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The Red Baron and the Flying Gator

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

Editor's Note: Everyone enjoys a well-written or well-told story, especially one that is lively, laughable and has a point of common interest. This periodic column contains stories written by and about people on the Kenai Peninsula. The characters in today's story are from an area homestead, however they are disguised. Read on and see if you can figure out who these neighbors might be.

Goggles. Headphones. Gloves, sweatshirts and jackets. Crackers. Film.

All these items would accompany the Red Baron and Flying Gator, who were about to take off on a serious mission. They'd been carefully chosen to work together. Although within the same family group, and familiar with other team projects, this was their first attempt to work in tandem in the air.

The Red Baron knew his job and had logged plenty of experience carrying out such airborne enterprises, but the Flying Gator had not.

She was willing, but she wondered if she'd have the required strength for her tasks. For several months prior, she'd talked of getting back into weight training, but the purple hand weights had been misplaced in the randomness of her life. Instead, she'd been involved in mental gymnastics, which had assisted her in her other jobs.

This particular job, however, required strength of body.

The whole thing had started on an unusual rain-free Alaska August day with a casual conversation of "What if?" The mission Commander, a longtime acquaintance, had approached the Red Baron first, expecting him to agree to his part. While he briefed the Red Baron, he watched the woman out of the corner of his eye. Dressed in red flannel shirt, worn jeans and tall rubber boots, she stood to the side, listening, processing, considering the dangers.

"The waterway between the island and the target camp is narrow. You'll need to drop down and shoot through the gap," he informed the Red Baron, who pulled on his salt-and-pepper moustache.

His blue satin jacket with bright red letters gleamed in the early autumn sunshine. Their logistical planning continued, making no reference to any of the specifics of her duties.

Finally, however, the powerfully built Commander, arms crossed against his sleeveless black T-shirt, turned to the woman.

"Let's go over what you're required to do."

He'd scarcely started through the long list of requirements for her assignment, when to the Red Baron's surprise and the mission Commander's relief, she enthusiastically nodded her head in agreement.

True to type, she didn't know the exact details of what she'd agreed to, but her proclivity for adventure propelled her forward.

"Your mission, now that you've chosen to accept it, is to drop five, 5-gallon plastic containers out the airplane door and into the water near the camp," he said, then easily yanked out a container from the back of his tall, black Chevy truck.

At full height, she didn't reach 5 foot, 4 inches, and she maintained 110 pounds. She stooped down, wrapped her fingers around the wire handle and easily lifted up the container.

No problem.

"That was the lightest one," said the Commander. "You know, you'll be pulling these from the baggage compartment behind you, up over your shoulder and onto your lap -- before dropping them out the plane door."

She imagined the process: sitting behind the Red Baron in the cramped cockpit of the two-seater Super Cub. She knew she could wrestle up the lightest container while remaining seated with a belt restraining her. Staying strapped in would be imperative since they'd have the entire side of the plane open, window latched up to the wing and the door hanging down toward the strut -- leaving them totally exposed to the wind and weather, at the airspeed of about 95 mph.

The Commander pushed the heaviest container toward the Flying Gator.

"Three of the containers will be heavy -- like this."

He paused, watching her grasp the handle.

"Will you be able to lift this from behind you and drag it over your shoulder?"

With both hands on the wire handles and knees bent, she tugged upward, creating only a narrow space between the can and the ground.

"I'm not sure I can do this in a sitting position," she replied. "And, I wonder if there's space between my shoulder and the window to squeeze them through. We don't want them to torpedo out the door before we reach the target. I'll have to pull them over my left shoulder, away from the open door."

She had no fear of the mission, but she had to be honest about the drawbacks of using her for this job.

The Commander shifted his weight, exchanged glances with the Red Baron and cleared his throat.

They needed someone her size.

On another history-making flight, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 290-pound person had been compressed into the plane's back seat. He'd consumed every inch, from ceiling to floor, side-to-side, leaving no space to pull anything over his shoulders. His seat belt had been redundant, so tightly wedged into his seat, that if they would have crashed, he would not have been thrown in any direction.

