Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about a local airplane crash in 1967. Part one introduces the key individuals involved and describes the crash scene. Next week, part two will describe the crash itself, the rescue attempt and the aftermath of the event.
By Clark Fair
Even though it was just Aug. 2, 1967, 16-year-old Jack Foster was already contemplating winter when a sound from above diverted his focus. What he saw next jolted him out of his snowy reverie.
Out in the yard at his parents’ home, as he worked on his snowmachine — a heavy, single-ski, double-track Ski-Doo Alpine — the sound of a single-engine airplane caused him to look up and investigate. Flying slowly only a few hundred feet over the exposed flats behind the Foster house, a blue-and-white aircraft was just crossing over the small airstrip owned by neighbors Dan France and Dave Thomas.
As it is today, the sight then of a small plane overhead was common, and this plane would have garnered little further attention from Foster if — quite suddenly — the plane’s engine had not died.
“I heard it sputtering, and then the engine quit,” Foster said.
The plane banked once and began nosing sharply toward the ground, and then it disappeared behind a line of trees. From hundreds of yards away, Foster heard it strike the ground with great force.
Although he feared the worst, he shifted into action. After grabbing a fire extinguisher from the garage, he raced for the driveway where he’d parked his panel van that he had painted a metallic blue to cover its original Army green. In his haste, he turned the key too far — from the first OFF position, past ON, and into the second OFF position. When he pressed the floorboard starter with his foot, nothing happened.
Once he realized the error, he adjusted the key, cranked up the engine and headed down the road toward the crash site. In less than two minutes he was clambering over the berm left from an old homestead clearing as he lugged the extinguisher and shuffled through some low brush and scattered, snaggly trees. He approached the crumpled aircraft quickly, the nose of which was angled into the soil.
The tail was bent to the left, and the left wing had suffered a deep gash about two-thirds of the way out from the fuselage. From the broken foliage, it appeared that the left wing had struck a tree and spun the aircraft back in the direction from which it had come. Foster noted the plane’s registration number, N4605T, but did not recognize it.
“I hollered in there, ‘Are you guys OK?’ And nobody answered me. That’s when I left the fire extinguisher there and I took off and went and got Dave, ’cause I knew that Dave had been in CAP (Civil Air Patrol) and probably knew a lot of first aid.”
Foster was referring to Dave Thomas, a local carpenter who at that moment was working at the home Calvin and Jane Fair. He and Shorty Harris were building the Fairs’ new home, so they could move out of the turquoise-and-white trailer they had had hauled to Soldotna, all the way up the Alaska Highway, from Indiana.
Re-starting his van, Foster lifted dust behind him as he raced the half mile or so to the Fair homestead. The time was just past 10:30 a.m.
About four hours earlier at the Soldotna airport, local physician, Dr. Elmer Gaede, had fired up his blue-and-white Maule
Rocket and prepared to take off for Seward, where he would attend the hospital staff meeting later that morning.
He and his medical partner, Dr. Paul Isaak, would arrive in separate planes for the meeting. They had been traveling separately for quite some time, according to Soldotna pharmacist Lee Bowman, who had come to Alaska with his wife, Julie, one year earlier to work for Toby Buckler at Soldotna Drug.
“They had flown together once to Seward and got into some really bad weather, and they decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to kill both of the doctors in town in one crash,” Bowman said.
The doctors had formed a partnership in 1961, working in the medical clinic in Soldotna, with Dr. Fair practicing dentistry on the floor below them. Since the central Kenai Peninsula had no hospital, they were both considered part of the Seward hospital staff because of the frequent surgeries and other procedures they performed there.
Bowman was sitting in the front passenger seat of the four-place Maule. In one of the backseats sat Dane Parks, a good friend of Bowman’s, who had recently moved to Alaska with his wife, Betty. Neither Bowman nor Parks were on board for the staff meeting. They had been invited along by Gaede because the men were interested in a late-summer hunt and he wanted to show them “the easiest goat hunt in Alaska.”
Bowman and Parks had met while students at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich. The Bowmans lived one floor above the Parkses in married student housing, and the four of them became close friends. In fact, said Bowman, the Parkses, “Were really the impetus for us coming up here.”
Dane and Betty were studying to become teachers, and they hoped to start their careers in Alaska. But after graduating, neither could find a decent position available, so they decided to postpone their plans for another year. Meanwhile, Lee and Julie were unexpectedly placed on the fast track to the north country.
With Bowman about a semester away from graduating with his pharmacy degree, he eschewed a couple of low-paying offers he received from Michigan pharmacies and began writing to the Alaska state pharmacy board to learn about positions available and how to qualify. When he received no response, he tried another tack: He wrote to his aunt, Leah O’Reagan, who was living in Soldotna at the time, and asked her to ask the local pharmacist how to reach the state board.
That pharmacist was Buckler, who was “vigorously” looking for a new employee. While one of the Michigan job offers was for six-day work weeks and an annual salary of $6,800, Buckler offered to hire Bowman sight unseen, to help defray his moving expenses and to pay him a salary of $1,000 a month.
Consequently, the Bowmans had arrived in Alaska a year ahead of the Parkses, and, since Dane wasn’t slated to report to his new teaching job in Palmer until the end of August, he and Lee had decided on a hunt. After cooling their heels in Seward for a couple of hours, Gaede would fly them over the goat-friendly slopes of Cecil Rhode Mountain in Cooper Landing and show them an effective access point off Snug Harbor Road.
The morning flight to Seward was scenic but uneventful. While Gaede met with the rest of the Seward staff, Bowman and Parks wandered around town, visiting a local cannery and watching workers unload a shipment of fresh halibut. Bowman photographed the cannery workers and also snapped images of the city and of Resurrection Bay.
When he finished his roll of film, he set the camera to rewind and began cranking the film back into its canister. For some reason he still cannot fathom, however, he neglected to rewind the entire roll, leaving several exposed frames of film still stretched across the shutter and connected to the take-up reel inside the camera. It was an unfinished action he would later come to regret.
Gaede, meanwhile, finished his meeting, and the three men piled back into the plane, took off and headed through the pass toward Cooper Landing. After eyeballing the mountain for goats and examining the best approaches, Gaede turned the plane toward Soldotna, flying low down the Kenai River drainage and over the surrounding flats to give his passengers a chance to spot more animals.
By the time they were six river miles above the Soldotna airport and flew past the Fair homestead — where Dave Thomas was helping Joe Norris from Soldotna Supply to unload some lumber — they were cruising slowly at about 500 feet and had already seen numerous moose, plus one brown bear in the Funny River.
A minute or so later, their plane was spotted by Jack Foster as he worked on his snowmachine in his parents’ yard. And seconds later, the engine of the Maule Rocket was dead and they were knifing swiftly toward the ground
To be continued next week.