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“The Trip of a Lifetime”

That’s the way the trip to Bristol Bay was represented. In June of 1985, several of the local gang planned a trip to fish the Bristol Bay area of Alaska, and incorporate some talks on “Field Medicine.” (No, the trip was not tax deductible!) Having flown a Cessna L19 Birddog a couple of hundred hours looking for crashed flatlanders in the Rocky Mountains with Civil Air Patrol, I planned a talk on air search and rescue as my “contribution” to the meeting.

The trip was to a super fishing lodge in the Dillingham area, which featured fly-out day trips, and several out-camps on different rivers for the hard-core fishermen. They used three single engine Beavers for the air fleet. These are great old airplanes on floats, with lots of room, lifting power, and with instrument panels that looked like they came from a 1939 Ford car. A few of us hard-core types spent most of the week on the out-camps, because we would rather fish than drink brandy. Every time we were flying, the other guys would always put me up front, since I am a pilot.

I kept querying the Beaver pilots if they monitored 121.5 MHz, the emergency radio frequency that emergency crash locator beacons transmit on. “No, we usually just use 122.9 to talk on.” they responded. “Hell, how would you guys know if someone out here would bend an airplane, or just couldn't get started?” I would ask. “Oh, I suppose someone would hear us!” was the usual response.

We had spent two days on a fish camp on the Ungalikthluk River and were to be picked up about 5:00 p.m. by the pilot to go back to the lodge, where I was to deliver my talk after dinner that evening. The wind had been pretty strong, blowing in-shore from the Bearing Sea. That meant the pilot had a tail wind when landing up-current, as is the technique used when flying floats. We were waiting around a bend in the river when the plane appeared, and turned final approach for the river. Upon hearing a loud “kerthrump” we all realized something wasn't quite right! After a couple of minutes, a guide arrived and said, “Doc Sheets, he piled it up. He isn't hurt, but he is sure upset. Since you are a pilot, go down there and see of you can help him figure this out.”

Upon arriving at the scene the pilot was lamenting that he would probably never work again. “You bend a Beaver in Alaska and you are out of the game!” he said. “The way you guys work these birds you're bound to bend one now and then.” I tried to reassure him. “By the way, Is your emergency transmitter putting out?” I asked. “Yes, I checked it on the plane receiver. Now, how will they find us?", he asked. “Hell, they won’t,” I responded, “you guys never monitor 121.5!”

There I was, sitting under the wing of a crashed Beaver 3 miles from the Bearing sea while I was supposed to be giving a lecture on Search and Rescue, Civil Air Patrol Style” back at the lodge. Well, when we didn't show up at the lodge, they sent another plane and we got back that night. I gave my lecture the next morning before we packed up to return to Dillingham. All three of the pilots were there and were very interested. Our recently wrinkled pilot was immediately put into another plane, and is still working today.

It was the latest ice-out in 35 years, and the Kings were just starting to run when we left. We caught lots of big Rainbows, Char, Dollys, Grayling, and a few small King Salmon. We were told it was the slowest fishing it had been in years. As Robert Traver said in his charming way, “You shoulda been 'ere anexa a week.” I loved it! It truly was a trip of a lifetime.

Ron Sheets

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Last updated on 11 Jun, 2011