Five Hundred Feet Above Alaska

On the trip over, he’d cruised comfortably at two thousand feet despite the overcast sky.  But conditions had deteriorated.  Now he cruised at just over eleven hundred feet, creeping in and out of the base of the cloud deck above him.   A thin layer of ice had formed over his windscreen and, undoubtedly, over the rest of his plane.  

“Crap,” he mumbled to himself.  This was not good.  He eased down to an even thousand feet.

                  At this altitude, things seemed all right, apart from the driving snow.  He grimaced, going over his limited options in his head.  He could always head for St. Mary’s.  It was about halfway between him and Bethel, and it had a nice long runway.  Better yet, it had a pilot base and would offer him a place to stay.

                  The radio interrupted his train of thought. “Speed Ex Six-Seven-Pop, you out there?” This frequency was reserved for communications between the pilots and the company.

                  “Roger.  That you, Tim?”

                  “That’s a roger.  Go to the alternate.”  This was Tim’s way of discretely telling his friend to change to a prearranged frequency, allowing them privacy for conversation.

                  Rembrandt switched to the new channel.  “You on, Tim?”

                  “Sure am. Where’re you at?”

                  A glance at his altimeter told Rembrandt that he had dropped to seven hundred feet.  He was once more starting to lick the bottom of the scud layer, picking up more ice.  Biting his lower lip, he let the plane down another hundred feet.

                  “I’m at six hundred over the Yukon.   About ten minutes out of St. Mary’s.  I think I’ll go there and call it a night.  Where are you?”

                  “I just left Mountain Village.  John gave me an extra section there, but I’m with you. Bethel’s out of the question.  I should be on the ground in St. Mary’s in about four or five minutes.”

                  “What’s the weather like there?” The temperature in Rembrandt’s plane registered twenty-five degrees.  No matter.  Sweat broke out across the back of his neck as a chill ran through his spine.  He strained to see through the frosted window.   Even with the defroster on high, he could see through only a small fraction of the forward windscreen.  Visual reference was out.

                  Tim grunted.  “Not good.”  Concern over his own situation lay heavy in his voice.  “Where are you, Remmy?”

                  “Back side of the hills.  I still have to go around them, around Mountain Village and then back to St. Mary’s.”  Once again, he strained for a reference point.       

                  “Sounds like more than ten minutes.”

                  “Yeah, well, I’m debating going through the pass in the hills.”

                  “How’s the weather out there?”

                  Looking straight ahead he couldn’t see anything.  Out of the side window, he could barely make out the hills.  His mind made up, he banked the plane violently to the left, abruptly changing direction.

                  “I think it’s better over the hills.  I’m turning direct to St. Mary’s.”

                  “Stand by,” Tim replied. 

                  Rembrandt headed towards the low rolling hills, straining to see out of his iced forward windscreen.  It was now snowing heavily, reducing visibility to less than half a mile.  Every couple of seconds Rembrandt kicked over the rudder, sending the plane into a momentary sideways skid, which provided him with a brief glance of the small mountains ahead.  His altitude seemed all right, but there was no question that he was low.

                  “Remmy, you still there?” 

                  Even in the freezing temperature of the cockpit, Rembrandt felt sweat start to plaster his shirt to his back.  His hands trembled, adrenaline coursing through his veins.  He was in big trouble—and he knew it.

                  “Remmy?” Tim tried again.

                  Rembrandt grunted.  “Hold on.”

                  “Where are you?  I just touched down in St. Mary’s.  It’s coming down like crazy.  I can’t see the hills at all from here.  Are you following the river?”

                  Rembrandt looked at his altimeter.  Six hundred feet.  He should be higher.  He nudged forward the knob controlling the power, and the altimeter climbed.  Again, the world faded from existence.  He pressed the push-to-talk switch and told Tim, “I’m over the hills.  Can’t make out a thing.  I should be there soon.”

                  “Remmy, turn around and follow the river.  Go to Mountain Village.  You’ll be there in no time.  Don’t take any stupid chances.”

                  The only response was silence.