Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about a local airplane crash in 1967. Part One introduced the key individuals involved and described the crash scene. This week, part two describes the crash itself, the rescue attempt, and the aftermath of the event.
By Clark Fair
The cause of the engine failure in the single-engine Maule Rocket is still open for debate — despite the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board — but the result of that engine failure remains irrefutable: The plane plummeted to the ground with its three occupants inside.
A few minutes earlier, at approximately 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1967, Dr. Elmer Gaede and his two passengers had been returning from Seward and were flying low and slow over the middle portion of the Kenai River drainage, eyeballing the terrain below for game. They had just crossed over the high bluff near the France and Thomas homesteads, heading for a final approach at the Soldotna airport, when the engine stopped.
“It was like you turned off the switch,” said Lee Bowman, a Soldotna pharmacist who had been hunched in the front passenger seat next to Gaede. “It was just humming along fine — and then nothing!”
The propeller stopped turning, and there was nothing to be heard but the sound of air rushing past the wings and fuselage. They were no more than 500 feet above the ground.
The plane’s nose dipped as its airspeed dropped. The flyers had just passed over the dirt airstrip owned by France and Thomas. Below them now was mixed foliage, head-high brush and occasional large trees — most likely a remnant of the 1947 Kenai Burn — and, beyond that, a copse of mostly mature aspen and spruce.
“Elmer had to make a choice: straight ahead into an absolute sure crack-up that was not very manageable because of the scattered trees and the crummy conditions, or try to turn — and if he turned, there was the airstrip and two different roads, potentially,” Bowman said.
“Even though we were flying too low and too slow to make a turn, he opted to try that. He made the turn, and it stalled. We dropped right out of the sky. Any expert that I ever talked to about it has said there was no way that plane should have been flying again before it hit the ground, but it did. Just before we hit, he got control again and he got the wings flat with the ground.
“Why it didn’t just auger straight in and kill us all is — well, the only answer I have is divine intervention.”
An instant before the Maule made contact with the ground, the left wing struck a spruce snag, and the plane pivoted around the tree even as it snapped it off at ground level. As a result, the plane landed facing in the same direction from which it had approached.
The underside of the nose bashed into the brush-covered soil, and the occupants of the plane were tossed about violently inside.
Dr. Gaede’s face slammed into the hard dash above the steering column, breaking out five
of his teeth, and the impact of the crash caused a compression fracture in his upper lumbar area. He passed out and slumped over onto Lee Bowman, who had fared even worse.
Bowman’s head had also surged forward on that initial contact with the ground, his face smashing into the instrument panel, slicing open his upper lip all the way to the left nostril. Fragments of glass and metal tore at his forehead, and a small piece of his scalp and a hank of his hair were caught by the equipment and ripped away. Bowman also suffered a compression fracture to the lumbar area, and somehow he broke his left ankle.
In the backseat, Bowman’s good friend, Dane Parks, was bounced around and bruised, but at first appeared uninjured.
At the moment of impact, all three men were rendered unconscious, as the gyro continued
to wind down and the smell of smoke and hot oil permeated the air.
A neighborhood teenager, Jack Foster, had heard the plane’s engine die and had seen the plane go down. Within a few minutes, he was pulling up to the woods near the crash site and racing into the brush with a fire extinguisher. When he called out, no one responded, so he left the extinguisher and headed up the road to the Fair residence, where he knew that carpenter Dave Thomas was building the Fairs’ new home.
Thomas, a member of the local Civil Air Patrol, was helping to unload a new shipment of lumber when Foster skidded into the driveway. After a brief explanation, Foster and Thomas headed for the crash site, where Thomas instructed the boy to go home — the location of the closest telephone in those days — and to call an ambulance while he tended to the individuals in the plane.
Inside the plane, Bowman had been awake for a short time, worrying about the prospect of a fire. He attempted to find a power switch to stop the flow of electricity, but the blood running into his eyes prevented him from seeing clearly. He shoved Gaede off his lap and into an upright position, grimacing at the biting pain in his lower back. Both Gaede and Parks were moaning softly, but neither had yet regained consciousness.
Even with the weight of the pilot off of him, however, Bowman could not move effectively and could not get his door, which was wedged slightly ajar, to open all the way.
As Thomas was attempting to start a rescue, Foster was calling the Soldotna clinic, where Gaede worked with his medical partner, Dr. Paul Isaak. Immediately, the nurse who answered the phone wanted to know if the pilot had been Dr. Gaede, but Foster had no idea. The plane had been unfamiliar to him.
Quickly an ambulance, driven by Don Thomas and Billy Thompson, was dispatched and en route. They arrived less than 15 minutes later.
