My original plan was for my team to assemble in Anchorage, AK the weekend at the middle May. We would be flown to Northway, AK by the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum where we would meet up with Dick Benner in his 1946 Stinson. Dick would fly us to the Nabesna River gravel bar near the Anna crash site. The gravel bar was approximately one half mile from the crash site. We would then hike in to the site with waders on because it was so marshy in the area.
The week before our expedition I received an email from Norm Lagasse, Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum Director, informing me that he would not be able to fly us to Northway due to budget constraints, but he did have a thirty foot motor home we could possibly use. He also informed us that he didn’t think Dick Benner would be available either. My next idea was to go by river boat or air boat up the river from Northway since it was only about 20 miles. A river boat trip up the Nabesna River in spring was a secondary choice. Each year the spring run-off creates new channels and forms new log jams. The trip upstream can be a new experience at each river bend even for the seasoned guide. I also needed someone to do a fly over to check the site for accessibility. I contacted Forty Mile Air in Tok, Ak. They had a charter flight going by the site a few days before I left for Anchorage, AK and were able to tell me that the snow was gone and there were several good landing spots on the gravel bars near the site. They also said the water level at the site was about a foot or so higher than it was last year and the pilot could not see the ski sticking out of the water. The day I left for Anchorage, AK, Norm Lagasse emailed to tell me that the motor home also would not be available but Dick Benner would be.
My team this year would consist of Steve Hennessy of Vancouver, WA, Dan Saunders of Colorado Springs, CO, Matt Throumoulos of Webster, NY, Dick Benner of Anchorage, AK and myself. Steve arrived earlier in the week. I arrived on Friday night. Matt and Dan would arrive Sunday night after not getting on their flight Saturday night since they were traveling on a standby ticket and the flight ended up being full. . Friday evening, forty eight hours prior to our scheduled departure to Tok, we had no transportation and had found we could not rent dive equipment in Anchorage. Dan, our lead diver had numerous PADI open water and advanced diver certifications, but no dry suit certification. There are certain things you do not do in a dry suit. In addition to the obvious, you must not allow air to collect around your legs and feet as it inverts you and begins a potential uncontrolled ascent. The dive shop could not rent to Dan regardless of the depth of our ten foot swap, and Steve’s certification records were not in the PADI computer data base.
My mom, Anne Wilbur generously loaned us the use of her condo in Anchorage which Steve nicknamed Base Camp One. Steve and I spent Saturday arranging for transportation to Tok, AK, getting diving gear and bear protection. I used my JetBlue Airways rental car discount with Hertz Car Rental to reserve us a Ford Explorer. There were Beverly Hillbilly visions of the Ford Explorer’s roof rack piled high with dive gear and camping equipment and the four of us overfilling the SUV as we swerved our way up the Matanuska Valley road toward Northway. Once at the Hertz counter Steve began bargaining for an upgrade when the Manager, Sherrie Dow recognized Steve from a company rental two years prior, proclaiming; “I REMEMBER YOU, Upgrade them to the Expedition.”.
With the transportation issue resolved we headed for the Matanuska Valley to get the diving equipment from Alaska Aquatics and bear protection from an old friend of Steve’s. Ron Durheim at Alaska Aquatics had purchased the Denali Dive Shop who had certified Steve as an SSI Open Water Diver in January of 1982 in Whittier, AK. After verifying certifications Ron was willing to set us up with everything we could possibly need including a digital underwater camera at a very reasonable rate.
Steve’s friend, Mike, had just returned from the lower forty eight as they call it in AK and was eager to loan us as many firearms as we wanted to carry, from Glocks to AK47’s to M1’s which he had stored in his house, all of which were fully loaded. When I asked about them being loaded his response was; ”A gun that is not loaded isn’t worth having.” We let him choose for us which ended up being a couple of 9mm pistols and an AK47 with a 20 shot clip and ammo.
Steve and I returned to Anchorage with our gear with hopes that Dan and Matt would be arriving that night. We found out around 5pm that they would have to try the next night so we made plans to pick them up at the Anchorage airport Sunday night and drive all night to meet up with Dick Benner, our bush pilot in Tok, AK Monday morning. Steve and I spent Sunday purchasing our food and other miscellaneous items from R.E.I. and the local grocery. We picked up Matt and Dan at 10:00 pm and headed north to Tok. We all took turns driving and sleeping the best we could in the Ford Expedition arriving in Tok around 4:30 am.
