Bush pilots: Tragedy & Rescue at Cherry Lake

by Chick Beel

I recently read an article in a publication that referred to a rescue at Cherry Lake, For whatever reason, the article was not accurate or complete. In January of 1995 I began writing articles for The Ely Echo. The first one was published on February 6, 1995. The 26th article, titled Tragedy and Rescue at Cherry Lake was published on December 11, 1995.<BR><BR>This was a high risk rescue, Over the years, many rescuers have needed rescuing or a coroner. I used to refer to Pat Magie as my prize student because he was very sharp. What he did took a lot of courage and skill. As for Dr. Ciriacy, I believe he had a cast iron gut to sit there, in the dark, closing on a dead end at 117 feet a second.<BR><BR>As for me, my biggest hazard was probably the US Forest Service. In their eyes, my flight was completely illegal. I didn’t have authorization, and no radio contact. I had a passenger, Mr. Harristal, with me, and it was a night flight. I was the Chief Pilot at the time, and when someone asked for help, I responded. The FS, in their zeal to “keep me in my place,” put in rules that actually put lives at risk.<BR><BR>Besides the obvious risk to life and limbs for Mr. Harristal and me, I could have been responsible for the cost of the Beaver, and possible damage or death to the passenger, if an accident occurred. I would have lost my job, also. A high price to pay for trying to help someone, The foregoing comments explain why I was very perturbed to be left out of the Rescue article.<BR><BR>The following article is the one that was published on December 11, 1995.<BR><BR>It was 10 p.m. on Tuesday, the 20th day of August, 1963 when the phone rang. Pat Magie of Wilderness Wings was calling. He said a Scout was badly injured at Cherry Lake and asked if I could get him out. The leader had paddled out to seek help. A 17 year old had slid down a 20 foot incline, and then fell straight down 50 feet, head first, into a pile of granite slabs. He was removed from the rock pile and taken to the camp, where he was laid by the fire and wrapped in blankets.<BR><BR>I told Pat to hang on while I stepped outside to check the weather. It was calm, with a heavy overcast earlier. It was the same now, without a moon or any stars visible.. A totally black night. I told Pat I didn’t think it was possible to get in there because it was a small lake with hills all around. A 3 a.m. takeoff in the dark was the best I could think of, then orbit the lake and land at the earliest possible moment. At the Forest Service we were restricted to daylight hours only. The restriction had been ignored before, and this was certainly a time to do it again.<BR><BR>Pat had Dr. Ciriacy with him, and he said that probably would be too late. They had to go now. He asked me about Hanson Lake for size. The approach to Hanson from Knife Lake was lower, and he only had about 4,000 feet to get down and stop, but it was better by far than Cherry Lake. A large island prevented using all of Hanson.<BR><BR>The space used to let down below the treeline and to climb out on a missed approach, cut down the usable landing run to about 2,000 feet. This would allow about 17 seconds for the power landing. From a practical point of view, that could be a nerve wracking 17 seconds. It makes more sense to allow a few seconds for each dependent, and end up with 10 or 11 seconds.<BR><BR>Pat had guided for Bill Rom’s Canoe Country Outfitters for years, so he knew a lot about the lakes, but 80 MPH toward a dead end, in the dark is a rough detail. I suggested that he figure out his timing to his own capabilities, and stick to it exactly. If it was 10 seconds that he could handle, then he should get out instantly when the 10 seconds ended. He took off in his Cessna 180 with Dr. Ciriacy aboard, and headed for Hanson where he managed to land. He told me later that he was just adding power to pull up when he touched the water.<BR><BR>The race against time was underway. He taxied the shoreline using his landing light to locate the portage to Cherry Lake. They walked across, and shouted to the camp, about a half mile away, to come and pick them up. It took awhile to get the kids to come and get them because they didn’t realize that this was the help they needed. Pat and the Doc got to the camp at midnight, and, as I was told later, a few more minutes would have been too late.<BR><BR>Meanwhile, I stayed up the rest of the night without any way of knowing what was happening. I was getting nervous, pacing the floor, so I decided I had to get to Cherry Lake. I went to the hangar at 2:30 a.m. to prepare the plane. A man who had been trying to sleep in his car near the hangar, approached me, and asked if he could go with me. At first I said “No.” Why risk two people? He told me he was the leader of the boys, and he was totally distraught.