Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Pilot's Tribute

It's been a long day.

It's been a long summer.

2 summers ago, I would have summed it up as the monsoon summer of Margaret and Zach's wedding when there were way to many bear attacks.

This summer I would sum it up as the monsoon summer of plane crashes. The crazy part is, it's not due to weather or newbie mistakes. They have been old seasoned pilots who are some of the highly respected infrastructure of our greater community here in Alaska, the last great frontier. They are the pioneers of invention and tenacious ingenuity.

The monsoon part is easy to explain. We are setting records as one of the top 6 (and moving up rapidly) rainiest summers ever recorded in the short history of Alaska. The plane crashes have been chilling as one tragedy after another rock the pilot community and families here. When I first arrived in June, it was on the cusp of the first chilling accident. One of our neighbors on Lake Clark was hauling out materials from Merill Field with his family and a babysitter when he crashed into a neighborhood at the end of the strip. The plane burst into flames and valiant bystanders braved the flames to rescue all but one of the passengers. ALL involved were severely burned and most still reside in burn units from here to Oregon. They lost their 4 year old son. Horrible!

We've lost pilots before, plane crashes are not uncommon. My dad has made many rescues and pulled parts out or flown pilots and spare parts out to remote crash sites recovering wreckage or limping a plane back home to be repaired. He has one friend who has lived through more than 10 crashes and even one in the middle of a lake where he broke his back and some guy in a fishing boat happened to be there and pulled him out to safety.

I myself have witnessed a crazy lodge owner that wanted to beat other lodges to a hot fishing hole, leave too early in the morning and flip his plane right in front of our lodge while we were serving breakfast. Thanks to our guides who heard the chilling fla-whomp! and quickly drove in skiffs to rescue the passengers, everyone was okay and they had a new Beaver on floats the next day and the race was on again.

Most unfortunate was a dear friend and pillar in our community, while ferrying his family back from a fishing hole, was on his way back to get the last load and never made it. They attributed it to water in the gas tank but it really rocked our community. We are thankful that he was alone. Here is a picture of his family.

All of these memories and realities flood back when you hear of a plane going down. The closer to home it gets the more sobering the thoughts are. I remember noticing the very first sound of a plane flying over 5 days after September 11th. It was eery as if a ghost was pining for life or soloist was afraid to break the silence but wanted it's presence known. It was the first time I had realized how much air noise really tells me a lot about whats going on around me. This summer has been wet, wet, wet! The skys have been pretty quiet for the most part. I don't have to look up from my work to know that the ceiling has lifted 1000ft and we will have a rain break because the sound of a plane reassures me of it. The few times rays have escaped from the clouds, the sky just buzzes with the sound of pilots itching to get some air under their wings. This is the land of bush pilots. So many people depend on these metal soaring contraptions to bring them food and supplies.

These have been some of my thoughts as I drove to Anchorage to drop off materials for some remote village, sat at a mountain pass alone in the quiet, hiked the experimental farm as planes danced above me.

4 days before the big Elmendorf Air Show a C-17 crashed on the tarmac while practicing. 4 died, 3 of them were my age. The show went on but the air was a solemn celebration.

There was a plane of tourists that crashed on a glacier and got stuck without any supplies or gear for three days before the weather let up enough to drop supplies. A helicopter that tried to land ended up rolling leaving the count to 9 stranded cold and hungery people.

At the same time an Otter on floats, carrying our own Ted Stevens and Retired head of NASA and two teenagers and their parents, a retired Alaska Airlines Pilot,and two others, were headed out to a lodge for a fishing trip. In the fog, they hit the side of the mountain, from the pictures it looks as though the pilot tried to climb straight up to lessen the impact, that and the floats managed to limit the death toll to 5. 4 survived but were trapped in their seats till rescuers arrived later the next day. They were busy attempting to rescue the glacier group and pulled out and relocated to this crash site. Our state was in shock. Ted's first wife had been killed many years ago in a separate plane crash (in which he survived) at Ted Stevens International Airport. Worst part was, the pilot in this crash lost his son-in-law in the C-17 crash. Do the math for his daughter. She lost her dad and husband within two weeks of each other.

Reeling from this news, we heard that a C-123 had lost an engine and crashed. It was John mind went Eshelman, Eshelman, ESHELMAN!!!

I haven't seen Casey or Kristen since high school. We called Casey "Keebler" and his dad was just that, "dad." He pulled me out of a ditch once when I missed a hairpin turn before the airport on the way to a cross country ski team party at the Eshelmans. He was also owner of Steppers Construction so often he would swap favors with my dad's business.

He was working on a beautiful C-123 he had brought up to Wasilla from Florida in the hopes to use it to deliver supplies to those in need across Alaska. It wasn't quite ready to close! He had just talked to dad about flying a forklift and building supplies out to Lake Clark for our cabin and dad had just delivered Metal Roofing for John's new add-on. It was just weird. He was so busy doing so many good things. He was planning a trip to Israel, He was in the middle of moving a Firefighter Memorial to a more accessible and visible location. The list goes on.

Today, we went to his Memorial. We parked and walked with the masses along the taxi way only to be met by a pilots tribute as 10 beautiful planes and one helicopter flew one by one down the air strip. They came back and landed and we all cheered as they joined us. There was over 1000 people there, the Anchorage Fire dept and Wasilla Fire Departments showed as well as many pilot families and construction folk. Many Colony High alumni and faculty. He touched many communities. His brother choked through his Eulogy. It was very touching, and I learned who this person, Casey's Dad was. There were quite a few stories and from different parts of his life, an over view, an early view, and his last days view. I really liked this guy and felt the void he left behind. Crazy part is, he left but every thing he had his hand in kept going without him there. He was an amazing orchestrator, that's for sure! Two guys in parachutes landed during the stories and poems. And at the end, this man who was born on Elmendorf Air force Base and lived a die hard patriot and his hand shake was his word, was given a solute, the Steppers solution way. His son's Casey, Connor and (one more I don't know) Shot off 7 blanks while his brother Bob called them off.

I got to give Casey a big hug at the end. I'd like to actually get the time to catch up with him. Earlier this summer I drove by their place promising myself I'd go say hi later and now I wish I had taken the time to stop in.

Farewell John, you were a great guy and you will be sorely missed.

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