Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part story about an unfortunate incident with an airplane, and an ingenious idea to rectify the problem.
By Clark Fair
The problem began with a December goat hunt and four friends in two airplanes.
One of the planes, a red-and-white Super Cub, was owned and piloted by Dr. Elaine Riegle, a Soldotna pediatrician. Sitting behind her in the two-passenger aircraft was Dr. Paul Isaak, a renowned biplane pilot and Soldotna general practitioner.
The other plane, a modified cream-and-gold Cessna 170B that had been previously owned by legendary Alaska bush pilot Don Sheldon, was being flown by its current owner, Jerry Near, of Soldotna. In the seat to Near’s right sat his friend and fellow pilot, Gene Kempf.
Both planes were affixed with snow skis, and the plan was to make an aerial search for mountain goats in the hills around alpine lakes in the Kenai Mountains, and then, upon spotting some animals, land on a lake and hike over to wherever the hunting was.
The four companions hoped that snow and cold weather would drive the goats to lower elevations, making them easier targets. With that thought in mind, they departed from the Soldotna airport on Dec. 4, 1971, and headed for the Fox River drainage near the head of Kachemak Bay.
They landed on two lakes there to take a look around. Noting that about 3 to 4 inches of snow covered the icy lake surface, they scanned for goats, saw none and moved on.
They flew south to Bradley Lake, which was about two decades from becoming a major source of hydroelectric power, and which was nestled in the largely treeless mountains just west of the southern tip of the Harding Icefield. It was there they finally sighted some game.
“We flew in, and I spotted six or seven goats within about 50 yards of the lake,” Near said. He prepared to fly over the animals again and “wiggle the wings a little” to signal the other plane of their good fortune.
Just as he began to make the pass, however, the doctors in the other plane radioed in to notify him they’d also seen the goats and were already preparing to land.
Near radioed back.
“As they landed, I said, ‘How’s the ice?’ And Doc Isaak came back, ‘Good. All kinds of ice. Good and hard.’ And then I heard some kind of exclamation, and I looked out — and the aircraft has come to a stop and just broke through, fell right to the belly.
“And then the airplane sort of slowly filled with water and began to settle. They got out because the Cub door just folds down, and they had enough sense to roll along the wing but not climb on it. They got wet from about their waist down as they rolled toward the shore.
“And I’m in the air watching this, and I said to myself, ‘Now what am I going to do?’”
What he did first was look for a safer place to land, and he found such a place more than a mile away near a glacial outwash at the head of the lake. He landed on the thicker ice there and ran his plane up onto the beach.
Meanwhile, the half-soaked Riegle and Isaak were walking along the shore in the cold December air. When they finally reached Near and Kempf, the doctors gratefully boarded the four-passenger Cessna and shivered as they were flown home.
“We came back to town,” Near said. “And now we were puzzled: ‘What are we going to do?’”
They acknowledged that, for the time being, thin ice would prevent them from landing near the Super Cub, but they believed that they needed to take some action soon if they wanted to have any chance of rescuing the plane.
Shortly thereafter, Near and Kempf flew in Kempf’s plane back to Bradley Lake to assess the situation. Dr. Isaak followed in his own plane, and the men hauled along with them some “equipment” they believed might be helpful, regardless of the circumstances — some two-by-fours, some ropes, an inner tube from a semi-truck tire.
Again, they landed at the upper end of the lake, and they carried their gear as they hiked along the shore toward the Super Cub, which by this time was being supported solely by its wings, lying flat on the still-intact edges of the ice hole created when the plane broke through. The fuselage was almost entirely submerged and full of water.
Using the boards to stand on and more evenly distribute their body weight near the edges of the ice, the men attached one end of the rope to the inner tube and managed to loop the other end around the tail wheels. They hoped that the inner tube would act as a sort of buoy to keep the aircraft from dropping all the way to the bottom of the lake.
After they returned to Soldotna, the weather took a turn for the worse. Although they were able to check periodically on the plane and occasionally stash more supplies, it was obvious to them that more snow was dumping on the lake, and that high winds from out on the Pacific Ocean had been continuously buffeting the location.
While they awaited a string of nicer weather, Near, Riegle, Isaak and their friend Herman Stenga were busy planning.
“There was a whole lot of head-scratching,” Near said. “And we had all kinds of suggestions. One was to get up there with bolt-cutters and cut the engine loose and just forget the rest. We kind of discussed this for weeks and weeks.”
When the nexus of time and opportunity finally arrived, the date was Feb. 16, 1972, and the temperature was minus 20 degrees.
When Stenga and Near arrived at the lake, they were astonished by what they saw: Only the tip of the plane’s tail was showing above the drifted snow.
As they began brushing snow away from where the rest of the plane should be, they discovered that it was no longer on the surface.
Over the intervening 10 weeks, heavy snow and cracking ice had produced overflow, and subzero temperatures had produced more ice. The Super Cub was now entombed in a 42-inch crust, in a sort of icy netherworld between the air above and the water below.
With determination and resolve, however, they began to set up a camp on the lake and put into action their plan to save the plane.