If you’ve never tried the barbeque at Cooper’s Old Time Pit BarÂ·BÂ·Que in Llano, Texas, you don’t know what you’re missing. It has a well-deserved reputation for the best brisket, ribs and sausage in Texas and has been named one of the best BBQ spots in the state. Pilots often fly into the Llano airport and grab one of the courtesy vans furnished by the restaurant to make the pilgrimage into town. Occasionally, the line of folks waiting will stretch around the building. When you finally make your way to the enormous black pit, the pitmaster raises the steel lid, fragrant oak smoke rolls out, and you are suddenly faced with a decision.
“What can I get for you?” he asks. Now the pressure is on. Staring into the maw of the beast, you spot a variety of succulent smoked meats. Deciding what to order is a daunting challenge because every offering is equally delicious.
Once you make your choice, the selection is placed on waxed butcher paper and handed off to the staff inside to be weighed, rung up and delivered to your waiting arms.
Now, in this scenario, the choice is easy—everything is excellent, so it is hard to go wrong—but sometimes in aviation and in life, the choices are much more serious and not so simple. Often, weighty decisions are made under incredible circumstances by people who find themselves in dire straits, facing significant danger. Lawrence Gonzales has written about this in his excellent book “Deep Survival,” in which he explains that humans under severe stress often revert to making decisions based on emotion and desperation rather than reason. I suspect many pilots can remember being in such situations. I know I can. Let me share a couple of examples from history for you to consider.
In the late fall of 1930, a charter pilot named E.A. “Paddy” Burke and his flight engineer, Emil Kading, had been hired to fly a miner named “Three Finger” Bob Martin across the Canadian wilderness to a small village some two hours away. Burke was flying a Junkers F13 on floats. As Burke knew, it was late in the season to be flying a floatplane, as the lakes and rivers would soon be freezing up for the winter. During the return to Atlin, British Columbia, the pilot encountered deteriorating weather and became trapped by clouds and snow showers, forcing him to attempt a precautionary landing in the Liard River to await better conditions. During the landing, a float was severely damaged by a rock in the shallow water, stranding the trio. At first, they were not too concerned, as they set up a small encampment to await rescue. But after a week without rescue and with rations running low, they decided to abandon the airplane and attempt to walk upriver toward a supply cache at Junkers Lake. The weather continued to worsen, with snow and storms of winter coming on.
As word of the missing travelers spread, a massive search was mounted. And as is often the case, the tragedy compounded when three of the searchers were themselves lost in a crash in poor weather along the B.C. coast.
Each day, the group struggled northward, poorly dressed and ill-equipped for the journey. After three hellish weeks in the unrelenting wilderness, Burke succumbed to hunger and exposure despite the heroic efforts of his companions. Grieving for their friend, they built a small cache to protect his body and attempted to continue their desperate trek.
By this time, the search was winding down, as most figured the men could not have survived. But one young pilot, Everett Wasson, refused to quit. He continued flying whenever conditions would permit until he finally located the downed aircraft on the frozen riverbank some six weeks after it had gone missing. Landing nearby, he trekked to the aircraft to discover a message carved into a spruce tree indicating the men had departed weeks earlier in hopes of reaching safety further north.
Back on the upper Liard River, the two survivors had made little progress, fighting through the deepening snowdrifts, growing steadily weaker. Finally, they gave up the effort and made a last camp to await the inevitable. They managed to prepare a signal fire in the dim hope an airplane appeared overhead.
As the days grew shorter and the weather worsened, Wasson continued the search, flying his Bellanca Pacemaker across the snow-covered hills. After another 12 days, he was finally instructed to abandon the search but decided to make one last pass along the Upper Liard River on his way home. At the last possible moment, he happened to notice a tendril of smoke from a signal fire below.
Against all odds, the two remaining survivors, Kading and Martin, had been found, barely alive. Wasson was able to drop some rations and a note explaining that he would return. He found a suitable landing area a few miles away, and he and his passenger, Joe Walsh, bushwhacked back to rescue the famished pair.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Liard River country and fly over the same terrain. In many ways, things have not changed during the passing decades. Even today, few people live north of Watson Lake, and I saw almost no traffic on the river despite the warm days of July. The seemingly endless forest and rugged hills are interrupted by a bright ribbon of water flowing swiftly by, much like the short summer that provides a brief interlude before winter returns. As you move upriver, the elevation rises, and the land becomes more rumpled. Several creeks are tributaries to the Liard, presenting natural barriers the men would have had to deal with on the hike north. The trees grow to the water’s edge, and deadfall fills the gaps. Walking through this country would be beyond difficult until the river freezes into a slippery highway.
