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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everbody Has a Story: Close call having to land airplane on road just after takeoff in Alaska

By Dave Campbell, Battle Ground
Published: December 14, 2016, 6:05am

In 1962, I was eagerly awaiting my “short timer” calendar to run out. After my original release date from active duty Army had been extended in late November 1961 by the actions of the Soviets in Germany, I was ready to get back to civilian life. I’d had enough excitement during my service to last a lifetime.

I had bought a light, two-seat aircraft — a Cessna 140. It was with the thought that I would get more experience and additional ratings, perhaps even enough to fly commercially. I had been talking with Eric, my former roommate, about taking a trip to Alaska in my plane after we both got out of the Army, especially since his release date was a few weeks after mine and he also was a pilot.

We made plans that we would meet up at Fort Lewis on his last duty day and fly up to Alaska. We managed to successfully cross the border and spent the first night at Dawson Creek, B.C., camping under the wings of the plane inside sleeping bags and mosquito nets. The whine of mosquitos frustrated by that stupid net kept me awake for quite a while.

The next morning was frustrating for us to try to find someplace to get breakfast. We ending up not getting anything until the next time we stopped for gas, in Prince George.

We eventually got to Fairbanks, where we made friends with the local fixed-base operator who let us stay in a trailer for the night. The next day, after a thankfully good breakfast at the airport greasy spoon, we took off for Circle, a town just north of the Arctic Circle.

About 10 minutes after taking off, we suddenly noticed that the oil pressure gauge read zero! How could we both have missed that when I started the engine? With no oil pressure, that engine would have only a few more minutes of life.

Looking around for a place to land, we only had one choice: the road just below. It was kind of narrow with trees on both sides, but we didn’t have much time to look for a wider spot. At least if the plane got wrecked, I was flying this leg and couldn’t blame Eric.

I managed to land on that road, but on the rollout the left wing tip caught an alder, neatly removing the wing tip light, swinging us gently to the left and bumping over a low bank. The propeller gently swung to a stop between a couple more small alders. We sat there for a minute, amazed, and then jumped out to look at our predicament.

We got hold of the main gear and heaved that plane back up on the road and pushed it a few hundred feet to a wider spot that I could have landed in. A few minutes later, an Alaska Highway Department guy came along and offered us a ride down the road to a telephone. Eric rode down to call for a mechanic — who after a while flew up, landed easily in the wide spot and checked out my plane. He found a plugged filter, reassembled it and started the engine. No problem, good oil pressure. He flew Eric back to Fairbanks, and I followed in my plane.

The wing needed a patch and both wing tip lights needed to be replaced, but the only real damage was to my wallet.

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