Authors: Don Porter
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
“Hello, well, come sit, come sit. Will you be staying the night?” He was still wrestling with why a formerly respectable pilot should be traveling with an Indian. He wasn’t necessarily buying the sister-in-law scenario, but he could see one possible excuse for my being there with Angie.
“No, no, just stopped for a bite of lunch. Heading right back to Fairbanks.”
“You just happened to be in the neighborhood?” That was such a good joke we both had to laugh. Even Angie smiled. Eben reigned at the head of a table, and we took chairs on either side of him.
“Actually, I was hoping to talk to Alvin for a minute.”
“Alvin?” He was clearly perplexed.
Ellie bustled out of the kitchen with two plates, doled them out, and picked up Eben’s half empty cup. She carried it to the thirty-cup pot on the sideboard and filled it and two more large brown mugs for us. She delivered the coffee and slipped back into the kitchen. Ellie wasn’t being anti-social, but she doesn’t speak English, except for
. She’s sensitive about that and avoids strangers. When you get to know her, she’s delightful and joins right into the repartee with a wicked sense of humor, but with Eben translating.
Our hamburgers were thick juicy patties between slices of homemade bread, very good and very welcome. The usual Eskimo condiments were on the table, salt, pepper, ketchup, Tabasco, and a little bottle of seal oil. I skipped those, but Angie grabbed the seal oil and sprinkled her hamburger. Eben’s smile ratcheted up to full welcome.
Angie dug in with obvious enthusiasm and I hoped she knew what she was doing. If your system isn’t used to seal oil it’s disastrous, especially if you’re going to be in an airplane with no bathroom for a while. Every Eskimo table along the coast has seal oil, but it would be a rare treat in Angie’s Indian home village, three hundred miles up the Kuskokwim from the ocean. Apparently she knew what she was into, because if you don’t, about two bites will do you in, but she kept right on munching and smiling around her mouthful.
Eben went back to his quizzical mode. “You want to talk to Alvin?”
“Yeah, Alvin Hopson, the pilot?”
“You came the wrong direction. He lives in Seattle, flies Boeing seven-twenty-sevens for Alaska Airlines.”
I had to swallow hamburger. “I must have made a mistake. Who flies the Howard?”
“Nobody, at least not lately. It’s rolled up into a ball out beside the navy highway.”
“Sort of. Alvin had been flying it one night, came home late in a snowstorm and his tie-down anchors were buried. The snowplow was handy, so he tied the Howard to it and went home to bed. Early next morning Charlie goes out, fires up the grader, and takes off to plow the road. By the time he noticed that he was dragging the Howard, it didn’t even look like an airplane anymore. He just scooped it out into the tundra and it’s still there. Want to go see it?”
“That was a while ago?”
“Few years I reckon. How’s the hamburger?”
“Best hamburgers in the world. Give Ellie a hug for me.”
Angie was nodding enthusiastically. “Really wonderful. Don’t know how many years since I’ve had seal oil, what a treat.”
Eben positively beamed. I think Angie had just repaired several thousand years of animosity between races. If you’re wondering about seal oil, it’s a relative of Worcestershire sauce, both with a fish-like base, but when seal oil is fully ripe it’s about ten times stronger.
We finished our burgers and licked our fingers. Then Angie put one more drop of seal oil on a fingertip and licked that off. She closed her eyes in ecstasy, then jumped up and gave Eben a hug. I think he blushed, but his complexion is pretty dark, so it’s hard to tell. Fair is fair. I went into the kitchen and hugged Ellie. That earned me a glorious sunny smile and a pat on the shoulder.
“I wasn’t kidding, we really do need to get back to Fairbanks.” I laid the appropriate twenty-dollar bill on the table.
“Well, don’t be a stranger, and bring…your sister-in-law up when you can stay longer.”
We waved and smiled and backed out. Ellie peeked out of the kitchen for the last wave. We closed the doors and tromped down the stairs.
“Alex, what in the devil is going on? I thought you said Alvin was here and flying the Howard.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said, that’s what I thought, but now I think something in Denmark is rottener than ripe seal oil. I just don’t know what.”
“Hey, don’t knock seal oil. When I was a little girl, we got one bottle a year at Christmas time. We had a cousin in Chevak who sent it, and us kids fought over every drop.”
“You had a cousin in Chevak?”
