Iliamna Engine Failure (June 1991)

Caren della Cioppa

I had been thinking that my life had become extremely boring lately.  It was a beautiful Alaskan summer and all I had been doing for the last three weeks was a combination of splitting wood and tedious yard work.  So I decided that it was time for a break and jumped in my plane and headed to Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest lake, about 200 miles west of my home in Palmer. With my friend, John and my dog, Foxtrot, we flew through spectacular Lake Clark Pass, a pristine wilderness of active volcanoes, wild rivers, and waterfalls that plummet hundreds of feet from hanging glaciers that cling to mountain walls. As we left the pass we flew low along the 40 mile north shore of deep blue Lake Clark, down the Newhalen River, and landed at the Iliamna Airport. Once on the ground, we hiked the trail to the Newhalen River where John made good use of my survival fishing gear and managed to catch five nice looking fish. Keeping the fish away from Foxtrot proved to be a greater challenge than catching them, but  it was certainly a nice way to fight boredom. 

By about 6 pm we decided it was time to head back to Palmer, but instead of retracing our flight through Lake Clark Pass we decided to try the coastal route for a change.  We took off from Iliamna Airport and flew about 40 minutes along the east side of Lake Iliamna then turned south towards Pile Pass heading for Cook Inlet. 

We were cruising along at about 1000 feet admiring the dense spruce forest below when suddenly the steady purr of the airplane engine changed into something that sounded more like rapid machine gun fire.  This charming sound was accompanied by an alarming 50% loss of power.  I instantly pulled on the carburetor heat and switched fuel tanks realizing that these standard preliminary emergency procedures were probably an exercise in futility.  I think when the engine sounds like it is destroying itself, one can probably rule out carburetor ice and fuel exhaustion, both of which generally result in a disconcerting silence rather than a deafening sound - and besides, I had full tanks!  But by instinct an experienced pilot will perform the emergency checklist at the first sign of trouble. 

Suddenly I didn't like what I saw below anymore.  The trees had lost their appeal so I quickly turned back towards the shores of Lake Iliamna in hopes that a beach or sandbar might appear.  The engine began to sputter and make more ghastly sounds as my power continued to diminish.  I shouted over the radio to the Flight Service Station  "Iliamna Radio this is Cessna 76410 over Pile Bay with a severe engine problem.  I will try to make Pedro Bay," the last airstrip I had seen, 10 miles back.  A nearby pilot in a floatplane started offering suggestions over the radio as I continued in a gradual decent and the racket behind my propeller grew quieter.  My passenger seemed more relaxed and said "oh it sounds much better now."  I hated to tell him that was because it had just quit completely.  Ahead I saw a fairly flat and bare area and pointed the plane in that direction.  I informed the float plane pilot and Flight Service that I had chosen a landing spot and would be doing an emergency landing there quite soon.  When I told my passenger that we would be landing there, he advised me that there was no airport there and that I could not land there.  I reassured him that yes, we would be landing there, to which he replied "ditch it in the lake" a couple of times.  I chose to ignore that advice!  Water is usually the worst choice unless you are  a float plane.  

Now with no power, I became a glider pilot, maintained the best glide speed and coasted down to the flat area, which turned out to be a combination of small sandbars and swamps.  By the time I got there, I had only the option of a straight in approach which landed me very gently on a grassy but marshy flat spot.  We rolled for a while as I hoped and prayed that the plane would remain upright.  Apparently I didn't pray quite hard enough because the ground was so soft that when we finally did stop, one wheel buried itself into a deep hole and the plane promptly flipped over onto its back.  I remember saying "oh no!"  When we were totally stopped I realized that my face was under water.  I felt momentary panic until I lifted my face up a couple of inches and realized that a small amount of water had seeped in and simply covered my face.  Unfortunately, I had a Pepsi in my lap and it managed to spill and contribute to the fluid covering my face.  Foxtrot came flying from the rear baggage area, landed on the back of my neck and peed on me.  That insult was followed by a smack on the head by the plastic bag full of fish.  My next emergency procedure was to quickly open the door and boot the 65 pound lab out!  She didn't seem concerned at all and began a relentless chase of the local nesting birds who are probably still squawking over the incident.  John and I crawled out and fortunately we were unhurt. The plane looked kind of pathetic lying there upside down but it wasn't hurt very badly either because the swamp we had landed on was like a soft sponge.

I stood there patiently, my hair covered with swamp mud, Pepsi, and dog urine, and watched a little boat heading towards us on the lake.  They were the only inhabitants of Pile Bay.  They had heard us fly over and knew we would be landing soon by the sound, or maybe the lack of sound produced by our floundering engine. When they arrived, together we flipped the plane back onto its wheels.  It certainly looked a lot more dignified in that position.  One blade of the propeller was slightly bent and one lift strut was slightly bent, but it was otherwise undamaged.  They took us back to their home on Pile Bay in their boat and radioed the float plane pilot who I had been chatting with earlier. 

