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Devils Canyon: Near Death Aircraft Rescue

Iliamna Alaska
The friends I have on this site have been telling me for years that I should write a book. The book is getting close to completion so I thought I would share a chapter here.It involves two different Supercubs and a Helio Courier.The most dangerous flight of my flying career and my proudest aviation accomplishment.
FromNo Sequel to LifeFrom the Heart of a Bush PilotBy Jerry Jacques, Alaska Master Guide #110 & CS Norwood© 2023 Rescue! July 1995​
Deep in the Alaska wilderness, the glacier fed upper Susitna River plunges into the depths of Devils Canyon. This stretch of the Big Susitna is considered the Mt. Everest of whitewater, and I had joined the Timex Kayaking Expedition. Attempting to run a torturous left side Devils Creek Class VI route that had never been successfully accomplished, I became yet another victim, 60 seconds from certain death, when a helicopter pilot rescued me.I promised my young son I would never again try to run Devils Canyon.
Six weeks later​
From the village of Talkeetna, I had transported a three-man kayak expedition planning to run Devils Canyon. It was my third trip in N4319Z, a 160 HP Piper Super Cub, landing on a tiny gravel bar in the middle of the Susitna River with Bill Overington (AKA Buckwheat), Michael Kemstead (AKA Mikey K), and Bill Quish (AKA Bill Q or Q), all three expert whitewater kayakers. Their plan was to kayak downriver through Devils Canyon, then, after exiting the canyon, camp at a remote gold mine where their friend Connie had camping gear waiting.

As I was watching them disappear downriver, I thought of my recent failed attempt to kayak this river and of the people who risked their lives saving me, after that near-death experience in Devils Canyon, I knew I would never again be on that river.As soon as they were out of sight, I flew back home to Talkeetna.

Bill, Mikey, and Buckwheat had made it part way through the deep gorge's notorious Class 6 whitewater when Buckwheat got into real trouble, losing his kayak, and having to swim for his life. Through heroic efforts, his teammates managed to pull Buckwheat out of the raging torrent. Now soaking wet, stuck in the canyon with no tents and no sleeping bags with very little food, they had a cold night to look forward to. Their adventure was now only about survival. Bill and Mikey still had their kayaks, so it was up to them now to figure out how to get their buddy rescued. In the morning, with Buckwheat’s kayak lost, Bill and Mikey set out to kayak down the extreme whitewater for help. Buckwheat had nothing but his wetsuit, life jacket, helmet, and a few power bars.

It was late evening when Bill and Mikey showed up in Talkeetna looking glum and without Buckwheat, they explained the situation to me, and it didn’t sound good. Buckwheat had hoped to climb out of the canyon and make it to an emergency extraction point where he could clear the brush off an old overgrown airstrip to make it useable again, but he had been alone in Devils Canyon now for two rainy nights, with temperatures that can hover at or below the freezing mark in September.

Bill, Mikey, and I immediately put together an airdrop package containing a sleeping bag food, large tarp, axe, and machete, loading everything into the Helio Courier N295JA on floats. It took me about 30 minutes to fly out to the overgrown airstrip. Visibility was diminishing quickly now as evening was turning to night. It was getting hard to see, but still, there was definitely no sign of Buckwheat! I made the airdrop anyway hoping that, even though I couldn’t see him, I was hoping he would hear me, see my plane make the equipment drop and find the gear. After the airdrop, I did not have enough daylight left to return to Talkeetna. Diverting to Fog Lake for the night. Fogged in the next morning with takeoff impossible, my return to Talkeetna was delayed.

By the time the fog cleared it was 10:45 AM, and I immediately got into the air. My mission was to go back to see if Buckwheat had made it to the airstrip yet. As soon as I got airborne, the radio in my plane came alive. “N295JA. Are you out their Jerry?” It was pilot Jay Hudson and Bill looking for me since I had not returned the night before. Jay told me he was now in route to the abandoned airstrip to check on Buckwheat and drop him a radio. My plane low on gas, I returned to Talkeetna. Jay and Bill discovered Buckwheat was not at the airstrip. After some time searching the canyon in Jay’s Super Cub, they found Buckwheat, but he was nowhere near the airstrip or the survival gear. The canyon proved to be impossible to climb out of.