“Hey, you think Eskimos can’t marry Indians? You some kind of racist, or just a century behind the times?”
“Probably both.” We were back at the airplane. I let Angie climb up onto the wing first, then had to squeeze past her. She followed me in and buckled her harness. I reached across her to close and lock the door.
At ten thousand feet we were flashing in and out of the cloud. At twelve thousand, it spread out below us, soft white cotton bunting from horizon to horizon.
“Okay, this is the hours of boredom I warned you about.”
“Yeah, maybe, but it
beautiful, you know? Sort of amazing that twenty minutes ago we were in super-bad ugly weather and now we’re in bright sunshine. I guess I can say I’ve been to the North Slope, but all I really saw were a couple of dozen houses.”
“Not too bad, that’s about all that’s there. I don’t know why it’s called the North Slope. It’s flatter than Kansas from the mountains to the ocean and that’s about a hundred miles. Of course there are a million lakes there, but most of the year they’re frozen so you can’t tell them from tundra, anyway.”
“So, it looks pretty much like Bethel?”
“If there’s a difference, I’ve never noticed it.”
“Maybe we were lucky that it was all fog.” Angie sat back, but she was watching the cloud below us, and it was about as interesting as tundra. It’s a mashed potato, or tapioca pudding effect.
I had trimmed us out, full cruise, and expected the cloud to last for thirty minutes, at least until we had crossed the Brooks Range. Mountains were below us, but no longer poking through the cloud. I would have said I was relaxed and not paying attention, but apparently that’s not entirely true. The instruments are clustered, engine gauges on the left, navigation in the center. So long as the gauges are where they’re supposed to be, a pilot really isn’t aware of them, but if one gets out of place, it jumps out at you. It was the oil temperature on the left engine, and it was climbing. It would normally sit at one hundred ninety degrees. It got my attention when it passed two hundred.
I checked for pilot error, but no such luck. Cowl vents were at forty percent, appropriate for the ten-above-zero outside temperature. Exhaust gas temperature on every cylinder was in the green so the mixture was correct, no spark plugs were fouled. Oil pressure was steady at eighty pounds, no plugged filter or failing pump. Oil temp had climbed to two hundred five. I cranked the cowl flaps open full and it dropped back a degree, then climbed again, faster now.
The most likely scenario was that a main bearing was going out, getting hot and heating the oil, but the engine was smooth, no hint of a vibration, no loss of power. It didn’t make sense. The cloud cover stretched ahead of us, at least thirty miles that I could see, and it didn’t seem so scenic and friendly anymore. Two hundred ten degrees, two fifteen. The temperature seemed to be going up like the second hand on a clock. Two twenty, twenty degrees from redline, and the oil pressure started dropping off. That was the bad sign I’d been afraid of.
When a problem comes up, your priorities are first to save the passengers, then the airplane, then the engine. If it had been a single engine plane, I would have run the engine until it seized up, trying to get out of the mountains. In a twin, the situation isn’t so critical. With only two passengers and now less than half a load of fuel, the 310 would easily maintain altitude on one engine. Meantime, if the problem with the left engine was a bearing and the bearing seized up, the sudden stop would bend the crankshaft. No reason to take that chance.
I put on my calm, competent pilot’s expression, backed off the power on the left engine, feathered the prop and shut it down. It’s not quite that simple, I was standing on the right rudder to compensate for the asymmetric thrust, but cranked the horizontal trim, trimmed us up four degrees and increased power on the right engine from sixty to seventy percent. We were still cruising level, only ten knots slower than before.
“Hey, what did you do that for?” My cool expression hadn’t quite fooled Angie.
“Standard procedure. Saving gasoline. No point running two engines when we only need one.”
“Alex, that sounds like bullshit. Dammit, if we’re in trouble, tell me so I can help you worry.”
“If you really want to help, you can climb out on the left wing and see why that engine was heating up, but no, we are not in trouble. We can fly all day on one engine, so go back to being bored.”
I was telling her the truth, but only part of it. True that the 310 would happily cruise to Fairbanks on one engine, if nothing else went wrong. With an unexplained problem, one that didn’t quite make sense, did I dare trust the right engine to keep running? The engines had the same time on them and both had thirty hours since the last hundred-hour inspection. Both had been filled at the same time with the same oil. There’s nothing interconnected about the oil supplies, but still…
We were twenty minutes from the Yukon Valley and several villages. If I bypassed them it would be another hour over another mountain range to Fairbanks. When we’d left the Yukon three hours before, the cloud was spilling over the mountains, but the valley had been, might still be, clear.
