Ooo Wee Ooo, I’m Gonna Die Like Buddy Holly

The pilot announced that the larger of the two bush planes was overweight.  A week of Alaska’s famous salmon fishing meant that hundreds of pounds of flash-frozen filets were responsible for the tip of the scales.  Two people would need to ride back to Anchorage in the smaller plane.

My father volunteers both me and my husband and we eagerly agree.  The flight into Iguigig had been striking.  Flying low through the Lake Clark Pass, glaciers loomed above us.  Waterfalls cut their path down the steep mountain walls into striking turquoise waters below.   I imagined re-experiencing that beauty in a romantic private plane setting, with the pilot pointing out sights as I canoodled with my husband.

We wave good-bye to my father and the other passengers as their plane takes off.  I didn’t think anything of the light rain and breeze that had been increasing all morning.

Despite his issues with motion sickness, my husband lets me sit up front while he takes the other seat facing the tail of the plane.  Within minutes, we were at 3000 feet.  That’s when trouble begins.

Terrain AlertsWe hadn’t gone far before a gust of wind suddenly lifted up the plane.  Another gust came in from a different direction, pushing the plane sideways through the air.  Marine and continental air masses were colliding.  I try to calm my nerves, but the turbulence is beyond anything I had experienced on even the most turbulent routes in the world.

The engine noises do little to muffle the raging wind as the steep canyon  funneled the gusts .  As the rain picks up and fog rolls in, the pilot adjusts our altitude to just over 1000 feet.  Another gust of wind.  This time, it creates downward force on the plane, causing us to quickly lose more altitude. My stomach does its  first flip of the flight.  I turn back to look at my husband who I figured would be green with nausea.  Somehow, he met my eyes with a smile and says “It’s okay”.   Behold, the powers of Dramamine.

With the second downward thrust of wind, the pilot announces he is going to fly below 800 feet until we’re out of the storm.  Terrain alerts sound.  Visibility drops, kicking up the danger level.  Radar doesn’t work well in the pass and it would be next to impossible to see an oncoming plane…if anyone else was stupid enough to fly.

A bead of sweat rolls down the pilot’s face as his eyes start searching the ground.

I thought back to a skydiving experience and how quickly I went from above the clouds to feet on the ground.  Those last 1,000 feet came so quickly.   With a jolt, I realize that the pilot was searching the ground to prepare for a possible emergency landing.

Oh god, ohgod, ohgodohgodohgod.

View Fom AboveWith plenty of ponds in the pass, a water landing would be likely.  The average water temperature of 50(F) poses yet another risk, hypothermia.  Making it to the shore would be a challenge in itself.

National Geographic describes Lake Clark Pass as having “dense forests and far-sweeping tundra, herds of caribou [and] great roving bears.”  If we survived a crash, if we survived hypothermia, we’d have to survive the wilderness.  My greatest fear in life is a bear mauling.

Ohgod, ohgod, ohgodohgodohgod.

Another gust whips the plane around.  The pilot’s grip tightens as he attempts to keep the plane level.  The plane is thrust toward a canyon wall and then pushed away.

As much as I try to keep the words out of my head, they come anyway.   “We’re going to die.”

I take a deep breath and promptly pass out.

I wake right as the plane hits the ground.  Opening my eyes with a start, I see other planes and a tarmac.  We made it!  Wide-eyed, I look at the pilot and shout “Let me out.  NOW!”  On shaky legs, I walk through the hanger.  The other plane had arrived 30 minutes before and its occupants were sitting in the sun enjoying a cold beverage.  I walk past them, over to the side of the building and release the contents of my stomach.

Gathering myself, I spot my father.  Those last 30 minutes had been hell on him.  While his flight was uneventful, he had heard about the sudden raging weather that had delayed our arrival.

Collapsing into his arms, he tells me that if anything had happened to us, he never would have forgiven himself.

“We’re okay,” I say.  “But I’m never going on another small plane.”

3 thoughts on “Ooo Wee Ooo, I’m Gonna Die Like Buddy Holly”

  1. What a harrowing experience! I’ll heed your advice to yourself. Over 400 people die in small plane every year. I will do well to stay away from small planes. Thank you for sharing your story, Natalie. That was great!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lisa! I believe that a lot of those likely take place in the Alaskan bush, too. While I’d prefer not to get on another one, I already have four small bush plane flights lined up for this year. Hopefully, they are nowhere near as adventurous!

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