Still trapped inside of Devils Canyon with no food or sleeping bag and unable to climb out, Buckwheat had returned to the same place Bill and Mikey had left him. Jay flew low and airdropped to him a radio. After 3 cold wet nights with no gear the stranded kayaker was now in serious trouble; hypothermia was setting in. A helicopter rescue was the only way to get Buckwheat out of the canyon alive. Jay radioed his dad, Cliff, who called the Alaska State Troopers requesting a helicopter for the rescue. Cliff Hudson, the legendary glacier pilot from Talkeetna, came to me with the update. With a helicopter dispatched to rescue Buckwheat, I was relieved and knew Buckwheat would soon be home safe. After a quick lunch, I went back to work. Dropping off rafters at Stephan Lake.

While in route to Stephan Lake, though, I learned from Jay on my aircraft radio that the state trooper’s two helicopters were delayed with rescues in a different part of the state—no helicopter was available to rescue the stranded kayaker. It would be another day or two before the troopers could go after Buckwheat. The mountain weather was closing in fast with the fog rolling back down the river. Before the troopers would arrive, the canyon would again be hidden under a blanket of fog. I thought to myself that he might not survive one more night and defiantly not two. Alaska nights are long in mid-September and daylight hours are short with little warmth. The freezing cold, the wet, the exhaustion, the fear of being trapped and alone deep inside the canyon, not to mention the danger of grizzly attack could lead a man to lose hope, and as hope dies, so does the man. A hopeless man can give up altogether or make reckless decisions which often lead to deadly outcomes.

In my mind, with the unforgiving wilderness he was trapped in, I knew Buckwheat would surely die if not rescued soon. I landed at Stephan Lake, dropped off my load of rafting gear and discussed the situation with raft guide Jim Hendricks. Jim agreed that BW could not survive much longer. “Can you land anywhere to get to him?” Jim asked. “It’s remotely possible that a landing could be done in the river, but it would be extremely dangerous,” I told him. Jim offered to come in the plane with me to help rescue Buckwheat. I knew that if I tried to land it would be very risky and simply was not willing to also risk Jim’s life. I told Jim that I needed to do this alone. He said to at least take his wetsuit and a lifejacket. I agreed, so he quickly stripped off his wetsuit, handed me a lifejacket, and wished me God speed and good luck.

Wearing Jim’s wetsuit and lifejacket I took off from Stephan Lake and flew straight to Devils Canyon. Jay Hudson had already somehow flown his Super Cub low enough in the canyon to make the successful airdrop of the radio. I knew the only way this could have been done was that he actually had flown inside the narrow canyon no more than 50 feet above the river. I was amazed! I thought that part of the canyon was too narrow to possibly take a plane through, but Jay had actually done it successfully. With that information, I reckoned it was possible to get my Helio Courier float plane down into the canyon, close in on that river and maybe—just maybe—by God’s grace, I could land on the Susitna and snatch Buckwheat out of there. I ran through the plan in my head over and over. I pictured the whole thing happening at lightning speed, smooth as glass. Buckwheat would be ready as the plane swooped in and landed heading upstream into the current. He’d run to the plane, jump in, we’d turn around on a dime and takeoff downstream. Piece of cake? Perhaps!

I had been rescued by a helicopter pilot who had risked his life saving me in this very canyon. I have a dept that can only be repaid if I am willing to help someone else in dire need. I can’t explain this any better, but people who have been saved by someone who risked their life know the feeling of eternal indebtedness that comes with being rescued yourself. I was scared to death at the possibility of being back in the river, swimming in the waters of Devils Canyon, but this time it could be inside of a wrecked, upside-down airplane. No matter how I envisioned the rescue, this was the picture my mind hung up on.

