Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part story about an unfortunate incident with an airplane, an ingenious plan to make things better, and a battle with the elements throughout the whole adventure. Last week, part one described the problem with the plane. This week addresses the attempted solution and the associated environmental challenges. Next week, part three will reveal how it all turned out.
The Redoubt Reporter wishes to correct errors from part one: Only five weeks, not 10, passed between the original incident and the attempted rescue, which actually began in early January 1972. On the first day of the rescue, only Herman Stenga and Dr. Elaine Riegle stayed out on the lake, but other individuals came and went throughout the rescue attempt.
By Clark Fair
The bad news: Mother Nature seemed dead set against them. The rescuers had an airplane encrusted in 42 inches of ice on Bradley Lake in the heart of the winter. The temperature, when they arrived on Friday, Jan. 7, 1972 — five weeks after the Super Cub had broken through the ice — hovered at about minus 20 degrees. A brisk, cold wind was blowing off the southern tip of the nearby Harding Icefield.
The good news: The rescuers had a plan. According to the Super Cub’s owner, Soldotna pediatrician Dr. Elaine Riegle, their plan was based on the premise that agitated water does not freeze. They hoped to find a way to stir up the water around the entombed plane, melt the ice and free the aircraft.
On Jan. 7, Dr. Paul Isaak flew to the lake with Riegle and Herman Stenga (the plane’s previous owner) in Isaak’s Cessna 180. A Civil Air Patrol pilot also flew to the lake in a De Havilland Beaver to help bring in supplies. They landed as daylight was fading, according to Riegle, who kept handwritten notes throughout the rescue attempt. When Isaak and the CAP pilot departed, Stenga and Riegle were left alone to set up camp and begin their operation.
In the near dark out on the ice adjacent to the accident site, they erected a small, tan-colored nylon tent. At dinnertime, they used a blowtorch to cook their food. A few yards away, only the tail of the Super Cub jutted above the combination of ice, overflow and drifting snow. During the night, the temperature continued to drop, and overflow came up through the floor of the tent and into their sleeping bags.
At daylight the following morning, visibility had dwindled to one-eighth of a mile. The temperature was minus 25 degrees, and the wind was beginning to howl. Riegle said she learned later from a report by one of their visitors that area winds by the end of the day were gusting up to 100 miles per hour.
Knowing that their wet sleeping bags and gear posed a danger to their lives, they hiked across the ice for about a mile to a Forest Service cabin, which they established the next day as their primary shelter.
When they headed back through the blowing snow toward the plane, they struggled to find the tent. When they did locate it, they covered it with Visqueen and banked the windward side with snow. They slept one more night in its wet confines, munched on C-rations, and suffered minor frostbite.
On Sunday, Jan. 9, they moved into the cabin, which featured two wooden bunks. To dry out their sleeping bags, they chopped alders into lengths and started a fire in a small woodstove.
Meanwhile, Isaak flew in to lend a hand, and then Jerry Near arrived in his Cessna 170B. Near had been the pilot of the plane accompanying Riegle when her aircraft dropped through the ice, and he had flown her and her passenger back home to Soldotna.
The four of them set to work on the recovery of the Super Cub. From the beginning, however, it was clear that little was going to be easy. On this first day of work, they discovered that the fuel line on their small generator had been broken, and as they were chopping ice to widen a hole they had recently bored, one of them accidentally let the ice auger slip and it fell through the hole and dropped 60 feet to the bottom of the lake.
Isaak flew the generator back to Soldotna, and on Monday the CAP Beaver arrived with Riegle’s 10-horse Ski-Doo, which she had also purchased from Stenga. The snowmachine provided them with more rapid transit between work site and cabin shelter.
The temperature, according to Riegle’s thermometer, had dipped to minus 30 degrees, but the winds had eased to only 30 miles per hour. Out on the ice, the trio worked in snowsuits and bunny boots or heavy Sorels. They wore woolen caps and heavy mittens and face masks to stave off more frostbite.
Despite these precautions, Riegle, now 67 and a pediatric anesthesiologist in St. Louis, said that for several years after this experience, parts of her face, fingers and toes continued to “react negatively” to cold.
On Tuesday, Jan. 11, they set up a large canvas tent on the ice to use for equipment maintenance. Inside the tent they placed a Herman-Nelson kerosene-powered heater capable of producing 120,000 BTUs, and providing them with a warm workplace.
Before beginning this rescue attempt, they had taken the dimensions of other Super Cubs back in Soldotna so they could be fairly certain of the location of each wingtip and the propeller entombed in the ice. In front of the nose of the plane, they chiseled a large hole through the ice, placed a 2-by-12 plank adjacent to the open water, and then attached two three-horse Johnson outboard motors to the plank as if it were a boat transom.
As the motors ran, hour after hour, they began to melt the ice nearby, creating a small underwater ice cavern just in front of the prop. They placed a third three-horse Johnson just off the tip of the right wing.
According to Riegle, they broke so many shear pins on the small outboards that they soon began repairing the problem with nails.
By Wednesday, the ice at the front of the plane had melted sufficiently to allow them to drop a cable into the open water and encircle the crankshaft between prop and engine. Then, in order to support the weight of the engine as the ice continued to melt, they began erecting a steel A-frame that would act like the boom on the back of a tow truck.
The A-frame consisted of two long legs — each made up of three 6-foot sections of steel pipe held together with couplings — connected at the top, like an inverted “V.” At the top joint was a steel plate with a hole in it from which they hung a pulley to use in a block-and-tackle system. The “foot” end of each leg was bolted to a gusseted steel plate that allowed the entire A-frame to articulate forward and backward, controlled by a series of ropes acting as guy wires.
With a replacement auger, they bored holes in the ice through which to drop the end of each rope, connected to a deadman plate that effectively anchored the rope end into the ice. They employed a come-along to tighten all the ropes and position the A-frame’s apex directly over the prop. With the cable connected from apex to crankshaft, the plane was then secure.
Most of the A-frame work was accomplished on Thursday when the air temperature rose somewhat and the wind decreased. The outboard action near the wingtip had cleared the ice from the surface of the wing itself, and, as the workers moved the outboard to the tail of the aircraft, they were pleased at the progress they had made.
Unfortunately, the weather stopped cooperating Friday afternoon. Before the temperature plummeted to minus 50 degrees, however, Stenga examined the open water developing around the tail and decided he should secure a cable to the tail wheel. To do so, he stripped to the waist and reached into the water with the cable in his bare hands.
As the winds continued to intensify Saturday, Near flew back to Soldotna for more gear and fuel. After he departed, however, Stenga and Riegle ran out of fuel entirely and began to have problems with the starter on their generator. When Isaak dropped by to check on the project and deliver more gasoline, they decided to escape the worsening weather and go home for the rest of the weekend.
They pulled up the outboards and placed them inside the work tent, then climbed aboard Isaak’s Cessna just ahead of a storm. Riegle said that on Sunday the winds at Kodiak were clocked at 110 miles per hour, and 90 miles per hour at Homer. It would be Monday before they could return.