Surprises in Life

Thirty two years ago I came to Spokane. I flew here from Portland, Oregon in a 1947 Luscombe. With me in the little two-seater was my wife and six month old son. As we lifted off from Evergreen Field, across the river from PDX, we looked at the Fujiyama like cone of Mt. Saint Helens. There was a wisp of gasses wafting skyward, much the same as it had been for the last six months. “You watch,” my wife said, “we’ll be up in Spokane and that thing will blow.”

“Nah,” I replied. “That thing’s been farting for the last six months and hasn’t done anything. I think it’s just gonna keep doing that.” She considered this for a second and then nodded.

“Probably right.” she said.

It was Saturday and a beautiful day. The skies were clear and the sun was shining. It was a beautiful day in May and a great day for the cross country trip up to Spokane where my wife’s family lived. We planned to go to an airshow in Sandpoint, Idaho on Sunday, flying back to Portland on Monday, We stopped for gas in Moses lake and then landed at Felts Field in Spokane after three hours of flight time. The family was glad to see us and was thrilled to meet our son.

Sunday morning we got up around seven thirty and went down to Felts. I checked the gas and we had about 90 minutes of fuel, more than enough for the twenty minute ride to Sandpoint and then back again. I figured I’d top it off when we got back in the late afternoon. Our arrival in Sandpoint was fortuitous, we got there just five minutes before the airport would close for the airshow. We were three times lucky; we go there before the field closed, it was a beautiful spring day, and the airshow was spectacular. The Canadian Warbirds were on display and did a flyover. The World War II airplanes were great to see. There were four different aerobatic shows, all of which were exciting. My wife and I gorged ourselves on hot dogs, milks shakes and caramel corn as we watched the show, toured the aircraft displays, and chatted with people we knew and people we just met. It was so great a day that we didn’t mind very much when they announced that the airshow was closing up two hours early, just before 3pm. They commented that Mount Saint Helens had exploded and that it might be difficult for some of the airshow visitors to get home, so they were shutting down early.

I threw my hat on the ground and stomped on it. “I can’t believe we missed it!” I shrieked. “I didn’t think it was going to erupt, not after so many false alarms!” Annoyed at missing the biggest airshow of all, we loaded up into the Luscombe to head back to Spokane. I gave thought to buying some gas, what with it slightly cheaper in Sandpoint than it was in Spokane. But I also saw the long line forming at the gas pump and decided to just go ahead and make for Felts. We still had 40 or so minutes of gas for a twenty minute flight. I kicked rudder and turned out of the gas line, taxied to the runway and took my turn taking off. We were five minutes in the air and just crossing over the peak of Mt Spokane when I looked out and saw the black line on the horizon. I called Wall Walla Flight watch on the radio and asked if they were showing thunderstorms to the west. They replied that there were no reports of TRW, but there was some blowing dust from the volcano. Three minutes after that we were ensconced in the leading edge of the ash cloud from the eruption.

There I was with my wife and infant son in an airplane with minimum gauges. I had a compass, an altimeter, airspeed indicator, and turn and bank indicator. Oh, I had fuel gauges, but they weren’t really showing anything, what with the low fuel level. The sky all around turned pitch black, leaving me unable to see the ground and unable even to see the sun. It was absolutely black. Using a penlight flashlight, I checked the charts and identified about where I was. I then started to reduce my altitude, hoping I could get low enough to perhaps spot landmarks and find my way. We flew for about ten minutes that way, totally unable to see. I used all of my skill flying a plane without flight instruments and no outside references. We were over the Rathdrum Prairie in the Spokane Valley. I gave thought to flying to Felts, remembering it was surrounded by city and had a large hill next to it. I thought about Couer d’Alene airport in Idaho. It was surrounded by open prairies and was a huge, former military field with long runways. I figured it for my best bet.

The sky had begun to lighten up. It was far from clear, but at an altitude of 100 feet from the ground I could make out roads and certain landmarks. I nearly collided with a 200 foot water tower as I searched for I-90, hoping to use the freeway to guide me to Couer d’Alene. It was a white knuckle flight all the way, but I managed to locate the town, and then the airport. Narrowly missing the barbed wire perimeter fence at CDA, my engine died from fuel starvation as I crossed over the runway threshold. I glided the short distance to landing. When the plane stopped, I got out and pushed it off the runway, just in case anyone else might try to land. It was still so dusty that we literally had to feel our way along, trying to find our way to the flight shack where we could phone my wife’s family to come get us. When we got fifty feet from the airplane, it disappeared completely. That’s how thick the air was.

The entire Spokane area, actually all of Eastern Washington, the Idaho panhandle, and a portion of Montana was closed down for a little over two weeks. All roads were closed to any except trips for supplies or emergencies. No air travel, no trains, no buses, no vehicle traffic. I was gone long enough that I was fired from my job. I was offered a better job in Spokane and decided to take it. On June 3rd we made the trip to Portland and packed up our things and returned to Spokane. The way I see it, I moved to Spokane on May 18th, 1980, the day that Mt. Saint Helens erupted. I’ve lived here ever since. I ended up starting a business and raising three children here, showing that one never knows what sort of turns life can take.