By Clark Fair
For the Peninsula Clarion
Author’s note: This is Part Three of a three-part story of an airplane crash more than a half-century ago. Dr. Elmer Gaede was at the controls of his single-engine Maule Rocket, with passengers Soldotna pharmacist Lee Bowman and Bowman’s friend Dane Parks, returning from Seward when the plane’s engine died, the aircraft crashed near the homes of the Fair, Thomas, France and Foster families near the end of Forest Lane between Soldotna and Sterling. Sixteen-year-old Jack Foster saw the airplane fall from the sky and heard the crash. After a quick investigation of the crash site, he knew he needed more help.
Dave Thomas, a carpenter and a member of the local Civil Air Patrol, looked up from a new shipment of lumber when Jack Foster skidded into the Fairs’ driveway. After a brief explanation, they were headed for the crash site, where Thomas instructed the boy to go home — the location of the neighborhood’s closest telephone in those days — and to call an ambulance while he tended to the individuals in the plane.
Inside the plane, Bowman was awake and had been for a short time, worrying about the prospect of a fire. He had attempted to find a power switch to stop the flow of electricity, but the blood running into his eyes prevented him from seeing clearly. A limp Dr. Gaede lay across his lap, and Bowman shoved Gaede into an upright position, grimacing at the biting pain in his lower back. Both Gaede and Parks were moaning softly, but neither had yet regained consciousness.
Despite freeing himself from the weight of the pilot, Bowman was unable to move effectively or to force his door, which was wedged slightly ajar, to open all the way.
As Thomas attempted to start a rescue, Foster was calling the Soldotna clinic. Immediately the nurse who answered the phone wanted to know if the pilot had been Dr. Gaede, but Foster had no idea. The plane had been unfamiliar to him.
An ambulance, driven by volunteers Don Thomas and Billy Thompson, was quickly dispatched. They arrived on the scene, coiling up dust behind them on the gravel road, in less than 15 minutes.
Later, as Gaede — who had been raised in a Mennonite farming family — was being removed from the plane, Bowman remembers that Thompson said, “OK, Doc, we’ll get you down to the clinic, and Doc Isaak will take care of you.” And of his longtime medical partner Gaede said, “Who the hell is Dr. Isaak?”
“I can remember that just as clear as if it was today,” said Bowman in 2011, laughing. “Elmer rarely ever swore. I don’t know that I ever heard him swear.”
Gaede, his lacerated face bright red with blood, was transferred to the ambulance on a stretcher. The rescuers then tried to slide Bowman across Gaede’s seat, but his injuries made the move too painful, so they went to work on the jammed passenger door. According to Bowman, Don Thomas “fixed” the problem.
“He was a huge guy,” Bowman said. “He was about 6’4” and probably weighed close to 300 pounds — big strong burly guy. And he just took ahold of that door and literally ripped it off its hinges. Then he said, ‘There! We got some room.’”
After Bowman was hoisted out and carried to the ambulance, Parks climbed out on his own, appearing dazed but in control. Someone in a private car drove him to the clinic, where he was examined and sent to the Bowman home.
According to Bowman, however, Parks was not OK. “His activities throughout the day were just goofy,” he said. “He insisted that somebody drive him back out to the plane crash site and take his picture to prove that he was actually in the plane wreck. To this day, he has total amnesia of the wreck. He does not remember anything about the engine stopping, of Elmer turning. The next thing he remembers is being at our house.”
Gaede and Bowman, meanwhile, needed immediate medical attention. In “Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor,” Gaede’s oldest daughter Naomi quotes her father: “Although I was in good hands with the well-qualified clinic nurses, Dr. Isaak hastily returned from Seward, in his plane, and sutured my face back together. It took over fifty stitches to pull together my forehead, chin and mouth area. Since I couldn’t shave over this new face-lift, I grew a goatee, mustache, and long sideburns.”
After refusing to be sent to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, he was driven home to recover.
One month later, his face still showing obvious signs of the accident and the surgery, Gaede flew in a plane again, this time as the passenger of a friend. As he remarked later, “Just like a bucked rider has to get back on a horse, I knew I had to get back into the air.”
Bowman, too, found himself inside another airplane, although it was not his desire to do so. After the accident, he, unlike Gaede, did require hospitalization. Unfortunately for him, getting that care in a timely fashion meant going to Providence Hospital, and that meant taking to the skies.
On a stretcher, he was placed into the roomy back-end of a Piper Cherokee 6, which then took off into deteriorating weather.
“It was an absolutely horrendous flight,” Bowman said. “It was raining and hailing. The inside of that plane sounded like being on the inside of a snare drum. And the wire-basket stretcher that they put me in to strap me down had a metal reinforcement bar that was right across where my back was broken. Every time we would hit one of those slamming-up-and-down bumps, it made the flight even less fun. So I was pretty happy when we landed.”
At Providence, Bowman said his care seemed once again … providential.
Bowman was told he was to be placed in the care of Anchorage’s top orthopedic surgeon, Dr. George B. von Wyckman — although that knowledge was tempered somewhat by the notion that von Wyckman, who disliked plastic and cosmetic surgery, might also be sewing his face back together.
However, when Bowman arrived, Dr. von Wyckman was too busy to see him. In fact, he was already in an operating room, performing surgery on another patient.
Then, when Anchorage’s best thoracic surgeon, Dr. Arndt von Hippel, walked in to see if von Wyckman needed assistance, von Hippel was asked if he wouldn’t mind working on the new arrival. He said he’d be happy to help.
Consequently, two of the state’s most talented, medically trained hands performed the delicate surgery necessary to mend Bowman’s face. Von Hippel required 300 stitches to do the repairs.
“He did such a miraculous job in putting me back together — my lip, my forehead, up in my scalp,” Bowman said. “It was an absolutely masterful job. And you really have to look right now to see any of the scars.”
But Bowman’s good fortune didn’t end there. Dr. von Wyckman had recently returned from a seminar on back surgery and recovery. At the seminar, emphasis had been placed on the use back braces, instead of the traditional full-body casts, to speed patient recovery. So a back brace was ordered from out of state, and Bowman was fitted for it a few days later.
A month after the accident, Bowman was back at work at Soldotna Drug.
After the accident, a friend who removed Bowman’s camera from the wreckage thought Bowman might appreciate a few photos of the airplane, so he moved around the crash site and recorded three images on the film. Unfortunately, that trio of pictures were exposed over the images of the cannery workers that Bowman had photographed in Seward, so he had no wreck photos of his own until Parks sent him copies of a few of his own Polaroids.
The man who remembered nothing at all from the incident gave Bowman evidence from an event he would never forget.