A 50-year-old aviation survival story, with lessons for today…

From the “Looking Back” section of the Feb. 11, 2013 Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

The “Looking Back” section of yesterday’s Fairbanks Daily News Miner reported that on that day fifty years ago (February 11, 1963) an aircraft from Fairbanks was the object of an search along a Canadian stretch of the Alaska Highway.  The missing aircraft, a single engine Howard, was on its way to San Francisco. As a kid growing up in Fairbanks when this story first hit the papers, I followed with the rest of the country as the search, in severe winter conditions unfolded.  Initially searchers had no luck finding the downed aircraft.  Missing was 42 year old pilot Ralph Flores and his passenger, 21 year Helen Klaben, who had been sharing expenses for what was planned to be a three-day trip from Fairbanks down the Alaska Highway.

As the days passed, searchers found no trace of the missing pair. Winter temperatures in the areas plunged to 40 below and colder, and hopes begin to fade.  After two weeks, search efforts were called off, with the assumption that no one was able to survive in those conditions.

It definitely made headlines when 49 days after their disappearance the couple was found— ALIVE!  Not equipped with conventional survival gear, the little food they were carrying had been consumed in the first few days, leaving them to survive on melted snow and a tube of toothpaste for the better part of 40 days in the sub-Arctic wilderness.  Both had sustained injuries in the crash, so how did they survive?

Years later as a relatively new pilot, I attended a seminar organized by the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation on survival skills, taught by the late Ray Tremblay. He used the Flores/Klaben accident to illustrate several aspects of a survival situation. Having no conventional survival equipment (sleeping bags, axe, firearm, food, etc.), they managed to survive 49 days in the wilderness in sub-zero temperatures.  How did they accomplish this feat, which would today challenge seasoned professionals?  Tremblay studied the case in detail and came up with his own answers, in part from the account of the ordeal written by Helen Kalben in her book, “Hey, I’m Alive.” 

There were two aspects of this accident that Tremblay suggested held important lessons  to consider:

  1. Conventional wisdom is to stay with your airplane, in a survival situation in the wilderness.  Not only is the aircraft easier to see from the air than a human, but it may supply a wealth of materials to use if you are stuck for an extended period.  In this case, the victims could hear search aircraft, but couldn’t attract their attention due the wooded nature of the crash site.  About five weeks after the accident, they moved to a more open area, and made a signal which was spotted by a pilot making a routine flight a few days later.  His point was this: conventional wisdom is valuable, but you have to consider all the factors and come up with the best course of action for the situation you find yourself in. Had they moved sooner, rescue undoubtedly would have been earlier. Had they not moved, their survival would have been in doubt.
  2. As the ordeal progressed, Flores attempted to convert Klaben to his religion.  Both were reasonably strong willed.  The discussions and mental conflict between the two kept them occupied, and provided a continued reason not to give up.  Tremblay impressed upon us not to overlook the role mental attitude plays (not necessarily always conflict) in a survival situation.

In addition to carrying standard items like food, first aid kit, signaling devices, and a sleeping bag in my survival gear, I include reading material to occupy the mind, in the event of a forced landing.  Even in non-emergency situations, I have found it valuable to read a chapter of a book while waiting for conditions to improve, to help reduce the temptation to “push the weather.”  And if push comes to shove, I can always use the pages to light a fire…

Helen Kaben did us a favor in writing her book, published within a year of the accident, that provides a detailed first-person account of the ordeal.  There are many factors that went into the success of this situation, leading to their survival. I recommend it for those interested in survival stories.

I will be watching the “Looking Back” section of the Fairbanks paper during the weeks ahead to see if other accounts of this story surface, and how it was reported, a half century ago.

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About Tom George

Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks, and flies a Cessna 185. Follow Alaska aviation activities and events on Twitter at http://www.twitter/AOPAAlaska or at: http://www.aopa.org/region/ak
  • Jerry McCutcheon

    If you load the bottom branches of a spruce tree with what ever is flammable the tree will go off like giant torch. Light it off when searcher can be seen. It cannot be missed

    • http://www.heritagewings.com Charlie Branch

      Firefighters call black spruce, “gasoline on a stick”, because it burns so well. In Alaska, and Idaho, too, we recognize that the only resources you can count on when your plane or boat goes down are those you’re carrying on your person. Alaska Sea Grant has great survival information useful in both cases. We do it the way we train for it.

  • Steve Kane

    I believe that the key to survival is attitude. Some time ago I asked a friend who made it through the Battle of Corriegador and nearly 4 years as a POW in Japan how he survived when over half of his fellow prisoners died. He answered that each morning he told himself that the day he was starting could be better than yesterday. Usually it was not, but the sheer possibility that it could be kept him going. I asked Frank why so many died. His answer: “They just gave up.” So, in a survival situation, to quote Churchill: “Never give in! Never, never, never give in!”



  • Tom Watson

    Interesting story-I saw a TV program many years ago about this incident. They were lucky! Will try to obtain the book. What caused the plane to go down?

    • http://www.aopa.org/region/ak Tom George

      The book doesn’t definitively identify the cause of the crash, but it sounded like a combination of weather and possibly fuel management.

  • Larry fielden

    Did you now about the 1975
    Do you now about the TV move
    on U-Tub About it
    I saw it back in 1975 and
    I am hands down the most
    Prepared one at the Reedley Ca
    That by Fresno ca
    I hope you will right some more
    About being safe after a crash
    Larry N6194T

    • http://www.aopa.org/region/ak Tom George

      Yes, I am aware that there is a 1975 TV Movie, with the same title as the book, starring Ed Asner and Sally Struthers. It is available on Netflix and perhaps Youtube. I haven’t seen it, and don’t know how closely it follows the book.

  • Grant Garvey

    Is there a more reasonable price for the book? The cheapest one is $60!

    • http://www.aopa.org/region/ak Tom George

      When I checked initially, they were much cheaper. I would wait a while and check again to see of the price isn’t fluctuating. Or try a library?

  • AndyG

    I remember reading that book in the early seventies, and it left long-lasting impressions on me, as well as a few “lessons learned”. I remember thinking at the time, how can a seasoned pilot, flying in the wilderness in 1963, not be fully and properly equipped with a survival kit? As a newly minted Canadian pilot in 1973, and very aware of the brutal winter conditions that can exist above the 49th parallel, and certainly in Alaska at that time of year, I resolved then, to always carry with me a “survival kit”, whose contents vary somewhat with the seasons. I still carry a survival kit today, even though I now live and regularly fly in the southern USA.