For this mission, they could have used his strength, but his size would have been unmanageable. Ironically, they needed a small person who could twist the precious cargo up and out of the plane.

"Perhaps if the heaviest ones are stacked on top, I can roll them over the seat," she suggested. "But, I won't be able to reach into the tail section if any slide back."

The Red Baron repeated his earlier comment.

"You know I can't help you. I'll be calculating airspeed and altitude. But perhaps we could tie a rope to the handles in case one slipped backward. You could then pull it toward you."

Now they were thinking strategically.

"There would be time since we'll be making five passes," he added.

She sighed.

"OK, but we need to work on the plane cabin to figure out the most efficient configuration."

The Commander drove off to refine the packaging of the cargo. They saw nothing but his tail lights in the dust as he braked for the corner. The Flying Gator followed the Red Baron to the hangar, where he started rearranging the plane's interior.

Identifiable objects flew out of the plane -- the back-seat control stick, and then the harness section of the seat belt.

"You'll just tangle in this while you're pulling the containers over your shoulder," he said.

"That's only for if we crash anyway," she laughed nervously. "You'd better do your job and keep us in the air!"

Finally they were ready.

A quick phone call alerted the Commander, who had taken the cargo to an airstrip nearer their objective. He told the Red Baron where it would be hiding.

The Red Baron checked the weather toward the mountains: gathering clouds with light showers. Possible turbulence. Scud settling into the valleys. They needed to get going to beat the storm and make it back before dark.

The Red Baron filed his flight plan for the secret mission with another family member, code name, "The Sister."

The Flying Gator climbed into the back seat, cinched the lap belt and adjusted her head set. While climbing in, the Red Baron tossed a set of goggles at her,.

"You'll need these with all the wind."

After adjusting himself into position, he yelled out the window: "Clear prop."

The prop rotated slowly then shuttered to a start. The Red Baron taxied the plane toward the narrow runway, now shadowed by the 80-foot black spruce.

At the end of the strip, the Red Baron swung the plane around and went through his check list. The Flying Gator did her own preflight, checking that her crackers were readily accessible. A primary danger for her was possibly throwing up as she threw out the containers. She was prepared to take precautionary measures for everyone's safety.

They tested the head sets.

"Ready?" he called.

"Ready!" she responded.

Within 300 feet, the Cub eagerly jumped into the air, and the Red Baron pointed the nose toward the mountains. He looked at his watch: 7:10 p.m. They had two hours to accomplish their goal.

They flew in the silence of their thoughts. The tranquility of the evening was interrupted only by occasional chop.

Although the first leg of this furtive errand would be easy, the nervous knots in their stomachs already anticipated the remainder of the mission.

 

"The Red Baron" checks over his plane before bringing it out of the hangar.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Gaede Penner

As they reached the mountains, the terrain rose and they entered a valley. On either side clouds randomly crouched in ravines. Raindrops beaded on the windshield, then slid off to the sides.

"See the mouth of the river?" the Red Baron called over the headset. "The dirt strip is suppose to be right there."

Sure enough. He circled the strip, noting the windsock, the length, the dirt.

"I think I see the hiding place," he said.

Satisfied with the conditions, he throttled down the engine, dipped a wing, and descended. The plane easily flared out and settled on the damp earth. A blanket-soft landing.

The duo crawled out of the plane and stretched. Within seconds, the overcast skies and gentle splatter of rain, sent the Flying Gator into her backpack for another jacket.

"If I'm chilly now, just think of what it will be like when we're in the air with the door open and wind blowing in!"

The Red Baron didn't respond, he was off to get the containers. She wrapped a black fleece muffler around her neck. He loaded the cargo.

"This is difficult enough to maneuver these heavy ones from a standing position," he said. "I don't know now how you're going to pull them out."

She gave him a sharp look, then mumbled as she pulled on gloves. Soon there would be no time to speculate.

