THE LITTLE YELLOW AIRPLANE

A CLOSE CALL IN THE TAYLOR MOUNTAINS

What do you call a really steep hillside that plunges down to the bottom of a steep, deep canyon? Not quite a cliff, but nearly. There is just such a hillside at the bottom of the gravel runway at the Taylor Mountain Mine.

The Taylor Mountains are a small range about 100 miles southwest of Stony River, Alaska. During my high school days there was an adventurous family from Coos Bay, Oregon, out trying to rejuvenate the old mine in those mountains, and the 47 Creek Mine located over in the Aniak Hills as well.

There was a father and mother, and a pair of grown sons, probably in their 30s. I was still a teenager of 16 or 17.

In the course of their work at the mines, this family had opened up the area’s runways. Because the runway at Taylor was open, and we knew of the large number of caribou that came through the Taylor Mountains, my little brother Clint and I decided we should do some caribou hunting out there. One October day in 1982 we loaded our gear in our little yellow airplane and flew out.  

The little yellow airplane, 8525D, was a Piper Tri-pacer (PA-22/20). Several of us Cole kids learned to fly in the Kuspuk School District’s flight program. It was a great deal. If we maintained a B average in our course work, then we were eligible to fly the school district’s planes, free of charge. I got my pilot’s license in this way without spending a dime.  

The 8525D was a beautiful little plane. Dad had it covered with new fabric and painted yellow with a blue stripe. It matched the blue and gold colors of Stony River school! It was a little squirrelly on the ground because the PA20 is very short coupled, but it had a 160 Lycoming engine in it. Lots of power. You could get in and out of a pretty short runway (or gravel bar, or blueberry patch) with that plane.

So Clint and I took the yellow plane out to the Taylor Mountains and got in one beautiful day of hunting. We hiked all over the snow-covered range scouting for caribou. I remember teaching Clint how to build snow shelters way up on a high ridge with a lovely wave of windswept snow drifting at the edge. We never got close to any “Bou,” but we made our battle plans for the next day and figured we had a great chance to get a couple of them.  

But before the night was out, my caribou luck (bad luck) held. To this day I have never harvested a caribou. But that is another story!

There was a conflict between the younger of those Coos Bay brothers and another fellow they had out working the mines (a wily woman was involved). As a result, I was pressed into service the next morning to fly the younger brother out of the Taylor Mountains to Red Devil, a small mining village about 100 miles away on the Kuskokwim River. I had to leave Clint, who was 10 years old at the time, with the family at the mine. 

We lugged a very heavy bucket of gold sludge (the heavy silty mud that is left after a lot of raw material has been run through a sluice box) up to the airplane and headed out. To get off the Taylor Mountain runway, I taxied up to the top of the runway which was tucked right up in the arms of the mountain. Then I turned around and headed downhill for takeoff. This was the routine regardless of the wind, because the runway sloped up fairly steeply, and the hills beyond climbed up to the mountain top even more steeply. 

We made it safely to Red Devil. But, by the time I was refueled and ready to fly back to rejoin Clint some bad weather had kicked up and my plane was grounded. I spent the night on a couch in Red Devil, worrying about how Clint was getting along with the three adults back at the mine. When I got back the next day, I learned Clint had been picked up by someone and taken away. The three at the mine didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me exactly what had happened. Seems they weren’t clear on the details, and more than just a little under the influence.  

Because of all these machinations, I found myself late one afternoon, at the bottom of the Taylor Mountain gravel runway. The little yellow airplane was suffering from a dead battery.  

I was 100 miles from home, in the middle of nowhere. I was about one mile from the mining cabin, where there was no electricity to re-charge my battery. So no help there really.

I was out of favor with the two men and the woman who were present at the mine, because I had flown the younger brother and his bucket of gold sludge out. In fact, they had been quite unfriendly when I went to find Clint so I wasn’t 100% sure where he was. I assumed he had somehow gotten a ride home to Stony River, but I had no way to contact home; no phone; my airplane radio wouldn’t do me any good with a dead battery. I was in a tight spot.

I decided that I’d have to try to “prop start” the airplane, so that I could get home and make sure Clint was all right, AND put some distance between myself and the other men at the mine.

Dad had reconfigured the little yellow airplane back to the original design of a tail dragger—meaning that it no longer had a wheel under the nose of the airplane, but rather it had a small wheel at the tail end of the airplane. This setup is popular in Bush Alaska because it changes the orientation of the airplane when it touches down onto the ground, the propellor (prop for short) being a couple of feet higher in the air. This simple change in the airplane’s physical orientation makes it so that you are less likely to damage your prop when landing.

Our airplane engine generated the spark for the spark plugs using a little mechanism called a magneto. Basically, a small generator about the size of your fist. When the crankshaft of the engine turns, this would also spin the magnets of the magneto, which is located in line with the crankshaft, usually close to the face of the flywheel of the engine. These magnets spin within a set of copper windings, and voila, the spinning magnet within the copper windings creates a spark which is fed to the spark plugs. No battery required.

