Almanac: Popsicle plane rises again — Pilots turned engineers free aircraft from frozen bounds

Editor’s note: This is the third part 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. Part one described the problem with the plane. Part two addressed the attempted solution and the associated environmental challenges. This week, part three reveals how it all turned out.

By Clark Fair

Photos courtesy of Herman Stenga and Jerry Near. When the members of the rescue team returned to Bradley Lake, they discovered that snow, subzero temperatures and 100-mile-per-hour winds had destroyed nearly a week of earlier work. Here, in mid-January 1972, Bob Robinson and Dr. Elaine Riegle engage in the arduous process of re-removing the snow and ice from the submerged Super Cub.

Redoubt Reporter

The weather was so bad over the weekend of Jan. 15 and 16, 1972, that returning to the aircraft buried in ice out on Bradley Lake was out of the question. Over the weekend, temperatures plummeted to about minus 50 degrees, and wind gauges in the area registered gusts of nearly 100 miles per hour.

Dr. Elaine Riegle, owner of the entombed plane, Herman Stenga and their friends had spent the previous week working to free the plane, but the weather, fuel shortages and equipment problems had forced them home to Soldotna for the weekend as they contemplated their next move.

Already — operating on the principle that moving water doesn’t freeze and will actually melt nearby ice — they had employed the prop action of three three-horse Johnson outboard motors to melt ice around the plane’s nose, tail and right wing. They had attached cables to the crankshaft behind the plane’s propeller and to the tail wheel, and they had erected an A-framelike boom that they hoped would allow them to support and lift the plane.

They had also suspended a weighted tarp through the ice hole between the outboards and the A-frame to prevent the water action from undercutting the A-frame’s supports.

When the weather turned nasty on Saturday morning, they pulled up the outboards and stored them in a large green canvas tent they had erected on the ice to give them a workplace out of the wind and brutal cold. A few days earlier, they had established quarters in a Forest Service cabin about a mile from the frozen plane, and they were using a 10-horse Ski-Doo to travel back and forth.

Prior to returning on Monday, Jan. 17, to continue the job, they decided to upgrade their equipment. They borrowed two larger outboards — 18 horsepower — hoping that the stronger prop action would allow them to melt ice and expose the plane much more quickly.

When they arrived in Dr. Paul Isaak’s Cessna 180, however, they were dismayed to see that they had more work ahead of them than they had expected.

Supported by the homemade boom and freed by the action of outboard motors, the sunken Super Cub begins to emerge from Bradley Lake. The aircraft is connected to the boom by its skyhook atop the fuselage. Bob Robinson stands with an ice chipper near the tail of the plane. In the left background is Jerry Near’s Cessna 170B.

“Six inches of overflow had covered everything and had erased all our work from the previous week,” Riegle said. “We spent the entire day moving the tents and campsite.”

Also flying in Monday was Jerry Near, who had helped extensively during the first week. Although Near did not stay this time, he did drop off Bob Robinson, whose wife, Jeanne, worked as a nurse in Isaak and Riegle’s clinic. Robinson planned to help complete the rescue.

On Tuesday, with the weather improving (no wind, minus 20 degrees and sunny), they reset the three-horse Johnsons near the prop and tail and placed one 18-horse motor at each wingtip. As the outboards chugged along, the rescuers used shovels to clear the snow that had drifted over their work area. For the first time since they began this mission on Friday, Jan. 7, Riegle said, “Everything worked great.”

On Wednesday, their good fortune continued. Although the skies remained clear, the temperature warmed to zero degrees and the day remained windless.

Around the plane, as the ice thinned, they used a steel chipping tool to break it apart. Standing on boards to more evenly distribute their weight, they chipped away, scooping the ice from the water whenever possible. Then, much to their surprise, at about 3 p.m. the left wing of the Super Cub suddenly bobbed to the surface of the water.

It took them a few moments to figure out why the left side had risen first, especially since they had melted ice around the right wing during the first week.

While a three-horse motor had run off the right wingtip, the action of the moving water had melted the ice inside the wing; however, the water inside the left wing was still frozen, and since ice floats, the left wing rose first.

In an effort to more effectively remove the ice from the left wing, Stenga attempted to cut the fabric of the wing itself. In this attempt, he fell into the water but was able to jump to the edge of the ice as he fell, thus avoiding sliding under the wing.

