Young pilot's tale is a real cliffhanger

PRECARIOUS: Plane stopped on edge of 1,500-foot dropoff.

April 28, 2009 

After a cliffhanger of a plane landing in the Talkeetna Mountains earlier this month, 21-year-old Matthew "Jake" Soplanda of Anchor Point and a skiing buddy managed to climb away from Soplanda's dated, single-engine Taylorcraft as it hung perched over a 1,500-foot drop.

Embarrassed by the botched touchdown that nearly turned deadly, all Soplanda wanted was to recover the airplane from the teeth of the rocky ridge that held it so he could fly again.

Given the ubiquitous nature of digital cameras and the Internet, however, he got more.

A photo shot from another aircraft that overflew the precariously perched airplane has made Soplanda's Taylorcraft -- if not the pilot himself -- something of an Internet sensation among small plane pilots.

His mother, Jolayne, said by telephone from Anchor Point on Tuesday that her son wishes the attention would all just go away. He would have preferred to learn his lesson in private.

He is now trying to avoid talking about it, she added.

He knows how lucky he is, she said. "I know it. We know it."

'PRECARIOUS PLACE'

On April 19, Soplanda attempted to land near 6,000 feet on an unnamed peak east of Bald Mountain in the Talkeetnas to explore ski and snowboarding opportunities on some adjacent slopes. Unfortunately, the snow atop the peak where he touched down was crustier than the young pilot expected.

The skis on the airplane, instead of grabbing soft snow, went sliding across hard snow. With cliffs ahead, Soplanda tried to steer the aircraft to the left to stay on top of the peak.

It almost worked.

The right ski, however, went over the cliff, the plane tilted at about a 60-degree angle, and there it stopped.

"It was in a fairly precarious place," said Jim Acher, the Big Lake owner of Northern Pioneer Helicopters. Acher is the pilot Jake eventually contracted to retrieve the Taylorcraft. Acher sling-loaded the plane off the peak beneath a Bell UH-1 helicopter, an aircraft best known simply as a "Huey."

DELICATE JOB

Recovering the plane from its perch, he added, was actually pretty easy, but getting it rigged for recovery was another matter.

A friend of Soplanda's climbed out on the plane to wrap climbing ropes around it to form a harness to which Acher could attach the helicopter's sling.

"He did the real hard work,'' said Acher, who noted the drop below the Taylorcraft if the plane came loose or the rigger fell.

Acher added that he certainly would not have wanted to be one of the two people in the airplane discussing how to get out after the landing. Soplanda and his friend managed to squeeze out the left side window onto the top of the peak and safety. Soplanda appeared to be still a little rattled from the emergency exit when Acher went in to recover the plane.

"I think Jake was still coming down off the experience," the helicopter pilot said.

"He's a really good kid," said his mother, who noted her son got his pilot's license only a little more than a year ago and is still learning.

Not that he is unfamiliar with aircraft.

He grew up in the Bush along the Talachulitna River behind Mount Susitna west of Anchorage. The only convenient way in or out of there is by small plane, so he has been around single-engine aircraft all his life.

This was, however, the closest he's come to a crash. It is, in fact, about as close as it is possible to come to a crash.

Because the damage to the plane was minor, the FAA lists this landing -- no matter how scary it appears -- as merely an "incident."


Contact Craig Medred at 257-4588.

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