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Heaven’s Door

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“If you’ve never had a near-death experience, I’m here to tell you it’s something that lives with you for a while. In fact, I’ve been thinking about how lucky, blessed, charmed, or whatever it is I am ever since” confesses out pilot.

About two weeks prior to that Saturday, he had promised to take his granddaughter Olivia flying for her eighth birthday. The weather hadn’t been cooperating for a couple of weekends in a row, but it was shaping up to be a good day for flying. No bright sun or glaring reflections, lots of high clouds, fairly calm winds, and surprisingly little air traffic. Our pilot told Olivia they were going to fly across the water from Anchorage and he would show her the big piece of land on the other side where her mom and dad were going to build their new house that summer just off Knik Goose Bay Road. She’s played and camped on it with her family over the last year, but had never seen it from the air.

Olivia’s flown with her granddad before and enjoyed it each time, but this day was something special. Today she was going to be his new navigator, taking over for her older sister who now lives out of state most of the year. She was excited. One of her jobs was to learn how to look for and tell our pilot exactly where she saw other planes during the flight. He told her to pretend she’s looking at a clock and tell him at what hour on that clock she saw a plane. “The kid’s smart, so when I tested her skills on this one, I wasn’t surprised that she caught on immediately” our pilot boasts. “Later on she proved those skills when she pointed out a couple of planes I hadn’t seen, although none of them were near us.”

It wasn’t long before they were climbing away from Merrill Field, then out over the waters of Knik Arm and into the Valley. Olivia had been looking for other planes, but soon got caught up watching a few cars crawl along below them. She wondered aloud where they were going and what those tiny people in their yards were doing. It’s not hard to spot them from only fifteen hundred feet or so. Of course, there were always other planes to watch for, too. The Mat-Su Valley has a huge number of airstrips and floatplane lakes, and it’s also a very popular place for new pilots to practice their maneuvers. “It’s heads-up flying all the time.”

They soon found the acreage where Olivia’s family would build their new home and circled it slowly a couple of times. She pointed out the long, sloping hill they had snowmachined and four-wheeled up and down this past winter. At the top, she was able to see the flat area where the house would overlook the entire valley below. Only a plane could afford a better view, and it certainly did.

After doing some sightseeing, the original plan had been to fly to Talkeetna and walk into town for lunch. Since they left Anchorage though, low clouds had formed and they couldn’t see past Willow. “I might be an old pilot, but I’m not a bold one” says our pilot “so it looked like Palmer was going to be our second choice for Olivia’s birthday lunch.”

They turned back to the northeast with Palmer about fifteen miles out. As they passed Wasilla airport at about 1,700 feet our pilot heard another announce that he was inbound for a landing in Wasilla and was four miles northeast – essentially the same direction they were headed. In our pilot’s words, it was “Time to go to work. I told Olivia to watch closely for another airplane that would be coming toward us in just a minute or so and showed her at about what position it would be. She started scanning the sky hard, and so did I. After about two minutes, I began to relax, thinking we’d missed the other plane altogether and that I’d soon hear the pilot somewhere behind us calling his approach into Wasilla. After all, with both of us traveling in the opposite direction at more than 120 miles per hour, he should have been way past us by now. It was obvious we just hadn’t seen him.”

“Suddenly at the two-o’clock position, there it was!” our pilot continues. “Olivia and I both saw the Cessna 172 at the same time. It filled the right windshield and passenger window completely. The plane was already so close to us, I could only see its propeller and the cowling behind it. In barely a second it was on top of us and over.”

“To this day, I don’t know how it missed us or how we missed it” admits our pilot. “There had been no time for any kind of avoidance maneuver, no time to yell, no time to even think. For that brief second, the cockpit seemed incredibly quiet. Everything stopped and both planes seemed frozen in place. Then it was over, and I wasn’t sure it really happened.”

“It was probably another two seconds before I thought to turn and look over my shoulder for the other plane. The pilot was just now banking sharply to the left, trying to avoid a collision, but he was way too late. Nonetheless, it was a natural reaction that I well understood. As I turned back to flying my own plane, Olivia exclaimed, “Whoa, Grampa! Did you see that?” I assured her I did as I sat there trying to figure out how we could still be flying.”

Our pilot reflects, “During that split second when we were first startled by the other plane, my life didn’t flash in front of me as others have claimed when confronted by a life-threatening event. But I do recall thinking right then that it was over and that I regretted terribly having my precious granddaughter with me when it happened. I also thought about how and where I might land the plane with whatever severe damage we were about to incur. So many thoughts in just that one second. Then I started coming to grips with the fact that, by some miracle, we were still alive and on our way to Palmer for a lunch that was now going to be very special.”

Olivia and her grandfather had a long walk to lunch after landing in Palmer and a long, grandpa-granddaughter talk along the way. Not about the incident, but about lots of other things. She wasn’t worried about flying home and wasn’t upset about the other plane. In fact, as they were heading back to Anchorage, she asked if they couldn’t stay up just a little bit longer. When they returned home, she excitedly told her mom and dad about their day. Our pilot admits “I flinched, though, when she said “… and this other plane almost hit us. Boy, was grandpa ever mad!” Oops. I was hoping she forgot. Funny, I don’t remember being mad at all. I trust I didn’t say anything inappropriate in front of an eight-year old. In any case, whether she realizes it or not, Olivia and I now have a special bond.”

“Over the years, I’ve learned to minimize the potential dangers of flying to my passengers because, in all reality, they are just that – potential dangers” concludes our pilot. “They only materialize if a pilot lets things get out of hand or is careless. I will admit, however, that once in a while it’s just your time to go. Let’s face it: you can do everything right in life and still come up short. But so will your life if you let it stop you from doing what you love. Olivia and I may have been knockin’ on heaven’s door that day, but it obviously wasn’t time for them to let us in. We’ve got a lot of flying left to do.”

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