<BR><BR>I quickly changed my mind, and said he could come with me. I fueled the Beaver and put the stretcher aboard, then we took off for Cherry Lake. About halfway there, I spotted the lights of Magie’s approaching 180. He needed some more supplies from the hospital I found out later, after I landed at Cherry. I knew there wasn’t any way he could be carrying a person with a back injury in that 180.<BR><BR>At Cherry Lake the problem was still there, a small lake with a high hill on the East approach, and it was in a black hole. The only light was the fire on the North side of the narrows. The fire served to mark the couple of hundred foot wide narrows for me, but to use it for anything other than that would be inviting vertigo. A single light can appear to be above, below, or at the same altitude, depending on the attitude of the plane. A single light is often worse than no light. I should mention that the landing light, on glassy water, can set up a glare that can be detrimental. I use it on initial approach to warn people on the lake, then I shut it off. If there is a wind and the light will pick up the waves without glare, I leave it on.<BR><BR>There was about 3,000 feet from the base of the hill to the narrows. The distances I am referring to on Cherry and Hanson were unknown to Pat and me that night. We were estimating from previous experiences, but I’ll tell you, it’s a helluva lot easier in the daytime. A normal approach and glide, and power landing wouldn’t get me down in time. I would use an approach that I used at West’s in 1952, but at West’s it was started from a lower altitude.<BR><BR>To be honest about it, I dreaded the idea of landing there. The rug pullers were never far away. With the lower stalling speed, and the ability to accelerate and climb faster, the Beaver was a better plane for this attempt than the Cessna 180. 1 figured if Magie and Dr. Ciriacy could put their butts on the line for a good reason, a Forest Service pilot should do the same.<BR><BR>The approach was started from the East at treetop level, with the landing light on. The speed was 60 MPH. When the edge of the hill was reached, power was reduced, and the nose pushed down until the speed reached 80 MPH. This gets rid of altitude quickly. At this point, the nose is raised to a landing attitude, with power, and stays there because the height above the water is unknown. Now the power is reduced again until the plane slows and begins to settle near stalling speed. Then power is added again. I call this a stepdown approach. A normal power landing would use up too much lake. If you keep the rate of descent to less than 300 feet per minute, you will be OK. If you are sinking too fast when you touch, you could be in trouble, but sometimes circumstances justify taking a chance. On the third step down, I touched the water in good shape with room to spare.<BR><BR>Dr. Ciriacy was waiting for Magie to return with neck and back braces before we could load the teen into the Beaver. The young man had a fractured skull and a broken back. On the way to town I looked at the unconscious teen in back, then leaned over and asked Doc if he was going to be all right. I was answered with a frown, and a slight shake of his head. I took that as a ‘no’ but I shouldn’t have asked.<BR><BR>I thought about the drowning victims I had hauled to Ely tied on the float of a Waco, a Stinson, a Cessna, a Beaver, etc. Some inside the Beaver.<BR><BR>If Magie and Dr. Ciriacy had listened to my thoughts on the chance for success, maybe the young man wouldn’t still be alive. I don’t know what his future would bring, but I always hoped that he would think it was worth the effort.<BR><BR>I didn’t get any static on this one, but the Forest Service tightened their control over pilot options, and at a later date, I caught hell for trying to save a man who had a heart attack. After all, why should a mere pilot play God? The Supervisor’s Office reserved that function for themselves.<BR><BR>Magie had some detractors in the FS, but he saved lives when no one else would, or could.<BR><BR>Pat Magie and Keith Harrington were two pilots you could count on to get things done without any fuss, or ulterior motive. They both flew some mighty tough flights without mishap. Perhaps it was the luck of the Irish.<BR><BR>I have often said that, on average, there were about six days a year when I would have preferred to be somewhere other than flying an airplane. This was one of those days.