Jesse and the little yellow airplane

So, the process of prop starting an airplane involves grasping the propellor and giving it a good spin, which turns the magneto and creates the spark which causes the gas in the cylinders to explode and the piston to move and the crankshaft to begin turning. Imagine back in the olden days when automobiles came with a hand crank to turn the engine over. Same process.

The Piper PA 20-22 has high wings over the cockpit. They are supported by a pair of stout wing struts on either side of the fuselage and since the airplane is rather short coupled, there is not much room between these struts and the propellor. There are doors into the cockpit on both sides of the cabin—they open forward, so you have to be standing behind the struts, basically behind the wing, in order to access these doors and climb into the cockpit.

The incident I’m describing happened in October, so we had the airplane rigged with skis for landing on snowy runways, or landing on a frozen lake top. Skis are great for snowy conditions, but as you might imagine … they are a bit slippery!!

Now, typically when you “prop start” an airplane it is a two person job. One person is in the cockpit with his or her feet on the brakes, and their hand on the throttle. A small single-engine airplane’s engine has several important differences from your typical car engine. These days, cars don’t come with a “choke” knob. They used to! The choke allows you to have more control over how rich the fuel/air mixture is on its way into the throat of the carburetor.  

In addition to the choke the airplane had a primer knob. You give that knob a couple of pumps and it injects raw gasoline right into the carburetor. It takes some practice to know how to use the primer. Too many pumps and you could easily “flood” the carburetor, causing your engine NOT to start.  

You also need to understand that, after you prime the engine with fuel, using the primer knob, if and when you start the engine there WILL be a burst of power as the engine burns through the fuel supply. 

Now that you understand the machinery, let me place you back in the setting.  

Taylor Mountains are a small, remote cluster of mountains at the headwaters of the Holitna River, a good sized tributary to the Kuskokwim. They are surrounded by the tundra which carpets the floor of the vast Kuskokwim River Valley. There are no towns close by. No roads leading in. Only one small mining camp, which is equipped with one narrow and relatively short gravel airstrip. This airstrip is nestled between two of the major foothills which are like the shoulders and arms of the mountain, reaching down, down, down to the tundra. The runway is by no means flat, but has a significant slope downward, finally ending in a cliff that drops steeply down to the stream at the valley floor. More of a canyon than a valley.  

In short, I was in the middle of nowhere, with my airplane pointed downhill towards a steep drop, at the bottom end of a pretty sketchy little gravel mining “strip,” which is “bush” speak for runway.  

In retrospect, I should have grabbed my little plane by the tail feathers and turned her around and aimed her uphill!

But I didn’t.  

So there I am on a chilly winter morning. I’d just walked a few miles roundtip down the canyon to the mining camp to get Clint, only to learn from the grumpy miners that he was gone. By the time I got back to my airplane it had cooled down, and I was in a hurry to get out of there and get home. I was dressed warmly, including my home made martin hat with earflaps, and my homemade black bear gauntlet-style mittens.

I took off a mitten, and got my finger under the little door latch, opened her up and jumped in the cockpit. I flipped the master switches on, set the throttle so the engine would catch at about 1400 rpms, primed her with a pump, and turned the key. Nothing!  

Tried again. Nothing. Dead battery.

Without thinking too long about it, I gave her another pump of primer fuel and climbed out of the cockpit. I ducked around and under the wing strut, positioning myself in front of the strut and just behind the propellor beside the engine cowling. I set my Sorrels in the snow and ice, reached up my left hand, which was still wearing that heavy black bear mitten, to the tip of the propellor blade and gave it a big yank downward. It kicked right back up, like a boxer throwing a counterpunch. The cold engine didn’t want to turn over, so I edged up a little closer to get better leverage on the prop. This time I reached up with both hands and gave a mighty yank, throwing all my weight and power behind that downward pull. The prop spun over, the engine coughed, sputtered and burst to life with a roar! The little yellow airplane lurched forward on its red skis; the struts caught me in the small of my back just as I was coming back up from my heave and knocked me flat on my face into the snow.

In a split second the plane was moving forward, the tail feathers passing right over me, not more than 100 yards from the steep cliff down, and headed right for it! I surged up out of the snow and burst into an adrenaline-filled race to catch the plane! I managed to do it and get the cockpit door open; I was mighty glad that I had already taken the mitten off my right hand. The little door had slammed shut when the blast of air from the prop hit, and if I had that mitten on, it would have taken a couple more precious seconds for me to get in. I crawled up over the strut into the moving plane, wriggled into the pilot’s seat, and stomping on the left rudder, I fed the engine more throttle to keep me moving into a turn away from the canyon and back up the runway.  

I never let the plane come to a stop; I taxied several hundred yards up to the top of the runway, and counted my lucky stars as I spun her around and headed back down at full power. I took off safely and headed back home to Stoney River.

When I got there I learned that Dan VanEaton had just happened to come through the Taylor Mountain mine, and he had delivered Clint safely home.  

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