This little-known story of tragedy and triumph has many lessons to offer. As I have dug deeper into the lives of those involved, one troubling question arises. There is a truism in aviation that one should always remain with the downed aircraft following an accident. But perhaps doing so is not such an easy choice.
So why would three supposedly experienced outdoorsmen attempt such an ill-conceived journey instead of remaining with their airplane and awaiting rescue? What was their calculus for staying or going? Logic and accepted wisdom say, “stay put.” Remaining with the airplane meant less energy expended and offered a chance that someone would spot them versus gambling everything in a desperate bid for warmth and safety.
Certainly, they knew that moving through the deep snow and timber without snowshoes would tax them terribly. No food and no shelter, with winter’s cold stealing what little stamina still exists. Despite having almost no relevant experience in such conditions, the misery of their circumstances seduced them into betting everything on going. Doing something, no matter the odds, felt better than spending another hour simply existing and enduring. So, they started upriver into the swirling storm with hunger gnawing and muscles trembling. But the little warmth generated by exertion was quickly stolen by the unrelentingly cold wind sweeping through the river valley. They also had no real idea how far the cache at Junkers Lake might be or how long it would take to reach it.
It was quickly evident they had chosen poorly, as the weather worsened. Struggling through deep drifts across such terrible terrain, cold and wet, exhaustion killing all progress, knowing to stop was to die but unable to move, they felt an infinite sadness coupled with regret. It was like being trapped on a rocky ledge high in the mountains without a rope; there was simply no way up or down. Even returning to their poor camp beside the airplane was impossible. The frigid beauty and deep silence mocked the torment of their fevered minds: “Why didn’t we stay and wait for rescue?”
Their tracks, like ghosts, faded from view, filled quickly from the falling snow until no record of their passing remained.
“As word of the missing travelers spread, a massive search was mounted. And as is often the case, the tragedy compounded when three of the searchers were themselves lost in a crash in poor weather along the B.C. coast.“
My friend Bill Rusk had a similar choice to make a few years ago. Bill was landing his float-equipped Super Cub in the Clark Fork River in Idaho when the aircraft suddenly and violently flipped over in the near-freezing water. Finding himself underwater, Bill was able to make his way out of the cockpit and climb onto the overturned floats. Shivering in the light breeze, facing the onset of hypothermia and bleeding from a head wound, he considered his options. He knew there was a road that paralleled the river and that if he could get to the shore, he should be able to get help from a passing motorist. The road was not visible in the surrounding forest, and Bill was not sure if it was on the east or the west bank. He also knew that if he chose wrong, he would likely die. Staying with the airplane was not an option because he was rapidly losing his battle with the cold. Soon, muscle coordination and consciousness would be gone. Stay or go? Left or right? Fortunately, as Bill desperately tried to choose, a vehicle appeared, spotted the wreckage, and stopped to assist. Bill, with the very last of his strength, swam to the shore and was rushed to the hospital.
The Burke party, trapped on the Liard, also had to decide. For a moment, try to imagine what they were going through as they contemplated that awful choice to go or to stay. The longer they delayed the attempt, the worse the weather would be. Each day without nourishment meant less strength for the journey.
For me, the question remains—what would any of us do? After all, it’s an easy call when you and I have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. We know that Wasson eventually found the abandoned airplane and later rescued the two survivors and that Bill saw the vehicle on the road and was saved. In both instances, a random roll of the dice of fortune intervened. While I have a hard time imagining the chaos, fear and confusion confronting someone in similar situations, I am uncomfortably aware that there often may be no good answer, no “right” choice.
Each of us has probably faced similar circumstances in our relationships, health, politics or careers where we confront problems with no obvious answers. Life is full of such conundrums and challenges. And in today’s world of instant experts who often pontificate about other pilots’ decisions via the megaphone of social media, even before the facts are known, we are quick to judge. Yet before we indignantly criticize another’s decision, I hope we might pause to consider the decider’s perspective. What were the choices? What was known at the time? What might I choose if I were there?
Sooner or later, we all will find ourselves on the shores of our own river. As we struggle to choose the best way forward out of our personal wilderness, let’s hope others will refrain from passing judgment too quickly.
But in the interest of making one tough choice slightly easier, if you ever make it to Cooper’s BarÂ·BÂ·Que, I recommend the beef ribs.
Read more “Wandering Skies” columns from Ken Wittekiend here.