02) The Flying Tigers
At long last, spring arrived in King Salmon, Alaska. And with it came a drastic dose of northern reality. Sitting a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, April and May aren’t months of softly blowing breezes and frisky crocus or tulip bulbs baring their splendor. Oh no, spring in Alaska is better known as ‘Break-Up’.
Now, those of you at the top of the Lower 48 will know what I mean. But at that point my experience with spring existed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nothing had prepared me for the relentless sea of mud, broken ice, and gritty slush that drenched the entire outdoors. The only upside of the big-thaw was the fact that it heralded the onset of the fishing season and everyone looked forward to the promised change in pace.
Once the last traces of snow finally disappeared, all 500 diversion-starved residents hovered on the edge of anticipation. Fortunately for me that year, excitement came early in the form of a Flying Tiger cargo plane enroute from Japan to Anchorage. She was losing fuel fast and options for an emergency landing were limited. King Salmon was it. This was big news.
There was one small problem, however. The airport wasn’t built to handle a plane the size of a 747. Air taxis, charters, bush pilots, and the occasional mid-grade cargo plane, all ran the economical runway just fine. But a Flying Tiger guzzled clearance faster than jet fuel, and King Salmon was in short supply. A minor detail that didn’t stop the distressed plane from landing.
That daredevil pilot dropped his wheels onto the concrete runway and slammed every brake he had. Smoke billowed as rubber tires disintegrated and the plane skidded to the very edge of doom, only to stop with her nose punched through a chain-link fence used to keep the runway critter free. And that was just the beginning of the adventure.
For three days the pilots stayed at the King Ko. New parts were flown in to repair the tires, the fuel line, and the fence. They also needed a special piece of equipment to turn the 747 around. And at one time or another, the entire town of Naknek and King Salmon made it out to watch the progress. They discussed every aspect of the plane’s features, grilled the pilots, and best of all, began a betting pool on the likelihood of the plane clearing the runway when it came time for take-off.
And that day finally arrived when a crack team of specialized pilots landed. Now, word on the street about Flying Tiger pilots – they’re fearless. Their cargo line was formed in 1945 by a group of returning WWII pilots and they adopted their name from a renowned fighter unit. Their motto – Anything, Anytime, Anywhere – made them the air cargo industry’s foremost carrier until bought out by FedEx in 1989. And on that late spring day in Alaska, they proved their reputation.
An enthusiastic crowd had gathered on the street in front of the King Ko and last minute bets were soaring. You see, the Inn sat directly in the path at the end of the runway. The odds of that 747 having enough concrete to get airborne before taking out the Inn, well, let’s just say they weren’t in the Inn’s favor. We were evacuated. Not that anybody was still inside. We were all out in the street with the rest of the town, anticipating the train-wreck that was sure to happen.
And when the plane’s engines fired to life, a ripple of excitement surged through the crowd. Within minutes the engines were wound tight and screaming, but the plane refused to move. The pilot had the brakes locked as he strained the engines to a deafening fever-pitch. When he finally let go, that quivering plane blasted into action and rocketed toward a sure-fire collision. The entire crowd held their breath as she ate up the concrete.
Then a miracle happened. Just as the 747 ran out of runway her nose lifted. The new wheels scarcely cleared the fence as the big plane hurtled over the top of the Inn. Cheers and cat-calls erupted from the crowd as the Tiger shot skyward with a mighty roar. We all watched in fascination and not one person left the street until that plane vanished from sight.
But the party had just begun. Drinks were in order and many headed for the still-intact King Ko lounge. The celebration that followed lasted well into the night as bets were paid and stories rehashed. We toasted the expertise of the pilots, the endurance of the Boeing 747, but mostly, we toasted the fact that life had returned to that little corner of Alaska.
You see, that daring Flying Tiger did more than energize the town; it set the tone for an eventful summer. Within days of the plane’s spectacular feat the first fishing boats arrived in Bristol Bay and the population of King Salmon and Naknek began its annual climb. The seemingly endless winter was over and the days were swinging into action.
At long last, things were finally getting interesting.