When Richard Benner contributed his flying rescue story for our book, Alaska Air Tales, he probably didn’t realize his mystery would linger for decades. His story, “Stopping the Dogs One Mid-winter Afternoon,” alludes to his obsession with flying from childhood and relates leaving the school bus and walking to Kenai’s airport where Bob Bielefield, owner of Kenai Aviation, and Buz Butler provided instruction and very good advice.
Richard soloed then bought and flew a Taylorcraft for a couple of years before upgrading to his favorite, a J3 Cub. Because of its lightness and maneuverability, the J3 carried him through the best of times. Richard feels a pilot does not need a big, powerful airplane to appreciate flying. He has accumulated over seven thousand Alaskan hours of flying time.
Richard left his homestead airstrip next to the Parks Highway in 1977 near Wasilla and flew toward Flat Horn Lake in order to enjoy the day and to witness its beauty unfold. He flew near the 1950s homestead of his father’s friend, Joe Redington, the Father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Richard had grown up owning and mushing dogs and recalled the time several years prior to the Last Great Race when Joe asked him his opinion of racing a dog team from Anchorage to Nome. Richard couldn’t understand why anyone would want to race a team of dogs to Nome.
He said after leaving the runway …
“I headed west toward Flat Horn Lake. Nearing the lake and getting ready to cross the slough that runs north and east out of the lake, I noticed a dog sled with maybe ten dogs headed north up the trail. Then I noticed something quite peculiar, the dogs were pulling a body about ten or fifteen feet behind, tethered to the sled. The dogs were not slowed down by the weight of the body even a little bit. They were running all out and the body was bouncing violently along from one side of the trail to the other. As I got closer, I could see the body appeared to be completely lifeless.
“I flew over the body on the ground once again, then, I saw a hand raise up and weakly wave at me.”
“I felt all but helpless. Like all good J3s of that vintage, my plane had no radio. I had no need for one since I was flying in the Bush most of the time. So I couldn’t call for help from anybody. I knew I was on my own to try to help this person. I thought about landing and stopping the dogs, but the snow was way too deep for me to land on wheels. I knew I would immediately go over on my nose upon touching down, and that would ruin my whole afternoon and not help the person being dragged behind the sled. I looked around and there was nobody in sight on the trail in either direction.
“In desperation I quickly decided to try to scare the dogs into stopping, so I made a turn in front of the team and dove the airplane straight down from about fifteen hundred feet. The ground was coming up pretty fast. To make matters worse, it was an overcast day with flat light and that made it hard to get accurate depth perception as I neared the ground. I rolled out in front of the team and headed straight for them. I was now about two feet above the trail and looking the lead dog in the eye. Upon seeing and hearing the airplane, the dogs immediately put on their brakes, stopped and sat down. I pulled up just in time to clear the team and the sled.
“I flew over the body on the ground once again, then, I saw a hand raise up and weakly wave at me. I could tell now it was a lady. I didn’t know, of course, what condition she was in. I didn’t know if she was hurt badly or not, but I knew I had to do something more.
“Just then I noticed another team further up the slough about a mile away headed in her direction, so I circled until the second team reached her. After looking the situation over, the second team driver waved at me, indicating it was okay to go on. I surely felt better knowing that she had some help.
“I was sure glad I was there at the right time. I have often wondered who the lady was, and if she was all right. She was likely pretty beaten up from the process of being dragged for what appeared to have been quite a long distance.”
… she would have remembered being buzzed by an airplane while her dogs relentlessly towed her across the frozen tundra.
But the story doesn’t end there. Wanting to thank Jerry Olson, another contributor to our book, Jack and I drove to Wasilla in November 2014 to give him a copy of Alaska Air Tales. After we left, Jerry dived into the book and called immediately explaining he recognized the lady in distress and told me her name. He told me he knew her as a neighbor and she was an Iditarod musher.
I found her listing in the directory and left a phone message asking if she might be the mystery lady. She returned my call that evening. Right number. Wrong woman. Oh, yes, she’d been in several Iditarod races. But, no, she would have remembered being buzzed by an airplane while her dogs relentlessly towed her across the frozen tundra.
And so, it appears Richard’s mystery remains … unsolved.