Then there was the issue of having to heat the aircraft before it could fly.
As I was making my case for refusing this mission, other family members pulled the injured lady to the schoolhouse on a toboggan.
I could see this was a very serious injury.
The ax had been sharp and the glancing blow had struck her foot just behind the big toe and opened a gash to the heel.
These people had no first aid training, and the wound was not even bound.
Blood squirted over the snow, revealing a blood trail all the way from the nursing station.
Charlie translated their frustrated conversation and told me that the nurse’s assistant at the station was not capable of treating this wound.
She had sent them to me. It was time for a decision: if I flew the lady to Wabowden, she would live.
If I didn’t take the trip, she would probably die.
At that moment, I never considered that I might not make it to Wabowden, or that we both might die.
I made the decision to fly. We had moved to this remote Indian community after being hired by the superintendent of the Frontier School Division.
Carol taught grades one through three in the church next to the school.
I went over to advise her of the situation.
We moved the kids from the church and put them in the school building.
Carol had some first aid training, and she wrapped the wound tightly with strips of sheets.
She must have put 10 layers of wrapping around the foot attempting to stop the bleeding.
I eyed the injured foot as Carol prepared the young woman for her flight.
The dressing was already soaked with blood. Charlie helped me get the Citabria heated and ready for the flight.
At 30 F.
Below, this was not a quick process.
After each landing, I would raise the toe of the ski and slide a log under it to prevent the ski from freezing to the snow.
This also made it easier to slide a stovepipe and elbow in the hole under the back of the engine cowling.
Charlie and I installed the stovepipe and started the propane weed burner.
I had learned this skill years earlier.
I could slide the weed burner in or out of the stove pipe opening and find a point where it would draw just right, pushing heat to the back of the engine. At this temperature, the moment the warm air hit the cold metal parts, everything turned white with thick frost.
This was also true for the metal inside the engine.
The piston walls gained about a half inch of frost on both sides, and the aircraft would not start until the inside walls were dry.
When the frost had melted and the metal appeared dry, I covered the engine cowling with old blankets to hold the heat in.
I turned down the weed burner so I didn’t get the engine too hot and melt some wires or plastic parts.
I left one bug eye in the engine cowling open so the moisture could escape.
This process couldn’t be hurried, and considering the injury, I kept my eye on the deteriorating weather and decreasing visibility. It seemed like a few hours, but in reality it probably took about one.
This was not the time to start the engine before it was ready, and I hoped it would start.
If it didn’t start at the first attempt, the frost inside the pistons would turn to water.
If the water hadn’t completely evaporated during the heating process, the moisture would fowl the spark plugs and they would have to be removed and cleaned before the next start attempt.
I had learned that the inside of the engine was dry when I could find no wet area on the outside of the engine.
I gave it about ten more minutes. When it was ready, Charlie and I removed the logs from under the skies.
We flung aside the old blankets and I reached through the door and primed the engine.
I turned the mag switch to both, ran the throttle forward and back several times, reached from behind the propeller and swung it down.
It popped and exploded to a roar.
We would fly! Carol and Charlie helped load the old Cree woman and the patient.
As I climbed into my pilot’s seat, someone handed in a baby wrapped in a blanket.
The baby was laid in the luggage area behind the back seat. “ I’m not bringing that baby on this trip.” I protested.
I was informed that the injured lady was the baby’s mother and there was no one to nurse the baby while she was gone to Wabowden.
I realized it was hopeless to protest. Moments later, I started my take-off on the very spot where the Citabria had been parked.
I had less than a mile of visibility and only three years of experience as a bush pilot.
As long as nothing changed and I didn’t miss a turn in direction, we would arrive in Wabowden in about an hour.
In those days, there were no radios or radio aids of any kind.
I had learned to navigate by using a continuous stream of landmarks.
As long as the landmark stream was unbroken and I had good visibility down to the ground, I could make it to my destination. The Citabria was airborne in a few hundred feet, and I climbed to about 200 feet altitude.
I went down the Nelson River to the first fork, and then took a slight left turn where I paralleled the predominant tree line on top a ridge.
This heading took me to the burn forest area.
At the end of the burn forest area, I made another slight left turn that took me to the south end of an unnamed lake.
From that landmark, I navigated by using a drainage with heavy trees along its banks.
I leveled the wings and waited.
In a few minutes I crossed the railroad tracks that led to Churchill, then a gravel road, and an immediate 45-degree left turn. If I was correct in my bush navigation, I would now be on a long final for landing at the local airdrome.
I was downwind, and that was never good for landing, but with a 20-knot wind and low visibility, it was safer to land downwind than to try to maneuver for a landing into the wind.
Visibility was now less than one-half mile, and the end of the runway was just coming into view.
There was a ski-equipped Beaver aircraft lifting off about mid-runway.
Not good! I hadn’t allowed for another fool out flying in this crap. I banked hard right and he went under me with two layers of paint to spare.
I banked hard left and could see him disappear into the snow showers.
With the runway ahead of me again, I chopped the power and headed for the landing area.
