A Forgotten, and Hard to Believe, Alaska Aviation Story: The Trials of Flight 8

I was fortunate to spend Easter in Australia with my old boss Scott at his home. I worked for Scott for almost two years in Alaska before he sold the business and moved to Australia. I liked working for Scott for many reasons, one of them was because we were able to talk aviation. Scott used to be commercial pilot for Reeve Air, an old Alaska airline. He flew the Lockheed Electra, one of my favorite airplanes.The Electra was the first large turboprop airliner built in the United States. My dad flew in the Navy and my grandpa flew 50 missions on the B-17 over Europe during WWII. I soloed in a glider when I was 14 and got my private pilot glider license when I was 16. Aviation was a big part of my childhood.

Scott and I on the beach in Noosaville

Alaska is one of the great aviation places in the world. Stories of the pioneer Alaska bush pilots are incredible. If you have lived in Alaska long enough you have heard, or maybe even been part of, an incredible or hard to believe aviation story. It was on this chance meeting with Scott that I was able to hear one of these almost forgotten stories.

While drinking some nice scotch and talking about aviation in Alaska with Scott, he told me a story about an Electra that occurred before I was born. I could hardly believe this happened. He went and got a book about the history of Reeve Air in Alaska and showed me an article that described what happened. With the permission of the author, Gary A. Lintner, I am sharing this incredible story. I searched the depths of the internet and could not find it so I have transcribed it below. Enjoy!

The Trials of Flight 8

Written by Flight Officer Gary Lintner

June, 1983

When the aircraft finally came to a rest we just sat there for a moment. It felt great to be down in one piece. I had not been out of my seat in over seven hours so I was ready to leave. Capt. Gibson gave Gerry and me a big smile and said, “Well boys, I think we handled that like professionals, so why don’t we leave here looking like professionals. Put your coats, hats and ties on please.” I agreed 100%.

It had all started earlier that afternoon. It was truly a rare, beautiful day throughout southcentral Alaska. Shortly after takeoff from Cold Bay, en route to Seattle, we noticed a very slight vibration in the aircraft. The Lockheed “Electra” was under the command of Captain James S. Gibson. I was the co-pilot and Gerry Laurin was our flight engineer. In the back, taking care of our 10 passengers, were flight attendants, Wendy Kroon and Victoria Fredenhagen. The 1,500 mile flight, almost all over water, was planned to take five hours.

A Reeve Air Lockheed Electra

The vibration persisted during the climb. Capt. Gibson tried various climb speeds and a cycle of the landing gear. Nothing seemed to have an effect on it. Wendy Kroon came up front to say she could feel the vibration in the back of the airplane. We were beginning to get a little concerned. Capt. Gibson went back to look at the propellers from the forward cargo area windows. When he returned, Gerry and Wendy went back to take a look. While Capt. Gibson was gone I noticed the vibration getting worse. When he sat down I pointed to our control columns. They were starting to shake. This really had our attention. Capt. Gibson gave it some thought and finally said, “Ya, the heck with it, let’s turn a . . .” BANG!

A violent lurch accompanied the loud bang; followed by a rapid decompression. The cockpit immediately fogged up and it became extremely quiet. It was dream like. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I grabbed my control and looked out my side window at the number four engine. It looked awful! The propeller and about half of the reduction gear box had disappeared.

When I attempted to level the wings the wheel seemed frozen. I saw that Capt. Gibson was on the controls and also having a great deal of difficulty. He engaged the auto-pilot and the aircraft responded, not well – but well enough for now. We expected the airplane to come apart and start tumbling at any moment.

I yelled to Capt. Gibson that we had lost number four. He pulled the shutdown handle and said, “Ok Gary, declare an emergency!” I fumbled for my microphone and tried to bring my voice under some semblance of control. Finally with tremulous voice, I said the words we all hope we will never have to utter. “Mayday, Mayday, Reeve Flight 8 is Mayday. Does anyone read me.”

I received an immediate reply from our company Flight 92. Capt. Andy Livingston and Frist Officer Jon Bergstedt flying a Nihon YS-11. It was extremely good to hear from them. I quickly gave them as much information as I could at the time. Gerry Laurin had come back into the cockpit and reported the propeller had cut through the belly. He and Wendy had been knocked down but were unhurt.