We met up with Dick at 6am at the local restaurant, Fast Eddies and formulated the plan. Dick would fly me and my gear to the crash site first to evaluate the site and figure out where he could land us on the gravel bar on the Nabesna River. Flying in Dick Benner’s Stinson brought back old memories of when I use to fly the bush of Alaska first for my father’s company, Wilbur’s Flight Operations and later for Peninsula Airways, accumulating over 14,000 hours, before I aspired to be a jet pilot. Upon arrival in the area of the crash site I spotted the site where we saw the ski sticking out of the water last year, but the ski was no longer visible. If we had done our initial search this year instead of last year we may not have found the crash site at all.
No sooner had we started looking for a place to land than Dick spotted a Toklat Grizzly bear running across the river bar right next to our first possible landing spot. The crash site is located in a bend in the river so we evaluated all the areas we could land for accessibility, debris, length and surface condition. Dick decided on his spot and landed us without incident. We unloaded my gear, which consisted of a tent, sleeping bag, food, water, a satellite phone, bear repellent and of course Dick’s 30.06 rifle. Dick reviewed with me how to use his rifle and the bear repellent then took off to go get the rest my team and gear. I watched Dick takeoff and fly away leaving me alone in the wilderness as I had done for so many people before when I flew the bush. It is a very strange feeling, one you have to experience to really know what it’s like. I immediately picked up my SAT phone and called my wife in Colorado then got down to business to find a way across a channel in the river that was between the landing area and the crash site. Dick suggested cutting down some trees to make a bridge so I donned my chest waders, shouldered the rifle and bear repellent and headed out. I found a couple of places to cross the channel and returned to Base Camp Two as Steve named it upon his arrival.
Dick brought in the rest of my team and most of the gear, with the exception of the diving equipment as we decided to evaluate the site first. Dick spotted a log jam up the channel a little ways when he returned with the first load of gear and Dan. Dan and I hiked to the jam and by moving a few logs we made if crossable. Matt brought a handheld GPS that he had loaded the local terrain into the software. We crossed the log jam, passed the Grizzly tracts and headed towards the site as depicted on the GPS. I disagreed with the GPS and decided to follow my instincts. I actually headed almost 90 degrees different from the GPS, which was basically downhill since I knew the site was in a swampy area. As you can probably guess I was right and we found the Anna.
We waded into the pond and found it to be only 18 inches deep, no need for dive equipment after all. The ground at the bottom of the pond was frozen. Grass and silt has covered over most of the wreckage leaving only part of the fuselage and pieces of the bottom wing above the grass. We reached down into the pond and were able to find the ski, the axle and part of the landing gear. The more Dan and I groped in the water the more pieces we found. I found the control tube that goes between the front and rear cockpits, the throttle, part of the elevator control system and the piece of the boot cowling. Dan found half the instrument panel which had the tachometer, oil pressure gauge and the magneto switch on it. We also found part of the rear spar of the bottom wing, pieces of ribs and pieces of the steel tubing that formed the fuselage.
I also found a piece of one of the control sticks that was just lying on the bottom of the pond. It was broken and was only five inches of the top of the stick. Standing there in the pond I thought to myself I am the first person to touch the stick since Fred Moller crashed the Anna in the spring of 1931. Further site evaluation rendered no other pieces so we decided that any further work at the site would have to wait till the ground thawed later in the summer. We hiked back to Base Camp Two and relaxed and spent the night. The next morning we broke camp and Dick flew us out to Northway, AK and Tok, AK Steve, Matt and I drove back to Anchorage and Dan flew with Dick in his Stinson.
Our next expedition will be in late August of next year. The pond should be thawed so we can remove more of the Anna. I am guessing that all the aluminum parts will still be intact base on the condition of the boot cowling. That would include the seats, cockpit fairings, the firewall and the rest of the instrument panel. The landing gear including the axle and ski mounting also was intact but it was frozen in the pond so we were not able to remove it. I also hope the radiator will be intact and maybe part of the top wing since they have been covered most of the time. Click here to see the photos of the 2009 Expedition.