It was a very long 15-minute flight back to the canyon rim, with lots of time to reflect. I sure wished my gut would line up with my plan, but I wasn’t exactly feeling it. As I flew over that section of the canyon circling above the rim, trying to radio Buckwheat—no response. Talk is cheap, I thought to myself. The weather was closing in, and I had to decide. Fly down into the canyon or go home. Logic told me to GO HOME. The giant knot in my gut told me to definitely GO HOME. But something better deep inside me said I had to get Buckwheat out.

I was scared, but it was now or never. He had already spent 3 nights trapped in the gorge, wet, with no fire and no food. I could see him. He was not moving much or very fast and was still not responding on the radio to my calls. I figured he was hypothermic. I made another pass. The bright yellow Helio Courier with its black stripes was equipped with PK 3500-C floats. The spot where Buckwheat was trapped was deep in the canyon. The current looked to be moving about 20 miles per hour. The waves were two to three feet high. Devils Canyon is a notorious whitewater stretch on the upper Susitna River bounded on both sides by steep walls and cliffs. The only thing going in my favor was that the canyon was fairly straight for about 800 yards, and the wind was calm.

I would land headed upstream toward Buckwheat who was stranded on a small gravel bar just below some rapids at the far end of my river runway. I was going to need every bit of those 800 yards to take off and get above the narrow spot named Screaming Lefthand Turn. I thought it was possible to pull off this rescue. If things did not go perfectly, I would crash in the middle of Devils Canyon. I figured I might survive the crash but then have to escape from the wrecked plane that would be upside-down in the river. I had my seat belt tightened and was wearing the lifejacket and wetsuit. I could not buckle my shoulder harness over the bulky lifejacket. I felt that if I were again forced to swim for my life, the lifejacket was more important that the shoulder harness. There was no going home now. I had to put all doubt out of my mind and be 100 percent focused on the landing that I decided I would now attempt.

I am in the moment, concentrating on the job at hand. I set 20-degree flaps, half power, start descending at 1400 feet per minute, descending below the canyon rim, at the rapid known as Screaming Lefthand Turn. Only feet above the rock walls I set full flaps, chop the power. Two-hundred feet above the river, the waves seem to be growing to enormous size. They now look to be four- or five-feet tall. Five feet above the tops of the huge waves, I add power, then let her settle gently at first, just gently skipping on the wave tops. Slowly, I reduce power to 50%. Suddenly I crash through a wave and come to a violent stop. On impact, I’m pitched forward and upwards, slamming my head so hard, I see stars for an instant. I feel terror and fight to stay conscious.

When my vision clears, I realize the plane is being swept backward, even with half power. Quickly, I add power to three-quarter power, but I am still going backward. I add full power and slowly start moving forward. Now every wave I crash through seems to explode as it covers the windshield. Forward visibility is almost nonexistent, and I have to look out the side windows for reference. Using full power, I maneuver upriver past Buckwheat. One-hundred feet past Buckwheat, there is a small eddy that I aim for. The water is calmer there. When I power upriver past the startled Buckwheat, I yell out the open door. “You’ve got 30 seconds to be in this plane because I’m leaving with or without you!” I am sure that I added a few four letter words to that statement.

I reduce power, hoping to stay stationary so Buckwheat can climb in. Suddenly, I hit solid and hang the floats up on some submerged rocks. The plane is really stuck now. Buckwheat reaches the open door. I look at him. He’s not wearing his life jacket or kayak helmet. In his hurry, he left them on the bank. “Go get your gear!” I yell. Since I’m stuck anyway, I send him back for his gear. If we don’t make it out of here in the plane, we are going to be swimming for our lives. I want Buckwheat to at least have a chance. While Buckwheat’s getting his gear, I have too much time to wonder if I’ve made the right decision. Yeah, the landing turned out okay, even though blood from the gash on my head is dripping down my face. I also notice a couple of chipped teeth. I feel no pain, though. Adrenalin is doing its job.