When I’d told Angie her Kahlua eyes sucked men in like whirlpools, I’d been kidding, but there they were, looking at me with quiet trust. Many passengers would have been screaming and clawing at the door. Angie believed that I would take care of her, and suddenly I wanted to get that lovely girl on the ground as soon as possible.
We’d been homing on the KFAR radio transmitter in Fairbanks. I tuned the automatic direction finder radio to the non-directional beacon at Fort Yukon and made the turn. The village of Beaver was closer, but has no radios and precious few amenities. Stevens Village, where Jeannine, the new schoolteacher, was presumably settling in, was a few miles to our right, and she might appreciate a visit from Angie. However, Stevens has only a dozen houses, no lodge, no radios, and since Jeannine’s arrival, probably no vacant rooms. Fort Yukon has a lodge, a general store, and a radio beacon. The beacon locates the village for you, and you can use it for an approach, but it’s not much related to the precision instrument landing facilities at Point Barrow or Fairbanks.
If Fort Yukon was fogged in, then we were on the way to Circle City, and if we couldn’t land there, the Circle Hot Springs Lodge was a possibility, and at least we’d be over the Steese Highway. Landing on a highway is not a good thing, but it beats the heck out of landing on the tundra, and it’s infinitely superior to running into the side of a mountain. I figured thirty minutes to Fort Yukon, and the cloud ahead did seem to be tapering off.
“You know, Alex, I’m really not bored anymore. Why did we turn?”
“Scenic route. Thought you might enjoy a look at Fort Yukon.”
“Wow, you bet I would. I’ve got cousins there I haven’t seen since I was a little girl. Now you can tell me the real reason we turned.”
“Angie, there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. I don’t know why the left engine heated up, so the cowardly thing to do is land and check it out.” What I wasn’t telling her is that there is no such thing as a single-engine takeoff. If we landed, it was fix the engine or hitchhike home. That might be inconvenient, even expensive, but with Angie’s well being in the balance, it didn’t matter.
The overcast ahead was tapering off and breaking up. Tendrils ran down into the valley, but I was getting glimpses of the river. I figured we were almost out of the mountains, twenty minutes from Fort Yukon, when the right engine started to heat. I was paying attention that time, and caught it the moment it started up. I opened the cowl flap wide and reduced the power.
“Are we going down?”
“Well, sure, we’re at twelve thousand feet above sea level. Fort Yukon is only six hundred. Naturally we have to go down.”
“Alex, we’re going to hit that cloud.”
“No problem, it’s soft and fluffy, and I promise, the mountains are behind us.” Not entirely true, but nothing below us could reach six thousand feet and we were still at ten thousand when we plowed into the final cloudbank. I slowed us down to a hundred and twenty knots, the best angle of glide, but retained enough power to keep our descent gradual. The oil temperature settled at just over two hundred degrees and seemed to stay there.
“Have you had a good life, Alex?”
“Yeah, no complaints. What brought that up?”
“Well, mine is flashing before my eyes. Not too bad, really. My childhood in Crooked Creek was probably the best available on the planet, you know? So much love, so much happiness. Every adult in the village was raising us, but they all liked us and none were critical. Us kids climbed the mountains and played in the river like a bunch of wild Indians, which I guess we were. You know, I was twelve years old when I shot my first moose, and I was helping haul in king salmon when they were bigger than I was. Daddy was killed, broke through the ice on his snow machine when I was eleven, but then Momma married his brother, Uncle Jack, and he seemed to love us just as much.
“Damn it, why did Stan have to die? We would have made such beautiful children together…but the three years I had with him were better than most people experience in their lifetimes.” Angie subsided. I kept my eyes glued to the instruments. I’m not wise enough to comment at times like that.
I wished that cloud would end. We were down to four thousand feet, oil temp at two oh five. I was guessing fifteen minutes to Fort Yukon, but that was only a guess. The radio would tell us if we passed Fort Yukon. I knew we were out of the mountains now, over the Yukon Flats, but it wouldn’t hurt to have the radio confirm that. I decided I’d drop down to a thousand feet, but if we passed Fort Yukon still in the cloud, it would be dead reckoning to Circle City, no more radios this side of Fairbanks and no way were we going to climb out of the valley with one engine and it getting hot.
