“Lost in the Snow” | Chapter 6 | “Surviving Victory”

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6, “Lost in the Snow” (pages 105-109) of “Surviving Victory”

I circled over the “bergs” for maybe ten minutes, totally enthralled, before reluctantly pealing off toward the mainland.  And then I saw them …the dark, menacing clouds.  Those distant, once innocent clouds had moved in from the north and brought snow …dense snow …dead ahead on my course for Gander.  In Quebec I had flown in snow many times, so I just checked my compass and headed into it at a speed that I calculated would put me over Gander in about fifteen minutes.  In less than five minutes, however, poor visibility had forced me down to almost tree top level and, after a quick glance at my chart, I decided to head for Gander Bay on the north coast and then follow the river southwest to Gleneagles.  Gander Lake would then take me straight to the base.

The north coast of Newfoundland, it turns out, is even more ragged and frayed by islands, harbors and bays than my map indicated.  Flying at tree top level, head-on into a million white arrows, made it impossible to distinguish Gander Bay from a myriad of look-alike bays.  After three or four futile west-east attempts, I gave up and turned south where, it appeared, I could pick-up the tracks of the Newfoundland Railway.  The map showed it meandering crookedly from St. John’s on the east coast across the island past Gander to Corner Brook on the west.               

There was another small hitch however.  The tracks, narrow gauge and buried about fifty feet deep in dense pine forests, were invisible from the air even at a throttled back, gas-saving 120 mph.  On repeated north-south course changes I missed the track each time and now, damn it, I had to face the dreaded, long-delayed truth …I didn’t know where the hell I was …and the fuel gauge needle was quivering and banging against the big E.  “If I don’t get this baby down bloody soon,” I thought, “those spiky branches will be cradling my dead body.”  And then, like a miracle, a patch of barren, treeless muskeg appeared off my starboard wing.  Saved!  I dived on it, did a fly-by to check for boulders on the long up-slope, then yanked her around in a tight 360, dropped the seat, throttled all the way back, slammed the canopy back, yanked the harness strap tighter and cut the ignition. 

TF-X wanted to sink fast but I pulled her nose up, up, up until the tail wheel hit with a thunderous rumble and then all three tons of her slammed onto the frozen turf like a sledgehammer.  The metal blades of the still churning prop dug in and I ducked as big chunks of muskeg thudded against the inch thick windscreen and shot past my head.  Clouds of steam rose from the meeting of snow on hot engine and, as we slewed and skidded to a halt, I banged the inside of my fist against the quick-release locks on harness and ‘chute and scrambled over the port side onto the wing and into the snow as fast as I could.  Crouching there, heart pounding, I expected signs of fire or explosion …a minute passed …nothing.  All was quiet …except for old TF-X sitting there …sizzling.  “By God,” I said to myself unbelieving, “I’m down …and in one piece.”        

When my breathing evened out a bit, I started slogging up the hill for a panoramic view of my surroundings.  At the top, through the blowing falling snow, I looked out over a giant patch of wind swept tundra. The silence was total. There was no picturesque hunter’s cabin with smoke rising from a chimney, no trails, no footprints, not a sign of life, man nor beast; the perfect setting for deep, deep reflection.      

Behind me, two hundred feet down the slope, TF-X lay on her belly … prop blades twisted …wings all but hidden in the snow and, with the intermittent wisps of steam rising from under her engine, she looked like some wounded and exhausted beast, gasping out her final few breaths.  With no living creature in sight, I suppose I should have felt lonely and afraid.  Strangely, I didn’t.  The true measure of my dilemma perhaps hadn’t yet struck home, but for whatever reason, standing atop that wind swept height, I remember only the sensation of total and absolute freedom, a freedom of almost spiritual proportions, arising out of the slowly evolving realization that for first time in my life there was no one here to answer to, no one here to point a finger, to criticize, to blame, to pass judgment; no one for me to measure up to.  I was light-headed …almost weightless.  At last, it seemed, I was totally unblemished … completely liberated … immaculately flawless!  Like …death, perhaps.  Yes …like death.  Could this grand vision of perfection be the crowning allure of …death?

