Dog Creek

(for the record)

“What do you think?”

It looks wet to me.

“I am not concerned about the wet, more concerned about the trees.”

Dog Creek is an old military airbase with the airstrips in a triangular formation.  From what I have read it was used as a RCAF supplementary aerodrome along with other airstrips to allow planes during WW11 to fly a route to Alaska.

It is now out of commission, was purchased by Circle “S” cattle Company in 1962 and on the chart is  X’d out.  From the air you can clearly see the remnants of the triangle and what looks like large patches of possible concrete.  Mostly grass and gravel looking.  We were to discover that it was much more and much less than what we expected.  In the words of my former partner “what could possibly go wrong”!

We were flying a Cessna Cardinal 177RG ( retractable gear).  The landing seemed to go well enough but within minutes of landing I heard the words – “we are sinking”.  The left main wheel was half way down into soft wet earth and when we attempted to move forward the nose gear sank as well.  With the plane in full throttle the wheels did not move, not even an inch.  How bad could it really be or get?

The previous day we had been at the Nanaimo Flying Club sitting with a few other pilots when the conversation turned to the exploits of another pilot talking about his many flights into the Dog Creek airstrip.  He talked of the surrounding land, the quiet, how he went there every summer;  you could taste the freedom.  I knew as the talk went on we would be flying there, to an airstrip that was not maintained with no one around. Did I voice these concerns? No.

We set off the next day. Plane was packed with the BMX bikes, some bottled water, granola bars, peanuts, the ordinary snacks for a short day’s flight plus all the other items normally in the plane; tools, oil etc. and left over camping items from a previous cross country trip.  Fortunately I took the VHF aviation portable radio, had just purchased it and actually almost did not bring it along.

It was a good flight on a clear October day up over the Rockies to an area known as the Cariboo region.  Once clear of the mountains the area opened up into a vast expanse of valleys and flat lands.  It reminded me of Dinosaur Park in Alberta – carved out valleys and flat topped land. Stunning.

The airstrip was situated on what could be described as a plateau, with the main runway ending at the edge of the plateau.  We circled around and around. I had the feeling that he almost did not want to land.  For the most part I have trusted his judgement.

I saw a ranch in the distance, a deep valley off the end of the main runway, bits of old runway here and there and wet patches everywhere. We could see where the threshold was, pieces of planking marked the spot just as the pilot at the flying club said it would be.  Then we landed. By this time it was 2:00 pm, we would be losing light by five in the evening.

He tried and tried to get that plane to move, it would not budge, not even an inch. We were situated on land that had nothing on it except grass and scrubby pine trees off to each side.  I said let’s cut some of those branches and put them under the wheels, yes he said “I was thinking that too”.  That did not work, we could not get the boughs under the wheels far enough.

He took a plank that was being used to mark the threshold and placed it under the left strut, attempting to raise the wheel then I jammed the other plank under as best as possible. That did not work.

Next he had me straddle the tail section, actually lay down over it to lower and keep weight on the tail, hoping this would lift the wheel out.  I am not sure if many people understand what this means.  The back wash or air from the plane was unbelievable! I had quite a time holding on but we had to do something.  This worked!  The left wheel released, he moved forward, and then the right wheel sank!

By this time we had spent at least an hour working to release the wheels.  During this time he determined that if the plane were able to gain some momentum he might be able to turn the plane to the right in order to get to higher and drier ground.  Not a lot higher but it had a  grade to it and was packed ground.  Over and over he tried getting the plane to move.  Nothing.

He finally got out and said “I don’t know what to do”.  My frustration and anger surfaced.  “WE MUST TRENCH OUT THESE WHEELS!  LIKE THIS!”  At which point I grabbed a piece of plank and began to dig a trench in front of the right wheel.  And that is what we did.  Plane moved slightly.

 He then knew what to do – trench out the right and left, then place a plank under the right one (sunk) and left wheel.  The left wheel was no longer stuck but the hope was the wheel would grab onto the plank and give the needed traction.  Success!  Plane was in full power as he moved forward and swung it hard to the right and rolled to dry ground.

It is now about 3:30 pm. Sky is clear, no wind.

He looked up the runway and decided that he should be able to get the plane back to the threshold, possibly further and then be able to get enough speed up for lift.  First we had to take everything that would decrease weight out of the plane as the fear was the plane would sink again.  Also we had to scour the entire field going back to towards the threshold to look for holes, stumps, anything that we could possibly run into.  I found a large open drain with steel sides and not visible.  Marked it with a piece of wood and found a red ribbon in the plane to tie to it.