The ADF needle was getting persnickety, and that’s a good sign. The closer you get to the station, the more critical it is, and I was guessing less than ten miles. We were down to fifteen hundred feet, still in the cloud, when the temperature gauge started that second-hand sweep, going up like an escalator. I trimmed us down, let the speed build to a hundred fifty knots. That was wasting altitude, but it didn’t matter anymore. It was make Fort Yukon or land on whatever happened to be below us when the engine seized. The temperature passed two hundred ten degrees and went right on up.
One thousand feet, windshield the color of fresh laundered sheets, and the ADF needle reversed, we were over Fort Yukon. I circled to the south, and slowed us up. At seven hundred feet above sea level we were one hundred feet above the river, still nothing showing below us.
The Fort Yukon runway starts at the river and runs north with the beacon beside it, so if you head toward the beacon with your compass showing north, you will cross the end of the runway. There’s no indication of the distance, so you keep your turns tight, but not too tight. If you pass the beacon again before your heading is established, you’ve blown it. I locked us onto a thirty-degree bank for a two-minute turn.
The ADF needle slowly swung to the right. When the NDB was straight north, I jerked us around and headed for it. If the altimeter happened to be exactly right we were fifty feet above the river. Then a gleam of water, a flash of trees on an island, more water, and the oil pressure was heading down. I held us steady, let the speed drop to seventy to preserve altitude. The engine was slowing down by itself, too hot to operate.
Seventy is minimum speed for a light twin. Try to stretch a glide by flying slower and you’re in for a pancake stall and probably dead. Decision time. If you land short of a runway you want the landing gear up, let the plane slide on its belly, and it will stay right side up. Put the gear down, and especially if you land in water, which was below us, you’ll end up on your back.
Too low, too slow, water still going by. I advanced the throttle. Destroying the engine didn’t matter anymore. Drop twenty degrees of flaps, extend the glide. Engine speeded us up, seventy-five knots, and faded. Feather the prop and shut it down, a wind-milling prop will act like a brake. Twenty feet above the water. I glanced over at Angie. She’d tightened her harness and was bracing herself against the panel.
A hazy black stripe turned into the riverbank. I hit the landing gear switch. Short brush had been cut to clear the approach. We were left of center. I jerked us right and raised the nose, let the speed go. We were skimming over the ground so a stall wouldn’t be lethal. The gear slammed down, three green lights glowed. The main gear was clipping brush. I hauled the yoke all the way back, held us off, and suddenly there was gravel below us.
“Welcome to Fort Yukon. I hope you enjoyed your flight. There is no need to remain seated while we taxi because when we stop rolling, that’s as far as we’re going to go.”
We whiffed past the normal tie-down area, but the loading spot next to the lodge was coming up. I stood on the right brake, turned us into the clearing, and clamped down both binders. We slid to a stop ten feet from the edge of the clearing.
“Want to give me that lecture again about hours of boredom?” Angie leaned back and closed her eyes.
“I thought you knew all about that now. Did you finish your book?” My pulse was dropping toward normal, but why spoil a macho image? “Want to get out and smell the roses?”
“I wouldn’t mind putting my feet on the ground. Are you sure this is Fort Yukon? All I saw was a couple of spruce trees.”
“Hey, me heap big Gussak honeybee, remember? Right now I can sniff fresh coffee and it’s coming from a big log lodge about a hundred feet down that trail between the trees.” I reached past Angie to pop the door. She loosened her harness and climbed out onto the wing.
“If that smell is Fort Yukon coffee, I don’t think I want any.”
I followed her out and closed the door. She was right about the smell, or rather stink of hot oil. It was almost overpowering. I slipped past Angie and climbed down. The underside of both nacelles and the wings behind them were coated in oil, the right side still hot and dripping.
Angie climbed down and shook her head. “Kinda messy, huh?”
“Yeah, the airplane needs a good washing.” Oil behind the left engine was no longer dripping. I walked under, reached up through the cowling vent and found the nut was loose above the quick-drain valve. That’s a half-inch steel line right from the bottom of the oil pan, and that one-inch nut had not loosened by itself.