Friday, September 27, 2013

C-46 Cargo Plane Saga of 1974

In the early days of life on the Colville River, our family chartered large cargo planes to bring the year’s supplies into the homesite and also backhaul our commercial fish to market in Barrow and Fairbanks.  In the fall of 1974, Jim’s parents Bud and Martha were living in Fairbanks during the winter months so the younger sons Mark and Jeff could attend public school.  The folks did all the arranging of the supplies and cargo flights from their end in Fairbanks and Jim was in charge on the receiving end of the flights here on the Colville.  One flight turned out to involve the most amazing set of circumstances we ever experienced in all the years of flying.  I will insert direct quotes from my journal at times, but use brackets for the added information needed to help clarify comments.
    To begin with, we had a number of extra people living here with us and helping that fall with our commercial fishing operation and all the various activities of daily life.  My brother Mark Wartes and his wife Denise (& baby son Marwan) lived here on the Colville with us at the time, plus my close friend Brenda Smith was here and a young man, Roy Nieman.  We ran numerous nets and caught thousands of pounds of whitefish during the fishing season, so much of this product needed transported to market.  These fresh-frozen fish were sacked or boxed up as whole, individually frozen fish.  They were stacked and made ready for transport to market when our annual supply plane came from Fairbanks.  We also had to ready empty fuel drums and propane bottles to return to Fairbanks.  Some years there were other “backhaul” items, like trophy hides and horns taken by our hunting clients from earlier in the fall.
    Another job in preparation for a cargo flight was building a runway out on the river ice, since our dirt runway was too small for a large plane like a C-46.  Jim would have to chose the best location on the river right out front of our property and spend many hours clearing snow off the ice to create a smooth surface about 5000 feet long for the big-wheeled ship.  This was done with the John Deere 350 tractor. Once the runway was done, then drums were lined up along each side from one end to the other about 100 yards apart, thus giving the pilots a clear view of the runway’s position and length. We used flare pots on top the drums for light in dark hours.  These had to be lit by hand and were shaped like large, hollow cannon balls about 6" in diameter with a wick sticking out of the top.  We filled them with diesel fuel.  We also used 42 oz. cans with rolled up pieces of burlap as wicks.  Someone would have to drive up and down either side of the runway to light or extinguish these flares before and after a plane landed and took off. Once the runway was made, it had to be maintained until the flights were over, which could be several weeks long, so if the wind blew, the runway needed re-plowed to remove any snowdrifts.
    We had no radios to communicate with a plane, nor phones or radios at this time to communicate with people on the Fairbanks end of the scheduled “Supply Run”.  Jim would have to drive the approximately 15 miles to Oliktok, the closest place that had a phone available to us at the US military Dewline Site called POW II.  This trip took at least an hour each way over rough ice or frozen tundra with a snowmachine. From there Jim could call his parents in Fairbanks to get and give the latest news. We also could get messages from Jim’s folks over a regular broadcast radio station that aired personal messages twice a day, morning and evening. However, this was not foolproof, due to occasional bad radio reception. But it was the best we had in those days.

