature had healed herself in the fifty years that had passed. “I got a commendation letter from President Roosevelt himself for ‘saving the lives’ of those officers. I had it framed. You know, after that, I always wondered if Glenn Miller’s plane had the same problem.” We walked around a little longer, looking at the creek and the hills. “It really hasn’t changed much, still beautiful,” he observed. “OK. I’ve seen. Let’s head back to Petersburg.”
We buckled up and the Beaver made its wonderful Harley Davidson sound coming to life. “November 216 Echo Golf departing Bronson Creek to the east.” The plane clawed its way into the air and I banked left into the broader river valley and followed it until I had the altitude to turn toward Petersburg. We told a few more stories, but eventually ran out of tales and just watched the landscape flow by. The landing at Petersburg was considerably easier except for those few anxious moments spent descending through the clouds and hoping we were where I thought we were.
We set down nice and easy and I taxied the plane back to the hanger. I set the parking brake and turned off the engine and electrical. It was only then that it occurred to me that I hadn’t gotten any coaching on my landing from Buzz on the way in. I looked at him and he was very still. His eyes were open and he looked straight ahead. “Buzz?” I touched his arm, but he didn’t respond. He’s really still, I thought. I felt for a pulse on the side of his neck and there was none. For a second, it flashed through my mind to drag him out onto the tarmac and try CPR, but I thought, No, that’s were he wants to be. I climbed out of the plane and shut the door. I lit a cigarette. Cruiser came walking out of the hanger.
“What’s up with your passenger,” he asked.
“No he’s not. He’s sitting right there.”
Cruiser looked again at the plane, “Oh, great. Now my plane’s going to be haunted.”
“I don’t think so. I think that was his last flight. Let’s give him a few minutes and then I’ll call the EMT’s.”
“OK, so tell me the whole story, but don’t think I’m ever going to let you borrow my plane again.”