The plane slid along the frozen snow right up to the dock area just as if I had planned it that way.
But, in fact, I hadn’t even seen the dock area when I had first touched down. Cross Lake didn’t have a radio that worked that day, so no one in Wabowden knew I was bringing in an injured person.
I bailed out of the plane, ran to the road, and flagged down a car.
In a few minutes, several cars and people showed up to help me get the young lady out of the plane.
Everyone was speaking Cree and hurrying about.
In less than two minutes I stood alone next to my airplane with not a soul in sight. I gave no thought to anything but going home.
The weather was still one-half mile visibility, but I knew the way.
Down the runway, and I was off: I climbed to about 200 feet, made my 45-degree right turn, watched the gravel road go by, and then saw the railroad tracks.
In just a few minutes, I picked up a tree-lined drainage and then turned toward the south end of the unnamed lake.
But something was wrong! The drainage didn’t look right.
In addition to that, I had learned over the years how to read sunlight rays, and the rays’ angle to my flight path seemed wrong. I had paralleled the wrong drainage and I knew it, but was I north or south of my desired flight path? The old-style whiskey compass was almost worthless in these northern latitudes.
I picked a point on my right wing tip, turned to half of that heading, and waited to see if I recognized any landmark.
The rays of sunlight seemed about right but I could only see straight down.
I saw nothing familiar to me.
It was about time for the sun to go below the horizon.
I knew I had less than an hour to make it to Cross Lake before dark.
I also knew if I lost twilight, I would have to find a place to land, regardless of my location. I had no IFR instruments in this aircraft and needed good visibility to stay on course.
I tried not to remember that all the survival gear was removed earlier to get the passengers on board.
I thought about turning back to Wabowden.
But where was back? It was more likely I would miss the small village if I turned back than that I would miss Cross Lake if I continued.
I chose to trust my instincts and push on. Well, Lord, it’s just me and You, and this is looking like a serious situation.
I’ll do what I believe is best but, whatever the result, it’s all Yours now.
Whatever the outcome, I believe in You. Relying on my gut feelings and the angle of the sun’s rays, I fixed my heading, leveled my wings and prayed for Cross Lake to appear below me in about 40 minutes.
Thinking about the decisions I had made, I began to regret some of them.
I hadn’t been forced to take this trip.
The woman might have survived her injury.
So, what had made me feel responsible for the life of this woman? Was I a hero or a crass fool? Who had pulled the sleeping bags out of the plane? How could I have been so stupid to take a flight without survival gear? It had seemed like the right thing to do, but now I questioned every aspect of this flight.
A guy can beat himself up at a time like this, and that may be good.
When a pilot makes a poor decision and survives, the experience causes him to make better choices the next time. It was becoming dark.
I had not seen a recognizable landmark for the entire flight.
The end of the day was near.
I could only see straight down or slightly forward.
Visibility was less than half a mile.
Flying just above the trees, I was able to see some water — a river or lake below.
I was shocked to see a black horse pulling a sleigh loaded with firewood.
It passed underneath me in a direction about 50 degrees to my right.
A horse and a sleigh going in that direction meant that someone must live in that direction.
I banked to the sleigh’s heading and followed the body of frozen water for several minutes.
I throttled back, slowed down, and prepared to land.
Wherever I was, I had to land.
Only minutes remained before total darkness would make a landing impossible.
Suddenly, I saw a light! It was dim, but it was there.
There was another light and then another. Good Lord, I’m over the Nelson River and there’s Cross Lake.
I chopped the throttle, and slapped the frozen river with the skis.
I taxied about a mile to the very spot I had left earlier that day.
I flung open the door and wanted to jump out in victory.
Then I realized that it wasn’t my victory.
My knees were shaking.
My limbs were too weak to move.
I slumped over the stick and trembled.
I would have missed Cross Lake if I had not seen the horse and sleigh. Thank you, Lord.
I wouldn’t have made it here without You.
I sat in the plane for some time trying to regain my composure.
No one came to meet me.
No one heard me arrive.
When I was able to walk up the hill, I made my way to the house and stumbled inside. Carol looked relieved, “Honey, I’m so glad that you’re home.” She reached out and gave me a warm hug.
I leaned against her for support.
I still felt shaky. “You should be glad I made it.
I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for that horse and sleigh about five miles west of us.
If I hadn’t have seen them, I’d be lost somewhere in the bush.” “ I knew you’d make it home,” Carol assured me. “I was praying for you.” The next morning was Saturday and at about 10:00 Charlie Sinclair was knocking on my door.
He came in and sat in his usual place, the big over-stuffed chair in the living room. “I so glad you take that injured lady to Wabowden.
She in big trouble.” “That’s okay, Charlie.
She’ll be better soon.
They’ll take good care of her at the hospital.” “Weather real bad for flying.
You have trouble getting back to Cross Lake?” “I almost didn’t make it.
I would have missed Cross Lake if that horse and sleigh hauling firewood hadn’t appeared just in time.”
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