    Excerpts from my journal:
        11-12-74   “...We got a message from Dad tonight saying the C-46 flight is planned for the 19th.” [Message came over message hour on KIAK radio station from Fairbanks.]
        11-18-74    “...We were up early and doing all the pre-flight preparations for the C-46 flight due in tomorrow.  Fish bags and boxes, drums, propane bottles, and trophies were all loaded on the two tractor sleds [30' & 20'] and then pulled down to the river by tractor and positioned beside the ice runway. It was after 8 P.M. when Jim and Mark were finally done, having worked straight through all day with only a short break to eat. [Mark and Jim were the only guys here now, since Roy had returned to Fairbanks earlier.] I did daily chores of feeding the dogs, checking fox traps across the river, and the usual house and baby duties. Plus, I sawed enough firewood to last for two days, since tomorrow is expected to be extremely busy.”
        11-19-74   “We got up at 6 A.M. and Jim went out and put heat on the tractor. The radio message last night said the C-46 would arrive at 10:00. We all got ready [which meant tractor running, dressed in outdoor gear, snowmachines ready to drive out on the river, and out-going mail ready] but soon fog and low overcast skies made the flight questionable in our estimation. However, we waited in a state of readiness until 11:00 before concluding the plane wasn’t coming.” [At some point over the next few days we got another radio message indicating the next C-46 attempt would be on the 23rd.]
        11-23-74   “Jim got up at 4 A.M. and put heat on the tractor...the plane was due in at 9:00. We all went out to the runway to meet it, but after waiting about ½ hour, we all came back to the warm house.”
        11-25-74   “Jim got up at 4 A.M. again and put heat on the tractor, but at 6:45, we heard a radio message that the flight had cancelled. Later in the day, Mark and Jim drove to the Dewline to call Dad to order snowmachine parts for Mark’s Johnson, in the hope they could come up on the next flight. Plus, both guys asked Dad to order new snowmachines for them from the Shontz store in Barrow to be picked up and returned to us on the C-46 back-haul, after delivering fish to Barrow.” [The normal routine was that the C-46 brought supplies from Fairbanks to us here on the Colville, we reloaded the plane with fish that was then flown to Barrow, drums of fuel that had been delivered by supply ship earlier in the year and other supplies from Barrow were then loaded on the plane and flown back to us on the Colville. Next the plane was loaded again with fish and rest of the backhaul to go back to Fairbanks.]
        11-26-74   “Again Jim got up at 4:00 to put heat on the tractor, but at 5:00 he woke me to tell me he was very ill with dizziness and nausea.  We think he had gotten carbon monoxide poisoning from driving the Nordic snowmachine yesterday with the broken muffler.  I got up to help watch the tractor.  Jim started it at 7:00 in-between lying down to rest.  The plane was due in at 11:30 and Jim felt well enough to drive the tractor down to the ice runway by then.  Mark, Denise, and I drove down to the runway by snowmachine shortly before the arrival time. [Both Denise and I carried our babies on our backs under our parkas: Marwan at 7 months old, and Derek almost 2 years old.] We all waited beside the runway for about ½ hour before returning to the warmth of the house.  By 12:30, we had given up hope again for the day and went about our usual daily activities.” [That night our radio message on KIAK told us the flight was rescheduled for Saturday, the 30th.]
        11-30-74   “Up again at 4:00 am to begin another “C-46 Day”.  Again we went through the usual routine and again waited to no avail.”
        12-03-74   “Another scheduled C-46 flight today and we proceeded as usual with Jim up at 4 A.M. and subsequent preparations for a 10:30 arrival.  But again, NO PLANE!  Today was the 6th failed attempt. The evening radio message from Dad told us that the plane had actually started to leave Fairbanks today, but lost oil pressure in one engine and aborted take-off.
        12-04-74   “We had another C-46 preparations morning. Again no plane. After lunch, Jim got ready to go check his trapline.  I was outside feeding the sled-dogs when Brenda ran up to me and said a big airplane was circling us. [Not sure why I hadn’t heard it.  Maybe the barking dogs.] It was the C-46 and it came in and landed. It was about 1:00 P.M. Jim had just put the tractor away, so he ran and got it started again and quickly drove down to the ice runway.  Mark and I dashed for a snowmachine and drove to the runway also.  Dad and Jeff (Jim’s youngest brother) were aboard besides the pilots. Dad gave us the story of woes from his end of the stupidity and incompetence of Fairbanks Air Service’s operation.  After taking 4 hours yesterday to get the plane loaded [and this was with heavy equipment to help], the oil lines on the plane froze up, thus the loss of oil pressure when the plane was ready to take off. Then this morning they were ready to take off when the pilot discovered the gas tanks were low.  The company personnel had drained gas from the plane’s wing tanks to fill the Herman Nelson heaters that were keeping the plane warm while sitting there on the ground.  So, a fuel truck had to be called to come refill the wing tanks, taking several hours.  The circumstances for all the previous cancellations and delays were all just as ridiculous. We were able to unload the entire load in 40 minutes, all by hand.”  [The only mechanized equipment used were the tractor and one snowmachine to pull sleds up below the big cargo door.  Supplies were handed down to us to stack on the sleds.  The outboard plane engine was kept idling for heat on the -30° F. day.]
C-46 arriving at Colville_1973
       C-46 arriving on Colville River Ice Runway 
Loading C-46_1973
 Unloading Supplies

Unloaded hay for goats_1973
Unloading Hay for Dairy Goats

12-04-74 continued  “All our non-freeze groceries were frozen, so Dad asked us to make a list of it all so it could be replaced or we be reimbursed by Fairbanks Air Service for the loss due to their incompetence (letting it freeze aboard the plane during the delays). It was cases of fresh eggs, fresh produce, can milk, pop, and other things.”