He flew in and picked us up in a Beaver on floats and took us back to Iliamna to his office at Iliamna Air Taxi. The State of Alaska considered it a search and rescue so they kindly picked up the bill for the flight.  The National Transportation Safety Board representative was already on the phone ready to take my report shortly after I walked in the door.  I guess you can't expect to keep anything from them!  The nice folks at Iliamna Air Taxi let us stay free at their lodge for the night and fed us like royalty. 

The next morning I called everyone in the state of Alaska who knew anything about available helicopters and found that it would be extremely expensive to have the plane transported by helicopter.  I was getting quite depressed at that point.  But we chartered the Beaver again and returned to the scene and removed my damaged propeller and my radios, and did some investigating of the area.  We found that there was a sandbar fairly close that looked long enough to use as a runway if we could find a way to bring another engine to the scene, along with a capable mechanic. With that thought in mind, we returned to Iliamna in the Beaver in time to  scrounge up a dog kennel and catch the last commercial flight back to Anchorage. We climbed onto the Era Aviation Convair with a box of radios, my survival gear, a bent propeller, and a very bewildered dog in a borrowed kennel.  At least I knew no one would pick up our luggage by accident when we got to the airport.  In Anchorage we tossed all that paraphernalia into a taxi and rode across town to my spare car at Merrill Field and drove back to Palmer.

The next morning I was on the road back to Anchorage, dropping my bent propeller off at the prop shop and placing an order for a new lift strut.  In answer to an ad in the paper for a run out Continental 85 engine for $2250, I drove 4 more hours to Soldotna and waited while the seller removed it from his plane and plopped it in the back of my Subaru Brat.  I knew it had to be on its last legs since a rebuilt engine would cost at least $8000 at that time.  But I figured it only had to run for 3 hours, long enough to get my plane from my landing spot on the shores of Lake Iliamna, back to Palmer.  I handed him $2250 and drove another 4 hours back to Palmer.  Now all I needed was an adventurous mechanic and some way to haul that engine back to the plane. 

I had to work the next few days and felt somewhat like a mother with her child stuck in a well.  My poor baby was stuck in a swamp 200 miles away!  I couldn't sleep and was a total wreck.  But I lucked out, if one can find any good luck in this mess.  I found Marty and Bob from BJ Engine Shop at the Palmer Airport.  They both had Super Cubs, the only planes capable of landing anywhere in the vicinity of my plane.  They agreed to do the job, and on Friday, June 21, only 6 days after my unscheduled landing, Bob and Marty stuffed me, John, tools, prop, strut, and the engine from Soldotna into their two Super Cubs and off we went to Pile Bay.  We left Foxtrot home!

When we got close to the area, the weather was marginal and we were dodging clouds in foggy canyons hopelessly searching for a clear path to Lake Iliamna.  We finally gave up and landed at a tiny strip inhabited by two crusty old miners who had been living there for some undetermined time.  They met Marty's plane with guns drawn, but finally allowed both planes to land.  We were lucky because a few years later, a pilot friend of mine was flying supplies to one of those guys who shot and killed him, even though he had been expecting the supply plane.  The man was obviously quite insane.

After talking for some time with those two characters, we made another attempt at Pile Pass only to have to land again at another small strip in Pile Pass.  John went fishing and I paced until the clouds broke enough for our third attempt.  This time we were successful but to our dismay, the sandbar we had seen the day of the forced landing, was now mostly submerged in water.  But the Super Cubs with their giant tundra tires were able to put down on the short sandbar, though I had serious doubts about being able to fly out of there in my 85 horsepower Cessna 140;

But first we had to tend to the problem at hand.  We rolled the plane on sheets of plywood initially, but then found it was just as easy to simply push it through the marsh to the sandbar. Then Bob and Marty removed the destroyed engine and examined the right rear cylinder which was in several pieces. It's piston had a huge hole in it made by the valve that had broken off and blasted through it. They installed the engine from Soldotna, and used the new strut as a splint rather than try to remove the damaged one.

Now for the moment of truth.  Could an underpowered Cessna 140 take off from a 450 foot sandbar, with an old run out engine bought from a total stranger, with a completely unknown history, and installed in a swamp?  In addition, would the pilot have a heart attack from fright before the plane ever became airborne? I taxied up and down the sandbar testing the engine's performance.  I decided that it would be possible, so I taxied to the end of our sandbar runway, and on a wing and a prayer, added full power.  When I reached the water, my wheels were still on the ground but I knew it was ready to fly so pulled on the flaps, and Cessna 76410 bolted into the air.  I gave the guys on the ground a thrill as they watched the spray caused by my wheels as they skimmed across the water.  I was delirious with joy although I believe I cried all the way to 3000 feet.  I spent the next hour fighting feelings of panic as I crossed the Alaska Range and headed back to Palmer.  After an hour I decided that the engine was probably going to continue running and I flew another hour and a half, landing with a sigh of relief at the Palmer Airport.

Maybe I won't be so quick to complain about being bored!


    All photography Caren della Cioppa