Capt. Gibson told us to settle down and let’s assess our situation. We knew that we had some control cable damage: just how much we didn’t know. The big red Elevator Boost Off light was ON. That was not good. The auto-pilot was barely able to control the aircraft. It was difficult to descend. Gerry informed us that we had lost the “C” electrical bus because of an apparent generator fault with number two engine. This still gave us essential electrical service. The hydraulic and fuel systems looked undamaged.

Suddenly the whole aircraft shuddered like it was stalling! This really scared us. I checked the airspeed, it was steady at 210 knots. The shuddering soon quit but it sure had our attention. It felt like a tail flight control was just flopping in the breeze. We wanted a visual inspection of our tail real bad.

I called Flight 92 and told them about the shuddering. We began working on an intercept immediately. As the shuddering continued we began to suspect that it may be caused by an auto-pilot “glitch.” We couldn’t be sure until Capt. Livingston looked us over.

Wendy Kroon came back up front and said she had actually seen the propeller come off! It had opened a hole just a few feet from where she had been standing, and she could see the ocean below from 20,000 feet. She was pretty shook up so we told her to sit in the jump seat and get on oxygen.

Capt. Gibson continued working with the auto-pilot, trying to get some kind of proper response. It was a real learning experience. The main turn control knob would give about five degrees of left bank when turned full left. When it was turned just slightly to the right the aircraft would roll rapidly right but didn’t want to stop. To stop it, the knob had to be turned fully left. Even with that the recovery was very sluggish. The pitch trim wheel had little or no effect on the elevator. The rudder was frozen solid. It wouldn’t budge! The trim tabs were all frozen in place.

We eventually arrived at 11,500 feet. We went off oxygen and prepared to level off. I’ll never forget it. Gerry reached up to adjust the power levers. He moved them, but the horse power gauges remained constant. He moved them again. Nothing. The engines were frozen at cruise power! I couldn’t believe it. All we had was either cruise power of OFF. This was real grim.

I relayed the latest news to Capt. Livingston. I could tell from his voice that he knew exactly the situation we faced; without variable control of power, it would be very difficult to land. Most pilots have given some thought to landing an airplane with control problems. However, most of these thoughts have included using engine power to help with pitch control. We wouldn’t have that!

We finally joined up with Flight 92 about 40 miles northeast of Cold Bay. It sure felt great to see that YS-11 slide in next to us. They soon raised our spirits further with the news that our tail flight controls all looked good. This was good news. They confirmed that the damage appeared to be confined to the belly only. Everything else looked good.

As we approached Cold Bay it became apparent that we would have to use the fuel cross-feed system. With the number four engine not using fuel, the right wing was getting heavy. We hoped the system would work. Gerry went ahead with the cross-feed procedure while we anxiously waited. It seemed to work ok! This meant that we didn’t have to land immediately. That was good because we needed lots of time.

With a minimum of crash rescue equipment available at Cold Bay, we decided to proceed to King Salmon. The airplane was now under fairly good control with the auto-pilot. The occasional shuddering continued but was becoming routine. We had 210 knots at 10,000 feet. The three remaining engines and all other systems were working normally. We had plenty of fuel, even at these low altitudes, for many hours of flight.

As we headed towards King Salmon we began to feel better about our situation. The weather was beautiful. The airplane was running well, and we assumed, it would continue to do so as long as we didn’t mess with anything. We started to entertain the idea of going on to Anchorage. It would take us about two hours. Our Flight 92 escort had been exchanged for a Coast Guard C-130. So we had lots of professional help close by if we had to go down en route. After much deliberation it was decided to proceed to Anchorage.

Our time en route was spent in constant conversation among ourselves and company dispatch, troubleshooting our damages systems. They had all the technical manuals out and were poring over them. We sure needed the help. At Homer we were joined by an Air Force Rescue C-130 so we had even more excellent assistance available if things got dicey.

It was good to see Anchorage again . . . even from 5,000 feet with no apparent way down. The weather was perfect, with calm winds. Now it was time to start experimenting with our controls and systems. We didn’t look forward to it but we had to know what was available to us. The consequences of wing flap and landing gear extension would be critical. We couldn’t stand much pitch change at all.

