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Super Cub plane crushed by Alaska glacier

  • Author: Bob Breeden
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published August 10, 2011

Editor's Note: In May, Bush Pilot did a brief writeup on Bobby Breeden, a teenager from Virginia who had high hopes for his experimental Piper Super Cub in the Short Take-off and Landing (STOL) competition at this year's Valdez Fly-in. Last week, Bush Pilot contributor Rob Stapleton received an email with an account of an unfortunate incident that had befallen that aircraft -- which cost around $150,000 to build. Alaska Airpark owner (and Bobby's dad) Bob Breeden wrote the following account of the accident.

I'd like to share a story with you, of a great but wild adventure that I had earlier this summer with my son Bobby. This is just one of the fascinating trips we have been able to take together in Alaska over the years in another Super Cub I'd purchased in 1994, the same year Bobby was born. This trip had a very unexpected ending.

In June we were traveling in our latest creation, a highly modified Super Cub that you see in the picture below. Over this previous winter, Bobby and I had the best time putting our heads together calculating, planning and creating this new machine. We completed the plane in April, and I flew it from Maine to Virginia and on to Alaska in time for the Alaska Airmen's Show in Anchorage and the Valdez STOL competition. As a proud Dad, I was thrilled to see my son's months of daily practice pay off, which -- combined with the performance of the new Cub -- enabled Bobby to earn fourth place in the Experimental class of the STOL competition.

Fast forward to June: Bobby and I were on a several-week flying adventure, basing out of our home near the Airpark in Sterling, where we returned every few days for rest and resupply before heading out again. The way that Bobby and I used our cabin and strip on this trip, was exactly my vision for the Alaska Airpark. I take delight in all the wonderful experiences in flying Alaska, and I had always wanted to share this with other adventuresome fellow pilots.

We had traveled across Cook Inlet to an area south of Mount Redoubt, and landed on the shoulders of two mountains, and hiked the ridges to the summits, seeing the plane far below. On another trip, we flew down the coast to Katmai, camping each night as we went, bears all around and with an electric fence and a 12-gauge with slugs to protect us. Cooking far from camp and cleaning our dishes in the ocean also helped to keep us safe. We found a whale that had been eaten by bear, and many waterfalls to land near and explore -- one of which Bobby rappelled down the cliff next to.

One day found us high on the side of Augustine Volcano in steady 25 mph winds coming off the water and blowing up the cone. We braced the plane in place with rocks, and walked a bit to take in the views of the Pacific. Another day we landed at the top of a high canyon wall in Katmai, where we could peer straight down 1,500 feet to the valley floor. Near one landing site on one of our daily walks we discovered bubbling cold water, and further on, a hot spring among the lava, and spent a couple of hours soaking. Each day brought a new discovery.

By July 1, and after another stop at our house near the Airpark, we were off and flying in the Wrangell Mountains. I have flown there since 1998.

It was the last day before we were headed back to our house to meet company coming to visit, and we had been discovering and landing new landing zones all day, mostly on glacier tops on exposed ice, below the snow level -- which was still around 5,000 feet on the glacier top at this early date in July.

At the end of the day, we landed in a wide river valley about two miles above where a glacier collided with a mountain wall, with the river cutting in between. We walked down to this point, safely along the mountain and well away from the glacier, to where a big blue glacier face stood opposite the mountain, and explored this spot for almost an hour, and took a lot of pictures. There seemed to be no threat, and even a comforting thought that any falling ice would easily be swept away by the swift river.

There was a small gravel bar on our side of the river, across from the glacier -- and we decided that we would bring the plane into the gravel bar for a photo.

Once there with the plane, we walked around and took some photos, but within a minute of arriving, we heard some crackling in the ice. Before we could get in the plane to depart, a piece came down and instantly displaced the river beneath it, creating a 3 to 5-second blast of sand and water, comparable to an explosion. It shot across the river at us. I dropped my camera while instinctively putting my hands over my face and turning my back to the spray and blast, which swept me up the sand and gravel of the river bank. The plane slid sideways 30 feet, and was crushed up against a stationary block of ice, knocking the gear off and smashing one wing and the tail. The fuselage was twisted and the fabric open. The water sluiced back into the river and all was quiet, less than 15 seconds after it started. We were soaked to the skin.

We located each other and the greatest dread passed as I realized that Bobby was OK. We gathered our clothes bag, food, tent, sleeping bags, SPOT transmitter and satellite phone from the baggage area and got to safer, higher ground. We found a place in the sun but behind a boulder to break the breeze. We got out of our wet clothes into dry. After collecting ourselves, and perhaps 30 minutes after the event, we tried calling Donna Claus at Ultima Thule Lodge. Not reaching the Lodge right away, we also tried Dave Calkins to let someone know in Anchorage that we would need to be picked up. Soon after talking with Dave, we reached Donna, and a couple of hours later Loni Habersetzer, whom we had talked with earlier in the day, came and picked us up.

We stayed with Paul and Donna at the Lodge, and two days later Paul flew us out to Chitina in the Otter, and loaned us a Suburban to get to Anchorage, which all worked out in time to meet our guests. I communicated fully with the Park Rangers in charge of the Wrangell-St. Elias, and promised to remove the plane and our remaining gear from the Park if a safe opportunity presented itself.

We learned that what looks static is not necessarily so, and the shallow river did not absorb the energy of the falling ice like a deep fiord would have -- rather, the 4 or 8-foot-deep water underneath the ice shot out at an incredibly high speed and pressure, traveling faster and farther than I had expected. We are sad to lose our new plane, and for me even more so to lose our pictures, those chronicling the history of the fascinating weeks of father-son adventure with Bobby in Katmai and elsewhere. But we are happy to be alive, and we will always have our memories to reflect on.

The photos here were taken after the initial event. What you see here is much different from the day of the incident. As new ice continuously fell, the river bed changed as well. The original gravel bar was strewn with large ice blocks. As the glacier continued to calve, large blasts of water continued to alter the riverbed and batter the plane. You can see why the plane could not be retrieved once the glacier became unstable.

10 days later, the plane had been moved 100 yards by continuous blasts of water from the calving glacier. The entire glacier had advanced far enough that when large pieces tipped over, they landed directly on the plane.

I got word from my friend who flew over the site on Aug. 7, more than a month after the incident, and he said that the terrain has changed so much that it was entirely unrecognizable from what it looked like the day the incident occurred. The glacier has advanced and covered the original site. There is no trace remaining of the plane.

I recognize now that I should never have been there. The glacier appeared to be stable, but wasn't. I am sharing this story to let anyone know who might be exploring around glaciers to realize that heat and gravity are always affecting the ice and it can give way at any moment, without warning.

Bob Breeden is a pilot and owner of Alaska Airpark.

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