Fear and terror start creeping back in. I still have to make the downstream eddy turn. If the upstream float catches in the current on the turn, it will dip the wing and, if the wing catches the current, we will roll over and instantly be upside-down in the middle of the river—in the heart of Devils Canyon—with no one to help rescue us! Yeah, my gut is making double knots now. NO, JERRY! CONSENTRATE! NO TIME NOW FOR FEAR OR EMOTION!!! I pray to God; without his help, I will be sunk.A lifetime of running whitewater rivers and 5000+ hours of Alaska flying has prepared me for this. I will do this and feel God’s presence helping me focus. Wearing his life jacket, helmet, and wetsuit, Buckwheat’s back. He helps give me a shove as I add power and rock the elevator/stabilator forward and back—loud grinding metal sounds, and we start to move. Buckwheat climbs in.

“Get in the very back of the plane. Sit on the right side and be ready for a high side when I make the turn to down stream. if the float starts to catch the upstream current we are in trouble!” I’m giving commands now; this is not a request. “Okay!” His response is deadly serious, letting me know he understands perfectly. He’s a kayaker and knows exactly what I’m telling him to do.

I give full power. Slowly, we start to move upriver. Water rudders are still down. I push full left rudder then, for only an instant, chop power. The current catches, and the right float starts to swing the plane around. Then the current catches the edge of the right float, and she starts to tilt precariously. Instantly, Buckwheat high-sides, and I cram full power. The torque of the engine helps on left turns. The legendary power of the Helio Courier and the huge prop all help. The river tries to grab the right wing but can’t quite get it.

We are now heading downstream. The Helio seems to know the peril it’s in and practically jumps onto the step. Soon we are skipping from wave top to wave top. I ease back on the yoke, and, obediently, the Helio is airborne and free of the river. We are still in the canyon and only need to climb above the rock walls before Screaming Lefthand Turn. Everything has gone perfectly. Thank you, God!

We aren’t climbing fast enough! OH NO! THE ROCKS RIPPED HOLES! WATER IN THE FLOATS—TOO HEAVY TO CLIMB OUT OF THE CANYON. Screaming Left is too narrow! The wings won’t fit! I need to be above those narrow rock walls. I feel panic trying to flood my head, and my stomach feels like I swallowed a watermelon whole. I fight to stay calm. Suddenly remembering my extreme Helio training sessions with Ron Sutphin, the legendary pilot who helped perfect the use of the Helio for covert operations during the Vietnam War, I have a plan.

At the last moment, I force the plane on its side using full aileron deflection. Flying on the side with wings vertical, the rudder has effectively become the elevator and the elevator is now a rudder. True to its legendary status, my Helio stagers through the narrow slot in the canyon sideways. As heavy as the floats are and as slow as my air speed is, in any other plane, we would have stalled and spun to our death. Ron's training and the engineers who designed the giant ailerons, spoilers, and slotted leading-edge slates on the Helio Courier wing just saved two more lives. The second we clear the narrows of Screaming Left, at my command, the Helio obediently turns back upright for me, slowly builds air speed, and very slowly she starts to climb. It seems to take forever to gain altitude. We’re out of the canyon at last, and I breathe my first sigh of relief.

I am totally drenched with sweat, and Buckwheat is still in the back of the plane. As he crawls to join me in the copilot seat, he sees my face is covered in blood. Then we notice vegetation hanging from the right wingtip. Really no words are needed—we both know how close we were to death. We were out of Devils Canyon, headed for Talkeetna, and we were both alive to tell our stories. When we were finally within radio range, I notified Talkeetna radio that Buckwheat was safe and in route to Talkeetna. I also requested that my aircraft mechanics Eric Dinkwalter and Terry Mangione as well as two of their apprentice mechanics, meet me at my float-plane base to check out the damage to the plane.

