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.