Soldotna pilot gets unexpected escort

F-15s buzz floatplane on Sept. 11 trial flight

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

On his first solo floatplane flight at Red Shirt Lake south of Willow, Bruce Besse of Soldotna had an eventful trip -- beautiful open sky above him, clear shimmering lakes below him and an F-15 fighter jet right behind him.

Besse and his flight instructor, Jeff Helmericks, had taken their PA11 Cub on floats out for some practice on the afternoon of Sept. 11. Besse dropped Helmericks off in Palmer to get gas for their return voyage to the Kenai Peninsula while Besse flew off alone for the first time to practice his water landings on Red Shirt Lake.

They had watched the news that morning, so they knew about the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. But when they got to the plane, they hadn't heard any warnings or flying restrictions, so they went ahead with their trip.

"With what had happened in New York, I couldn't imagine it affecting us up here," Besse said. "And flying away from Anchorage in a Cub, I couldn't figure why I would be a threat and why they'd be looking at me."

As it turns out, they did more than just look. Besse only had a little more than 200 hours flying experience, but his instructor had prepared him for just about anything, like turbulence, wind gusts or a glassy water landing. However, his instructor had left out what to do if there were a fighter jet on his tail.

"One of them buzzed me and kept circling until I landed," Besse said. "It was very unnerving. I just didn't want to be up there with him flying around because I knew something was up."

At that point, the Coast Guard contacted him and instructed him to land. They told him it was a matter of national security but would say nothing more, Besse said.

"(The jet) flew over me and kind of behind me and then pulled around in front," Besse said. "When the jet was in front of me it was by a considerable distance, he wasn't trying to deliberately blow me out of the air. But he did climb, and that's when I ran into his wake turbulence. I started to turn but not fast enough and the plane started bouncing around in all the turbulence. Then I had to turn around and make the landing without dumping it. I just put it out of my mind and tried concentrating on what I was doing. So it worked OK.

Not only was it his first solo flight, it was also his first glassy water landing, Besse said. Landing on glassy, smooth water is more difficult than landing on rough water because it's harder to tell where the water is, and it throws depth perception off, Besse said.

"It's not easy, and to be just learning makes it a little tougher," he said. "Like learning to drive for the first time, then they turn you loose in Anchorage.

To make matters worse, as if having to do a difficult landing after being buzzed by a fighter jet on his first solo flight wasn't bad enough, Besse was monitoring Anchorage flight channels and could hear controllers calling out approaches of incoming planes. Besse didn't know if they were talking about him or if there were other planes in his area that might fly by and create more turbulence.

After he landed on the lake, Besse tried using his cell phone to find out what was going on. He spent about an hour on the lake trying to call Anchorage flight control and his instructor but his phone wasn't powerful enough to reach.

"My instructor knew I was out there, and if I didn't show up he was going to think something had happened and come looking for me. I didn't want anybody else out there dealing with that," Besse said.

While he was on the lake, Besse saw the F-15s flying overhead several times. At one point, another Cub flew by with two jets chasing it.

"But I don't know if you'd call it chasing," Besse said. "They'd fly past him completely and come around behind him. What are they going to do? They can't slow down enough to follow him or they'd fall out of the sky."

There was another plane on the lake, so Besse taxied over and used the pilot's cell phone to contact his instructor. The instructor called Anchorage and explained that he had a student stuck on Red Shirt Lake that needed to get back to Palmer.

When he told controllers about the jets, they issued Besse a squawk code so he could make it back without another fly-by.

"It makes you stop and think just what the military is capable of in something like this," Besse said. "It didn't take long for them to shut down our air space and get everybody out of the air. It's kind of amazing how they could pull something like that off.

After his first unnerving experience, Besse triple-checked his clearance and squawk code before taking off, he said. Then he flew back to Palmer, landed in Cottonwood Lake, met up with his instructor and drove back to Soldotna.

"When I saw (Helmericks) he said 'how come you get to have all the fun?'" Besse said. "I said 'there it is, have at it.' I can go without any of that kind of stuff. The ones in the jets were the ones having fun. I would imagine them guys were laughing it up to beat heck, and you can't blame them."

Besse took up flying as a hobby four years ago. He decided to take up floats, but said it apparently wasn't a good time to try it.

After the airspace opened again, Besse drove to Palmer and flew the plane back down to the peninsula.

"All I know is it's been a long time since I was that scared," Besse said. "I wasn't afraid of getting shot down or anything like that, but it was very intimidating, and I just didn't know what to expect or how to get out of it except to land the airplane and get out of the way and not try and mess with them.

"I do know when I flew down here from Palmer, I flew all the way around the west side of the inlet," he said. "I wasn't going to go anywhere near Anchorage, and I don't plan on it anytime soon either. I've had a lot of scary things happen, but that just made the top of my list."

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