During the next two hours Capt. Gibson experimented with many combinations of auto-pilot, flight director and brute force. We had hoped to get enough control with the auto-pilot to actually land the airplane. Unfortunately it didn’t look like it could be done. Capt. Gibson had made numerous practice approaches, remaining at 5,000 feet each time. The auto-pilot just didn’t have the fine control we required.

Things were not looking too good. A belly landing on the tidal mud flats around Cook Inlet appeared as a definite possibility. The thought of what would happen to our belly was not too appealing. Capt. Gibson was exhausted. He asked me to fly the airplane while he talked to the company on the radio.

By this time Capt. Gibson had found that a combination of overpowering the auto-pilot with muscle gave a pretty good turn. I tried the same thing. I was amazed to find that I had good aileron control! I tried some elevator and actually got some good pitch response! I checked the auto-pilot and it was off. How or why I don’t know. I was excited. I immediately informed Capt. Gibson. We both got on the controls and, with the additional muscle, it got even better. We had five degrees of bank, either way, and about one degree of pitch. The rudder remained frozen.

We were all thrilled. We finally felt confident that we could land the airplane. I think our stranded flight attendant, Wendy Kroon, was happiest of all. She decided to return to the rear and help Victoria prepare the cabin for landing. With Gerry’s help up on to the seat armrests Wendy made her way across the “gash” and back to the rear.

Now it was time to see if the wing flaps and landing gear would work. We didn’t look forward to this at all. With a firm grip on our control wheels, Gerry moved the flap handle slowly to the “approach” position. The pitch change was very slight. We then lowered the landing gear. It worked perfectly. Things were looking up.

With the landing gear down and three engines running at cruise power we soon ran into a control problem. The aircraft wanted to turn to the right. It took all three of us on the controls just to hold the wings level! The only remedy was to raise the gear. We did this and again they worked perfectly. Now we knew, with our available horsepower from engines one and three, we could execute a safe go-around. That made for a safe approach.

Our last major item to accomplish prior to the approach was to shut down the number two engine to slow the aircraft. This would still give us electrical power until one and three were shut down. Gerry pulled the “E” handle. The engine spun down and the propeller feathered up perfectly. This was a real relief. This meant that the other engines “should” do the same. If one didn’t, it would be a wild ride.

We advised everyone that we would be making an approach with a possible go-around. At 5,000 feet, and 25 miles out we got on the localizer course. The aircraft was handling well with both of us on the controls. When a bank was required Capt. Gibson would call out which direction and how much. I would then follow through.

We intercepted the glide slope and lowered the landing gear. Our airspeed stabilized at 170 knots. Too fast! We crossed the threshold and Gerry called 175 knots. Capt. Gibson said, “It’s no good boys, let’s go around. Gear up.” Gerry raised the gear handle and we waited anxiously for the lights to go out. When the did I checked the airspeed, 140 knots, and rate of climb, 150 feet per minute. We were slowly climbing in real good shape.

That was just for practice; now we knew how to land. We climbed to 1,000 feet and turned on a wide downwind. We didn’t want a bunch of excess altitude. This approach would be much flatter, using the landing gear more for descent control. We wanted to maintain about a one degree glide slope and planned to touch down “on the numbers.” The only hard part would be judging exactly when to lower the landing gear.

We turned about 15 miles out and “eyeballed” the runway. When it looked good we lowered the gear. Our airspeed settled at a perfect 146 knots. That was just fine. We figured 160 knots would be the maximum allowable. We touched down and Gerry pulled the “E” handles for engines one and three. They immediately shut down. That was a big relief! Now it was just a matter of staying on the runway – and stopping.

We stayed on the center line for quite a while but slowly started drifting to the left. Capt. Gibson yelled for me to get on the right brake. I gave it all I had but it didn’t seem to have any effect. Our speed hadn’t dissipated very much so we were a long way down the 10,900-foot runway. When the left main wheels went into the dirt it pulled us hard over to the left. We saw the ditch coming up. Capt. Gibson yelled, “Brace yourselves.” Just as the nose wheel started down into the ditch we came to a rapid stop. My god but that felt good.