Wind driven snow suddenly scorched my cheek and once again I was standing on a barren hill in the wintry emptiness of Newfoundland.  But I was not alone.  Far from it.  There, down the slope was TF-X waiting for my return. Shuffling through the deepening snow to her side I gave her nose a couple of loving pats.  God, was I grateful that she had suffered only minor injuries.  For two hours she had responded instantly to my every command, took all the punishment of banging her down on this frozen turf and now she was going to protect me from the worst of the cold.

Settling down in the cockpit, coupe-top shut tight against the wind, I was confident that tomorrow the gang would be up searching for me and before night fall a ski equipped Norseman would pick me up.  So I wasn’t dressed for sub-zero weather.  I could easily survive one night.  And food?  Well food would just have to wait.

Along about 15:30 hours, the final vestiges of day slipped below the line of trees off  my starboard wing, but before the cockpit was in total darkness, I plugged in my radio jack, flipped the toggle to “ON,” and with the mike held close, pressed the transmit button.

“This is Hurricane TF-X calling,” I said, “Hurricane TF-X calling Gander Tower.  I’ve landed wheels-up on a stretch of barren muskeg and I’m uninjured. Please notify my squadron.  Gander Tower, this is TF-X.”  Releasing the transmit button I waited.  Five minutes passed …nothing, so I tried again.  Another long wait and still …only silence.  I repeated the message three more times and was on the verge of giving up when a clear voice in my headphones suddenly shattered the silence.  

“This is RCAF Station, Rimouski, Quebec,” said the voice.  “Gander has been alerted that you are down.  Listen carefully and follow these instructions. Starting at 2300 hours through 0200 hours transmit your call sign …TFX …slowly, four times, every hour on the hour. Rimouski, Halifax and Gander will tune to your frequency and triangulate your position.  Do you understand?”

Did I understand?  You’re damned straight I understood.  “Roger,” I answered, “and thank you, my friend, for being there.”  I flicked the receiver to “OFF” and the stillness closed in again.  The illuminated face of my Omega, my prize, purchased at a pawn shop long ago when I was working for Bent Denman, showed the time to be 16:30 hours, so I had a long wait ahead of me, but there certainly wouldn’t be any problem in staying awake …not in this Siberian climate.  I sat there for a little while contemplating my good fortune, and then it occurred to me …how strange that Rimouski, hundreds of miles due west on the St. Lawrence River, should pick up my transmission instead of much closer listening stations in Gander, Goose Bay or Sydney.  Was this an indication of a flaw in the system?  I worried about that possibility, but not for long …the cockpit was frigid …the idea of wrapping myself up in the ‘chute interfered.  No, better not I decided, mustn’t give in yet.  Instead, I massaged my numbing feet and tried not to think of the dumb mistakes I’d made.

At 2300, 2400, 0100 and 0200 hours. I transmitted my call sign four times as instructed.  About ten minutes after the final transmission the voice from Rimouski cut through the blackness again with good news.

“Your transmissions came through loud and clear,” he said.  “The three beacons were able to get a solid fix on your position and, weather permitting, food and warm clothing will be dropped to you at first light.  Sleep well.”

Fantastic!  First thing in the morning they’ll be here, better get some sleep.  Changing my mind about the warmth from the ‘chute, I got the seat pack into my lap, pulled the rip-cord, buried myself in the yards of silk that filled the cockpit and dozed off, comforted by the knowledge that come next nightfall, I’d be sleeping between sheets.

The cold woke me on day two, shortly after 0700 hours.  It had stopped snowing and a faint light low in the east was trying to penetrate the ceiling of low, gray clouds that had the depressing look of permanence.

Well, there went the possibility of food and warm clothes this morning.  No matter how accurate last night’s fix, nobody in his right mind would be flying in this muck.  But wait a minute, I thought, if I’m not too far from Gander, maybe somebody could get in here on skis.  I decided to call Rimouski …reached over to flick the radio on …and then I saw it … the toggle …turned down …in the “ON” position.  I stared, unbelieving.  Christ!  I flicked it “OFF”, then holding my breath, flicked it back “ON”, waiting for the reassuring hum.  Silence.  I flicked it again …then again …and again.  Dead!

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