Later, as Gaede, who had been raised in a Mennonite farming family, was being removed from the plane, Bowman remembers that Thompson said, “OK, Doc, we’ll get you down to the clinic, and Doc Isaak will take care of you.” And Gaede said, “Who the hell is Dr. Isaak?”
“I can remember that just as clear as if it was today,” Bowman said, laughing. “Elmer rarely ever swore. I don’t know that I ever heard him swear.”
Gaede, his face bright red with blood, was transferred to the ambulance on a stretcher. The rescuers then tried to move Bowman across Gaede’s seat, but his injuries made the move too painful, so they went to work on the jammed passenger door. According to Bowman, Don Thomas “fixed” the problem.
“He was a huge guy,” Bowman said. “He was about 6-foot-4 and probably weighed close to 300 pounds — big, strong, burly guy. And he just took ahold of that door and literally ripped it off its hinges. Then he said, ‘There! We got some room.’”
After Bowman was lifted out and carried to the ambulance, Parks, who had been visiting from the Palmer area, climbed out on his own, appearing dazed but all right. Someone in a private car drove him to the clinic, where he was examined and sent to the Bowman home.
According to Bowman, however, Parks was not OK.
“His activities throughout the day were just goofy,” he said. “He insisted that somebody drive him back out to the plane crash site and take his picture to prove that he was actually in the plane wreck. To this day, he has total amnesia of the wreck. He does not remember anything about the engine stopping, of Elmer turning. The next thing he remembers is being at our house.”
Meanwhile, Gaede and Bowman needed immediate medical attention. In “Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor,” Gaede’s oldest daughter, Naomi, quotes her father: “Although I was in good hands with the well-qualified clinic nurses, Dr. Isaak hastily returned from Seward, in his plane, and sutured my face back together. It took over fifty stitches to pull together my forehead, chin and mouth area. Since I couldn’t shave over this new face-lift, I grew a goatee, mustache, and long sideburns.”
He refused to be sent to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, so he was driven home to recover.
Bowman, on the other hand, required the expertise available at Providence. Unfortunately for him, getting that care in a timely fashion meant another airplane ride. On a stretcher, he was placed into the roomy back end of a Piper Cherokee 6, which then took off into deteriorating weather.
“It was an absolutely horrendous flight,” Bowman said. “It was raining and hailing. The inside of that plane sounded like being on the inside of a snare drum. And the wire-basket stretcher that they put me in to strap me down had a metal reinforcement bar that was right across where my back was broken. Every time we would hit one of those slamming-up-and-down bumps, it made the flight even less fun. So I was pretty happy when we landed.”
At Providence, Bowman said his care seemed once again providential. First sign of good luck: He was going to be under the auspices of Anchorage’s top orthopedic surgeon, Dr. George B. von Wyckman — although that knowledge was tempered somewhat by the notion that von Wyckman, who disliked plastic and cosmetic surgery, might also be sewing his face back together.
Second sign of good luck: At the moment Bowman arrived, Dr. von Wyckman was busy in the operating room, so, when Anchorage’s best thoracic surgeon, Dr. Arndt von Hippel, walked in to see if von Wyckman needed assistance, von Hippel was asked if he wouldn’t mind working on the new arrival. He said he’d be happy to help, so some of the state’s most talented hands performed delicate surgery on Bowman’s face. Von Hippel used 300 stitches to do the job.
“He did such a miraculous job in putting me back together — my lip, my forehead, up in my scalp,” Bowman said. “It was an absolutely masterful job. And you really have to look right now to see any of the scars.”
Third sign of good luck: Dr. von Wyckman had recently returned from a seminar on back surgery and recovery. At the seminar, emphasis had been placed on the use of back braces, instead of full-body casts, to speed patient recovery. A back brace was ordered from out of state, and Bowman was fitted for it a few days later.
A month after the accident, Bowman was back at work at Soldotna Drug.
When Bowman and Parks had been in Seward early on the day of the accident — waiting for Gaede to emerge from a hospital staff meeting — they strolled around the city, and Bowman photographed the bay, the city itself, and a crew of cannery workers unloading halibut. After finishing the roll of film, he rewound it but neglected for some reason to rewind it all the way.
After the accident, a friend removed Bowman’s camera from the wreckage and thought Bowman might appreciate a few photos of the airplane, so he moved around and recorded three images on the film. Unfortunately, that trio of pictures were exposed over the images of the cannery workers, so Bowman had no wreck photos of his own until Parks sent him copies of a few of his Polaroids.
The man who remembered nothing at all from the incident gave Bowman evidence from an event he would never forget.