I landed on the lake, but if I stopped, the plane would probably sink, so I kept her moving at about 25 miles per hour and headed straight for the beach. Just before we hit the beach. I chopped the power and let the plane beach herself high and dry. Buckwheat was reunited, hugged, and kissed by waiting friends. As soon as I got my feet on the ground, I felt faint and had to sit down in the mud before I fell down. The adrenalin crash was intense. My mechanics looked like bees going over every inch of the plane and floats. They soon told me that I was grounded until repairs could be made and new prop blades installed. No argument from me, I need stitches in my forehead and can use a day or two off.

Buckwheat told the mechanics that he would cover the bill for the substantial repairs to the plane. I knew that Buckwheat appreciated what I had risked that mid-September day in 1995.

That night, I spent a quiet evening with my little boy, Jason.At bedtime, we said his prayers and thanked God for His protection and blessings. I have had many close calls with death in my life. Now I had to think about being around for my son. As a single parent, it was very important for me to be there for him as he grew up. At the same time, being a man and doing what is right was also important. I hope to never hesitate to help someone in need, as that is what I believe a man should do.

From No Sequel to Life From the Heart of a Bush PilotBy Jerry Jacques, Alaska Master Guide #110 & CS Norwood © 2023

If you want to hear the recording of this story as told by all 5 people involved and get each persons perspective listen to the podcast

Part 2: No Boat No Paddle on the Big Susitna River The River Radius Podcast By Sam Carter
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Jerry, that was quite an exciting story. I’m glad to read it all turned out well. It reminded me of a similar story in Wager with the Wind. I reread the Devils Canyon chapter and yours and Sheldon’s daring are remarkably similar. He make his rescue in 1955.

I’ve missed seeing you at the SHOT Show the last few years and listening to your adventures. I’ll have to get your book and catch up on them. Dan
Then podcast is a good listen as well, for ..the rest of the story.

Sent from my iPhone using SuperCub.Org
I enjoyed your story.

I don't think it really matters if you fly only a season in "The Great Land", or a lifetime, we all have stories to tell.

I only flew in Alaska for 7 years during the 80's, but it was the greatest experience of my life! I too have had friends suggest that I write a book about my experiances, and I did wiite one chapter for a Buddy at his request. I enjoyed doing it, but I doubt that I will follow through. It was a lot of work! But I think you should consider following through with the idea as you are certainly a better writer than I, and certainly have more exciting stories to tell.

Your story reminded me of an experience I had when I lived in Ft Yukon. The State Trooper called me around midnight because a pilot from Al Wright's Air service (flying a Helio Courier) reported a group of rafters on the Sheenjek River in the Brooks Range stranded on a gravel bar. It was too short for him to land on, but he thought maybe a float plane could land on the river. I flew up and found them, and was so tempted to land, but there wasn't much distance between river bends, and while certainly not as much white water as you experienced, but it was enough for me to chicken out. I dropped them a note, saying I thought I could get a helicopter to them later that morning, which we did from Circle City.

The Helio Pilot later became a good friend of mine. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago in a Helio accident.

I wish you the best of luck. Not on this website much, but hope you will PM me if you ever write your book.'

I agree with you, anyone that has even flown one season in Alaska or Northern Canada is part of the same club and all of us will have good stories to remember & share.
Look forward to seeing your completed book.

Your air taxi service looked after my brother and his group as then ascended (and thankfully descended) McKinley back in, I think, 1980. Seems to me it was Sonny and Doug that kep the communication open with my parents. It was one way....I think my parents could hear my brother but not the other way around. I will always be thankful! They were on the mountain for about a month and a half....it was very hard on my parents.

Thank you for doing the hard stuff to keep people safe and bringing them home!

Very well written. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. Thanks for sharing.

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Thanks for sharing it and the podcasts with us Jerry. Absolutely riveting. Brought back memories of near disasterous dunking in the Talkeetna river in 1978. Friend that I was with then and I are scheduled to be on river at Devil's Canyon with Mahay's come late June.

Looking forward to the book!