Birthday flight with Paul and Biggles

Trip Start May 05, 2010
Trip End Jul 20, 2011

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Where I stayed
Dyea campground

Flag of United States  , Alaska
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Well, where does one start! Perhaps following on from our last post in Haines, Alaska, may be appropriate.

The weather continues to impress with our four days in Haines seeing us bathed in sunshine. Each day has seen heat wave conditions according to the locals. With each day in the mid twenties the locals are even seen swimming. And that is, swimming in water that can prove fatal if you stay in longer than ten minutes!

Partly due to Gaels insistence, the perfect weather conditions, and some of the world's best scenery I was persuaded that a flight over Glacier National Park would be an appropriate reward for reaching sixty one years (although I did have serious doubts that obtaining my Seniors Card last year could be topped)

After boarding a reassuringly shiny, bright red and new plane we and two other daredevils (a mother and daughter from Louisiana) lifted off. The pilot Paul, although lacking what I considered to be the appropriate pilots uniform, appeared to push all the necessary buttons and pull the required levers, that resulted in us leaving terra firma in an orderly manner.

Oh joy, oh joy. I was suitably impressed when Gael informed me that as an added highlight we would be landing on a glacier.

After thirty minutes of flying over this very small but impressive part of the Park it was time to land on what appeared to me was a seriously unflat and uphill piece of snow. I had but a moment of time in which to reflect on how ones anus can alternately tighten and loosen at will at times like this, then mercifully, we were stopped and the planes apparently uncontrolled bouncing had ceased.

After a period of time that was long enough to take in the vista, but short enough that toes would not have to be surgically removed as a result of frostbite, it was time to leave.

After the initial cranking of the aircraft propeller and failure of the engine to fire Paul informed those assembled that things didn’t sound right! Oh sure I thought. The classic put the wind up the tourist trick. Who does this guy think he’s dealing with. We Australians are too smart for this old chestnut.

On the second attempt even I noticed the distinct lack of propeller rotation and grinding of the starter motor. I don’t know exactly how many screws there are holding on all the shiny red bits that cover the engine but there are heaps. After close examination of all those bits that normally spin the propeller, it was deduced that all was not well with the starter motor pinion and ring gear. The starter motor body casting near the pinion gear had nearly sheared off. A serious enough development on the ground, in a hanger at the airport, but a real pain in the arse on the top of the Alaskan Rocky Mountains.

As the consequences of this component failure started to sink in, our pilot remained remarkably composed. Following a few carefully chosen expletives as the magnitude of his predicament sank in Paul set about making the necessary calls for assistance on his satellite phone. I thought it was nice when he told his wife how much he loved her. I could not however help but reflect on the books I have read where the mountain climber on Everest makes a last call to wife when he knows he can’t make it down from the summit.  Paul's state of composure in a crisis is something that I have never been able to achieve. I am more likely to resort to foul language and spanner throwing.

Just as the magic of the Rockies and the temperature was waning, Biggles in his not so shiny and new blue mountain rescue plane came into view. This was a relief to all particularly to the two southern bells who were running out of time to meet their cruise ship due to leave Skagway in the short term. As the girls had a time line and we didn’t, we settled down to wait for the return of Biggles. 

Whist Gael and I sheltered in the stricken craft Paul gazed at his cracked starter motor and tried to imagine what would be left of his $400,000 investment after being left on the glacier over the memorial day long weekend.

Well, Biggles did return, and after several failed attempts at trying to do a Tiger Moth spin the propeller type start we left Paul standing forlornly by his plane. Biggles promised that he would return to help Paul anchor the shiny red piece of tin to the snow.

Biggles gave us a ride back to the airport after flying close enough to the mountain tops for us to get up close and personal with the local rock hopping mountain goats.

Paul's booking office was still closed three days later when we left Haines.

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