Loading Fish Sacks From Off Tractor SledLoading C-46 w-tractor & sled_1973Loading C-46 w-fish bags_1973

12-04-74 continued    “By 3:00, the plane was reloaded with several hundred bags of fish for Barrow and it took off, with Dad aboard.  Jeff stayed with us on the Colville, and helped Mark and Jim load the big tractor sled with another load of fish that is for Fairbanks.  At 6:00 the flares were lit in preparation for the returning C-46 from Barrow.  We waited and waited! Jeff kept the flares filled with fuel...we finally gave up and picked up the flares at 10:00 P.M. ...we fell in bed exhausted about 11:30, wondering what had happened to the C-46 this time.”
        11-4-74   “The morning’s radio message said that, ‘the C-46 lost an air cooler and is down at Lonely [another Dewline site between Colville and Barrow] - everyone is okay.’  The message gave us no indication whether this happened going or returning from Barrow. [It turned out to be on the return from Barrow.] At 11:00, Jim left for the Dewline at Oliktok to call Dad at the Lonely Dewline site to find out what was happening...When he got back, he told us that another C-46 bringing parts for “our” C-46 was due to land at Lonely at 4 P.M. and if all went well, they hoped to be back to the Colville by 9:00. [At this point, to add to the problems of the delayed flight, Jim had problems with equipment.  He couldn’t get the tractor started due to battery problems, so had to start our small portable Onan generator in order to use the battery charger.  To his exasperation, that little generator wouldn’t start and Jim had to take it apart to trouble-shoot the problem.  He discovered a rusty magnet, sanded it clean and reassembled the generator. Now running, Jim was able to put the charger on the tractor battery plus also rigged up a bright electric flood light on top the house for added visibility of our place for the approaching plane.] Jim finally had the tractor out on the river waiting for the flight to come in and all the flares were lit again shortly before the flight was due.  We waited, and waited! Jim drove the tractor back about 12:30, but kept it running.  Jeff picked up the flare pots about 1 A.M.  Jim and I finally lay down on top our bed with our clothes on in case the plane suddenly showed up.”
        12-6-74   “No message heard this morning. Jim had kept the tractor idling all night, but soon put it away.  In the evening, a message from Mom in Fairbanks said that the the C-46 was returning direct to Fairbanks and we were to listen for a further message concerning how Jeff and Brenda were to get to Fairbanks.”  [Jeff was missing school and Brenda was scheduled to return to her home in Washington state.]
        12-7-74   “We heard no message about any flight, so went about our day. The guys went trapping and gathering firewood until mid-afternoon. Around 5:00, we heard a C-46 fly over us and circle the buildings.  The guys rushed out and lit the flares.  [In December, the sun is no longer rising above the horizon at all.]  However, the plane did not land, but flew on to the POW II Dewline and landed on the big runway there. [We could see this by watching the plane lights.] Jim debated as to if this meant we were to take Jeff and Brenda over there, but we decided to wait a bit to see what might develop. About an hour and a half later at 6:45, the C-46 took off from the Dewline and returned to the Colville complex, circled twice, buzzed low over the runway and came around again and landed.  With the guys all out at the runway, Denise, Brenda and I sat at the house wondering what in the world was happening. I was getting ready to walk out to the runway when Jeff drove up on a snowmachine to get Brenda for leaving on the plane.  We all went along to hear the story of what had been happening.  Two days ago the crippled C-46 from Lonely had unloaded our 30 drums of fuel from Barrow while at Lonely, but had kept our two new snowmachines and mail aboard and attempted to fly to Deadhorse.  However, more mechanical problems forced them to land at the Oliktok Dewline, POW II, where the snowmachines and mail were off-loaded. [Remember, this is the Dewline about 15 miles from our place.] The plane then made it back to Fairbanks in the wee hours of this morning. Dad got another plane in the afternoon to fly north again...this is the one that circled and then went on to POW II at Oliktok.  It landed there to pick up the snowmachines and mail and bring them back to us. The guys had off-loaded the snowmachines using large planks for a ramp out of the cargo door. Now the plane needed loaded with all the fish for Fairbanks stacked on the big tractor sled up by the house.  It would take too long to try and heat the tractor, so we all worked hard to move all the fish bags by snowmachine and small sled.  A platform was created half way up to the cargo door of the plane by laying a sheet of plywood across the top of 4 fuel drums.  Fish bags were handed up from snowmachine sled to a person on the plywood platform and that person threw the bag on up to someone standing inside the plane.  These are 70-90 pound bags, mind you.  All of us girls helped right along side the guys.  The plane was loaded, Brenda and Jeff aboard, and on it’s way back to Fairbanks by 8:00.  What a job! 
        “The biggest irony of the whole ordeal was over the tractor.  Jim had worked so hard heating and having the tractor ready for days on end...then when the plane finally did show unexpectedly to be loaded, we didn’t have the tractor ready.” [The tractor pulled the loaded sleds of fish right up to the cargo door and the sacks could be loaded directly from the sled, which acted like a loading platform in itself.  The heavy sacks had to handled twice as much without the tractor.]
        [ To conclude this saga, there were later attempts to retrieve the 30 drums of our fuel left at Lonely, but the several attempts I mention in my journal failed due to bad weather.  I never found further reference to them, so do not know if we ever got that fuel. Another note is that we experienced many flight delays during the years we chartered large cargo planes to deliver our supplies, but never to the degree of this particular episode.]