The rescuers used a basic block-and-tackle setup to slowly raise the plane from the lake.

The CAP plane, piloted by Zillman Willis, had arrived just as the left wing had surfaced, and Willis soon returned to Soldotna to tell friends of the rescue team that more help would be needed the next day.

Riegle stayed up all that night to keep the motors running, while the men returned to the cabin to rest. By Thursday morning, which was again windless at zero degrees, a large T-shaped swath of open water revealed the entire airplane.

After Near flew in at about 9:30 a.m., the workers connected a block-and-tackle system suspended from the A-frame to the plane’s skyhook to slowly raise it as the water drained from the fuselage and the wings. By adjusting the angle of the A-frame, they were able to pull the plane forward onto wooden planks placed like ramps under the skis at the edge of the ice.

Next, they extracted all of the gear from the aircraft to lighten the load and placed a blanket over the engine. Because the engine was the heaviest part of the airplane, the entire craft had canted nose-down, raising the tail above the ice and keeping the engine largely underwater all seven weeks.

Then, through “brute force,” according to Riegle, they began at noon to lift the plane entirely free of the lake. The plane was stable and on the ice by 4:30 p.m. and enveloped in a 50-foot square of Visqueen by 5 p.m.

As a Herman-Nelson kerosene heater blasted away beneath the enclosure, Stenga and Near worked until 2 a.m. to clean up and repair the engine. According to Near, they dried out the plane’s interior, pulled off and dried the magnetos, changed the spark plugs, and drained and replaced the oil and all other fluids. They also replaced the Cub’s bent propeller with a new straight one that they had flown in from town. The temperature under the Visqueen was a tropical 120 degrees.

On Friday, Jan. 21, the weather remained constant: zero degrees, windless and clear. Stenga and Near conti

Back-straining work and the principles of physics allow Jerry Near and Herman Stenga to lift and lever a Super Cub up onto the ice of Bradley Lake, where it had become entombed.

nued working on the plane. Where Stenga had cut the wing fabric, Near said, they pressed cardboard from a beer box and duct-taped it into place. Isaak arrived in the afternoon to help. Willis also returned in the CAP’s De Havilland Beaver.

In the early afternoon, Stenga climbed into the cockpit seat and signaled Near that he was ready for him to attempt

to prop-start the plane. After several attempts, Near succeeded in engaging the engine.

“It sounded awful,” Riegle said.

They allowed the plane to run for a while before Stenga took it out for a test flight, circling the lake at low altitude in a plane with no working gauges or radio. He landed again and told the others he thought it was safe to fly home. He left Bradley Lake between 4 and 4:30 p.m., and arrived at the Soldotna airport at 5:15 p.m.

Back on the lake, the others loaded as much gear as possible into the Beaver and the two Cessnas and headed home. They had to make several more trips to the lake later in the month to remove the rest of their gear and garbage.

Riegle, who now practices pediatric anesthesiology in St. Louis and still has nearly a half hour of Super-8 movie footage she shot during her time on Bradley Lake, said that the two-week effort nearly 40 years ago was “an important event” in her life.

“I remember it like it had just happened,” she said. “I have done many other things in my life, but this one is m

A 50-foot square of Visqueen was placed over the rescued Super Cub, and then a Herman-Nelson kerosene heater provided a nearly tropical workspace out on the ice. After hours of work, the rescuers managed to start the plane and fly it back home to Soldotna.

ajor. It really shows you the value of true friends. None of us could have done this alone. It took real teamwork to think through the problems and solve the problems.”

Riegle, who has worked 22 volunteer pediatric missions in Africa, China, Central America, Eastern Europe, and most recently in Haiti,understands the value of such teamwork.

“When I was a kid growing up, I wanted three things,” she said. “Become a medical doctor, fly an airplane, and live in Alaska.”

She achieved all three of those wishes, and received a chilly adventure in the bargain.


1 Comment

Filed under Almanac, aviation, history, winter

One response to “Almanac: Popsicle plane rises again — Pilots turned engineers free aircraft from frozen bounds

  1. Ariana Gabriel

    This story is amazing and inspiring. When I get older I want to start working my way to becoming an airline pilot. Thanks for publishing it! – Ariana Gabriel

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