Author’s note: This is Part One of a three-part story of a single-engine airplane crash more than a half-century ago.
Although it was just Aug. 2, 1967, 16-year-old Jack Foster was already dreaming of winter when a sound from above diverted his attention. What he saw next jolted him from his snowy reverie.
Foster was out in the yard at his parents’ home on Forest Lane between Soldotna and Sterling, working on his snowmobile — a heavy, single-ski, double-track Ski-Doo Alpine — when the sound of a single-engine airplane prompted him to peer upward and investigate. He saw a blue-and-white aircraft flying slowly, only a few hundred feet over the exposed flats behind the Foster house, and just crossing over the small airstrip owned by neighbors Dan France and Dave Thomas.
As it is today, the sight then of a small plane overhead was common, and this plane would have garnered little further attention from Foster if — quite suddenly — the plane’s engine had not died.
“I heard it sputtering, and then the engine quit,” said Foster. The plane banked once and began nosing sharply toward the ground, then disappeared behind a line of trees. From hundreds of yards away, Foster heard it strike the ground with great force.
Although he feared the worst, he shifted into action. Grabbing a fire extinguisher from the garage, he raced for the driveway where he had parked his panel van that he had painted a metallic blue to cover its original Army green. In his haste, he turned the key too far —from the first OFF position, past ON, and into the second OFF position. When he pressed the floorboard starter with his foot, nothing happened.
Puzzled briefly, he realized the error, adjusted the key, cranked up the engine and headed down the gravel road toward the crash site. In less than two minutes, he was clambering over the berm left from an old homestead clearing as he lugged the extinguisher and shuffled through some low brush and scattered, snaggly trees. Quickly he approached the crumpled aircraft, the nose of which was angled into the soil.
The tail was bent to the left, and the left wing had suffered a deep gash about two-thirds of the way out from the fuselage. From the broken foliage, it appeared that the left wing had struck a tree, causing the aircraft to pirouette back in the direction from which it had come. Foster noted the plane’s registration number, N4605T, but failed to recognize it.
“I hollered in there, ‘Are you guys okay?’ And nobody answered me. That’s when I left the fire extinguisher there, and I took off and went and got Dave ’cause I knew that Dave had been in C.A.P. and probably knew a lot of first aid.”
Foster was referring to Dave Thomas, a local carpenter who at that moment was working about a half-mile away at the home of Calvin and Jane Fair. He and Elmer “Shorty” Harris were building the Fairs’ new home, so they could move out of the turquoise-and-white trailer they had had hauled all the way up the Alaska Highway to Soldotna in 1960.
Restarting his van, Foster lifted dust behind him as he raced to the Fair homestead. The time was just past 10:30 a.m.
About four hours earlier at the Soldotna airport, local physician, Dr. Elmer Gaede, fired up his blue-and-white Maule Rocket and prepared to take off for Seward, where he planned to attend the hospital staff meeting later that morning.
He and his medical partner, Dr. Paul Isaak, planned to arrive in separate planes for the meeting. They had been traveling separately for quite some time, according to Gaede passenger and Soldotna pharmacist Lee Bowman, who had come to Alaska with his wife Julie one year earlier to work for Toby Buckler in Soldotna Drug.
“They had flown together once to Seward and got into some really bad weather,” Bowman said, “and they decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to kill both of the doctors in town in one crash.”
The two doctors had formed a partnership in 1961, working on the second floor of Soldotna’s medical clinic, with Dr. Fair practicing dentistry on the first floor. Since the central Kenai Peninsula had no hospital, both physicians were considered members of the Seward hospital staff because of the frequent surgeries and other procedures they performed there.
Bowman was hunched in the front passenger seat of the four-place Maule. In one of the backseats sat Dane Parks, a good friend of Bowman’s who had recently moved to Alaska with his wife Betty. Neither Bowman nor Parks were on board for the staff meeting. They had been invited along by Gaede because both men were interested in a late-summer hunt and he wanted to show them “the easiest goat hunt in Alaska.”
Bowman and Parks had met while students at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Michigan. The Bowmans lived one floor above the Parkses in married student housing, and the four of them became close friends. In fact, said Bowman, the Parkses “were really the impetus for us coming up here.”
Dane and Betty were studying to become teachers, and they had hoped to start their careers in Alaska. But after graduating, neither could find a decent position available, so they had decided to stay put in Michigan and postpone their plans for another year. Meanwhile, Lee and Julie were unexpectedly placed on the fast-track to the north country.
With Bowman about a semester away from graduating with his pharmacy degree, he eschewed a couple of low-paying offers he had received from Michigan pharmacies and began writing to the Alaska state pharmacy board to learn about positions available and how to qualify. When he received no response, he tried another tack: He wrote to his aunt, Leah O’Reagan, who was living in Soldotna at the time, and asked her to ask the local pharmacist how to reach the state board.
That pharmacist was Buckler, who was “vigorously” looking for a new employee. While one of the Michigan job offers had been for six-day work weeks and an annual salary of $6,800, Buckler offered to hire Bowman sight-unseen, to help defray his moving expenses, and to pay him $1,000 a month.
The Bowmans did the math and realized quickly that they had only one obvious choice. They arrived in Alaska in 1966, a year ahead of the Parkses. Then in 1967, with Dane not slated to report to his new teaching job in Palmer until the end of August, he and Lee had decided on a hunt. After cooling their heels in Seward for a couple of hours, Gaede would fly them over the goat-friendly slopes of Cecil Rhode Mountain in Cooper Landing and show them an effective access point off Snug Harbor Road.
The morning flight to Seward was scenic but uneventful. While Gaede met with the rest of the hospital staff, Bowman and Parks wandered around town, visiting a local cannery and watching workers unload a shipment of fresh halibut. Bowman photographed the cannery workers and also snapped images of the city and Resurrection Bay.
When he finished his roll of film, he set the camera to REWIND and began cranking the film back into its canister. For some reason he still cannot fathom, he neglected to rewind the entire roll, leaving several exposed frames of film still stretched across the shutter and connected to the take-up reel inside the camera. It was an unfinished action he would later come to regret.
Gaede, meanwhile, had finished his meeting. The three men piled back into the plane, took off and headed through the pass toward Cooper Landing. After eyeballing the mountain for goats and examining the best approaches, Gaede turned the aircraft toward Soldotna, flying low down the Kenai River drainage and over the surrounding black-spruce flats to give his passengers a chance to spot more animals.
By the time they were 6 river miles upstream from the Soldotna airport and had flown past the Fair homestead — where Dave Thomas was helping Joe Norris from Soldotna Supply to unload some lumber — they were cruising serenely at about 500 feet and had already seen numerous moose, plus one brown bear in the Funny River.
A minute or so later, their plane was spotted by Jack Foster as he puttered on his snowmobile in his parents’ yard. Seconds after that, the engine of the Maule Rocket was dead and they were knifing swiftly earthward.
NEXT TIME: Part Two, impact.
• By Clark Fair, For the Peninsula Clarion