Climbing back into the plane, she located her goggles and tugged them on before positioning her headset. The Red Baron had kept out one container and now placed it on her lap. This lighter one would be her first drop -- a practice drop for her to get a feel for the weight, the wind and when to execute the drop.

After he climbed in, she called over the headset, "New logistics situation. I'll have to remove the headset when I pull the containers over my shoulder, otherwise, everything will get tangled up. We'll be out of contact with each other for several minutes."

At least there were no tray tables to complicate matters.

The pilot acknowledged the anticipated communication gap, then added, "Be careful when you start hanging the container out of the plane. You don't want to drop it on the wing strut -- or hit the tail."

Any accident like that would put them both in peril, and they had no parachutes if the plane went down. Besides that, their seats were not flotation devices, nor were there exit lights to the door.

Staying in the air and not damaging the aircraft was mandatory.

Before the Red Baron started the engine, the Flying Gator practiced lifting the container out the door. She could balance it on the door ledge but didn't want to scrape the plane fabric. She noticed how close the container came to the strut and how it lined up with the tail.

"Remember, gravity and the wind will be in our favor," her partner said. "Both these factors should help pull the container down and away from the plane."

He closed the door. She dug around for her crackers. Everything seemed to be happening so quickly now.

Even with the additional cargo, the plane leaped into the dusky evening.

Within minutes, they had the hilly, tree-covered island in view. Their destination should be around the corner, on the mainland, across from the island. They'd be squeezing through the narrow trench.

"I'm putting up the window now," announced the Red Baron. He unlatched the window and the door dropped down. Icy air blasted into the cabin.

No more words were exchanged. The Flying Gator scooted the container onto her right leg, then slipped her left leg between the plane's interior wall and braced her knee against the pilot's seat.

Next she loosened her seat belt for easier maneuverability. She hoped the black gloves would protect her from the cut of the wire handles.

The Red Baron slowed the plane and dropped the nose. The Flying Gator dropped her knee so it was flush with the open door and arranged the container to be scooted over the door rim.

"There it is!" shouted the Red Baron. "Are you ready?"

"Yes!" she shouted, wind blowing into her mouth.

She'd been instructed to make the drop close to shore. This seemed easy enough. However, suddenly, people appeared from the thick woods and covered the sandy beach. She didn't want to kill anyone with a too early drop!

"Drop it NOW!" yelled the Red Baron.

She still thought they were too close to the scanty shoreline. She hesitated, then held the container into the wind. The air force pulled on it, but before wresting it from her grip, she managed to follow gravity's pull and get it below tail wing height.

"Is it gone?" called the Red Baron.

"Yep," she responded.

He pushed the throttle forward and pulled up the nose. She looked back to see where the container had dropped.

"That was too close!" the Commander blared from the ground over the portable radio.

She agreed.

They didn't need any fatalities -- either in the air or on the ground. But, she couldn't obsess on that. It was time to reload and prepare for the next drop.

She removed her headset and turned around to hoist the second container from behind her -- a heavy one, at least it set on top of another one. More easily than she expected, she pulled it over the seat and onto her lap. Headset back on, she sat ready for the next drop.

Now more familiar with the layout, they circled the island and settled down into an approach pattern. She pushed the container onto her knee until it lapped over the edge of the plane doorway. Together they watched for the moment to drop it, trying to calculate the time and distance of when to make the drop and where it would actually fall.

"Get it out there!" yelled the Red Baron.

The Flying Gator pushed it off her knee and held it suspended in the air. This time, the weight of the heavier container threatened to extract her with it. Her left knee dug into the front seat to counter-balance the pull. She held on and then with hopeful deliberation let it loose.

"Is it gone?" the Red Baron shouted.

"Yep!" she replied. "Close to the first drop. No people down."

Another go around. The same process. Another heavy container. This time something went array.

"It burst!" the Commander radioed up. "Were sending someone out after it."

"I thought it twisted," said the Flying Gator to the Red Baron. "I couldn't steady it and it spun on the way out."