Next, I stood at the threshold and he at the plane and motioned to me which way to place myself as a marker for him to aim for as he taxied towards me.  He moved forward with the plane as slowly and as quickly as possible; I know both of us feared the wheels would sink again.  Success!

Now we had to go back to where the plane had been and bring back everything we had taken out and put it back in the plane.  We had our bikes but it was still a very difficult task as the runway was really not a runway. Completely covered in what can only be described as large grass covered ant hills, everywhere.  Not a smooth ride on bike or plane.  He did most of the hard work.  We packed the plane and ourselves.

It is now approximately 4:30 pm.

The realization of our situation became more apparent with the daylight fading and do we have enough fuel.  He started to figure a route to Chilliwack if we needed to refuel.  That made no sense to me and I said we should go straight back the way we came.  I do believe he was thinking of the mountains yet to climb over but did agree we would fly the same route back.

I never once thought we would not be able to taxi and obtain lift for takeoff.

He did.

He began to prepare me for crash on takeoff. Unlock your door, push your seat back as far as it will go, remove your glasses, remove the IPad from the yoke, take the rolled up sleeping bag and place it in front of you.

It was then I realized what that meant – we would keep going off the runway, not gain lift and crash into the valley below.  How do you describe the absolute dread, fear, panic and sorrow that came over me in those minutes as we rolled down the runway?  What do you think in that instant when you say to yourself – this is the place where I am going to die.  I know what I thought.

What was he feeling?  The tension was so obvious and the knowledge of all that could or would possibly happen was there on his face.  He had no protection.  I knew not to speak, not to cry. He had to be in control of himself, the plane and the situation and not contend with any other problems.  I do believe he was no less afraid. 

Does time slow down?  Yes, it did seem to take a long time to roll those wheels, cross over the many grassy bumps, say to yourself – please don’t sink, please don’t sink, say to yourself – fly the plane, fly the plane, say to yourself – watch the horizon, watch the horizon, feel as the plane gained speed and lift, feel the ground give way and keep gaining altitude.

We did it!

He did it.

We made incredible speed and time heading back to the north shore of Vancouver. We had a tail wind and we sailed along over those mountains with fuel to spare.  Happy we were; another adventure, another story to tell.  What else could possibly go wrong?

A week previous to this flight while on another flight, the transmit button on the yoke came apart, basically in two.  He was able to put the two pieces back together and left it.

By the time we were getting close to the west coast we were also at an altitude that meant there would have to be communication between us and Vancouver tower.  He pressed the transmit button and it disintegrated in his hand and what was left hung there like a pogo stick  bouncing up and down. The second incident. OMG!

He does an immediate shift in altitude and within minutes we are below 4000 feet, out of the communication zone for Vancouver but still must be able to communicate with Vancouver Harbour radio.

VHF portable radio!  He is now able to communicate, I dial into the necessary frequency and he then uses the old style microphone in the plane to speak.  This is the second incident to happen with this flight.  Did I mention that it was the 13th? All is going along fairly smoothly, plenty of fuel, he is able to communicate with Nanaimo radio that we are on our way in.  We receive clearance.

As we approach our home airport, he engages wheels down.  The wheels down alarm sounds and it is loud! This indicates that the main wheels or the nose wheel or all of them have not locked into place.  We determine from what we can see that the main wheels look down and locked, we cannot see the nose wheel.  He transmits a call to Nanaimo stating the concern and requesting a fly-by of the tower; would they take a look to see if all wheels are down and do they look locked.  They report all wheels look as though they are down but the alarm continues.  We prepare for wheels up landing.  The airport also prepares, all flights are held from landing and the fire truck is dispatched. The alarm continues.  We both hope it is a glitch.  It was not. The third incident.

It was an absolutely perfect nose wheel up landing and only because of his expertise as a pilot and doing what he always states must be done no matter what – “fly the plane” did it all go so smoothly. 

For me personally the lessons learned:

  • Always and I mean always carry a portable VHF radio
  • Your plane is your survival “fly the plane”
  • Survival kit – food, water, flare, matches, shovel, medical kit, rope, wire, clothing etc.
  • Let someone else know where you are going even if you do not file a flight plan
  • If something breaks – fix it before your next flight
  • You must have the right plane for the location you are flying into
  • Is this the right time of year for that fly in location?
  • Your best chance of survival is with an experienced pilot
  • Your very best chance of survival – speak up if it does not feel right!

Happily ever after – well ……… not so much.

October 13, 2018

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