Again, she couldn't ponder long. The two remaining containers were on the floor behind her, about five inches below the top of her seat. As before, she removed her headset and twisted around in her seat. But, unlike the previous successful gyrations, this time not only did lifting the containers require greater strength, but in the confined space, the lids kept hooking together. Neither would come loose and pull free. Her muscles quickly tired at the awkward angle.

"Are you reloaded?" the Red Baron yelled into the air.

They were nearing the drop site. At last the containers unsnarled. She yanked the lighter of the two over her shoulder, shoved it onto her knee and snatched the headset.

"Loaded!"

The obstinate containers were not their only problem. There below them was a motor boat retrieving the contents of the previously dropped container. How was the Flying Gator suppose to miss the people on the shore, miss the boat and, at the same time, make a straight drop so this container wouldn't explode?

The Red Baron saw the crisis, too, but he was trying to keep the plane in the air.

"Get the boat out of there!" shrieked the Flying Gator -- not that anyone but the Red Baron could hear her.

To her relief, the Commander called up, "We're pulling off the boat."

The boat sped toward shore. The container did a free-fall. The Flying Gator couldn't look. She feared the worst -- massacred people on shore, annihilated people in the boat and smashed cargo.

"Great drop!" the Commander's voice grabbed her out of her despair.

No time to analyze this. The most difficult reload was the last. A heavy container remained behind her and by now, her muscles were overstrained and unreliable.

Even with her seat belt as loose as possible, it seemed she couldn't get the right leverage.

"Can you do it?" the Red Baron called to her.

Her headset was off and her goggles had slipped halfway down her face. The only reply was the numbing wind roaring into the cabin. They were so close to their goal, but close enough wasn't what they'd agreed to with the Commander.

Then, through the paralysis of her frozen mind she remembered that she could never write a story that ended this way!

The Red Baron hoped for a miracle and went into a final descent. At the last minute he heard the words he'd waited for.

"Loaded!"

He sighed and dropped altitude. It was a clear shot and, after all, they'd had four practice runs. The container sped toward the water. The Flying Gator looked back, then reached for her headset, cinched up her seat belt and leaned back.

"Great job!"

The Commander affirmed the last drop had been a success.

In the background, they heard clapping, cheering and whistles. Only then did the Flying Gator realize how cold she was, and that she hadn't jeopardized anyone by throwing up in the rollicking aircraft.

"Let me gain some altitude and we'll close this thing up," said the Red Baron.

The plane climbed up over the now dim turquoise lake and toward the valley they'd edged through before. Together they reconnected the window and door. The Flying Gator untensed her left knee from against the front seat and called for cabin heat.

"I'm glad I'm not included in that church youth group camping down there tonight," she shivered. "I can't imagine anyone wanting ice cream and root beer dropped for a late night party."

"That's the hardiness of youth," said the Red Baron. "The Commander thought it would be fun to surprise the teen-agers, so he strategized this event."

While the Red Baron and Flying Gator flew back in the peaceful evening sky, 80 young people and leaders popped off root beer lids and scooped ice cream.

The pale Alaska sun slipped among the clouds, no longer highlighting the patches of autumn aspen on the Labor Day weekend.

The Super Cub knew its way home and glided down onto the Gaede 80 airstrip. Return time: 9 p.m. It had been a near-perfect mission.

The Red Baron parked the plane in the hangar by the homestead house and started to replace the items he had removed for the mission.

Still chilled to the bone from the glacial air in the open cabin, the Flying Gator told him she'd walk over to "The Sister's" for hot chocolate after stopping in at the house. A few minutes later, she started toward the taxiway. A black truck stopped her.

"I just called The Sister," said the Red Baron. "She says there's a moose with calf in the backyard. Do you want a ride?"

She climbed in.

Yes, the prescription for adventure was still Alaska.

Naomi Gaede Penner is a free-lance writer who lives both in Colorado and on the Kenai Peninsula. She has taught "Writing the Personal Story" at Kenai Peninsula College and is the author of "Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor," stories about her father, Dr. Elmer Gaede. She can be reached at ngaedepen@aol.com.



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