After leaving Shungnak, the Arctic Chamber Orchestra boarded the freshly fueled C-46 and took off for Point Hope, Alaska. We were scheduled to perform an afternoon concert there. The local school was all prepared to feed us lunch, and we were booked into the Community Hall.
The flight was uneventful, for which we were properly grateful. Our pilot had gotten his training at his father’s knee in the Alaska bush, and had his skills honed being a treetop flyer in Vietnam. He knew better than to just locate the air strip and land. You never know what conditions you will find: caribou and moose on the runway, abandoned vehicles, mud holes.
When we got to the “airport” at Point Hope, he did his usual fly-by to check out the runway conditions. Our sanguine expectations regarding our landing there took a nose dive as we noticed him fly over the runway, turn, fly over the runway, turn, fly over the runway, turn, and fly over the runway yet again before he actually started a landing pattern.
Our misgivings were confirmed when the announcement began: “Folks, it looks like the low end of the air strip is pretty wet. I don’t want to get stuck, so when the wheels hit the ground I am going to be braking pretty hard. Please make sure everything in the cabin is secured. I’ll give you a fifteen second warning before landing and at that time I want you all to assume the brace position.”
We scrambled around making sure our seatbelts were nice and tight, and that all our bags and instruments were wedged in well. When the terse “Get ready for landing,” issued from the intercom, we put our heads down and grabbed our knees. “Braking pretty hard” was just a slight understatement. It was more like slamming on the brakes and skidding to a shuddering stop, but no one got whiplash or brained by a falling flute, so we cheered our arrival.
Deplaning was fairly simple, since we only had to bring our instruments and garment bags, and the orchestra manager only had to get the tympani, music and music stands out of the cargo compartment. We milled around for a while, a rather miserable bunch of musicians trying unsuccessfully to stay warm. It was around 10 degrees F, and the 2o mph wind was gusting out of the northwest off the Chukchi Sea. The pack ice had not quite frozen to the shore, but we could hear it grinding and booming off in the not too far distance.
A person showed up after a few minutes, and led us off to the school where lunch awaited us. An ancient and battered pickup truck arrived for the tympani, basses, and music stands. As we trekked off on the short walk towards town, we left our pilot, who had elected to skip lunch, pensively walking down the edge of the runway.
It has been my observation that the institutional mind almost always turns towards spaghetti when faced with feeding a large number of people, and Point Hope was no exception. We “enjoyed” some rather bland spaghetti, which was notable for providing a lot more spaghetti than sauce. The lonely specks of hamburger interspersed therein did nothing to change the carbohydrate to protein ratio. I believe this insipid pasta was accompanied by limp canned green beans, but I could be wrong. It’s been a long time since I ate that lunch.
It was during lunch that the really bad news was delivered to us. Our orchestra manager had busied herself delivering the percussion and music stands to the community hall where we were scheduled to play directly after lunch. She tromped in looking more than usually sour, and had a short, whispered conversation with Gordon Wright, our conductor.
“I have some good news, and some bad news,” he began. This was his usual opening for announcements on ACO tours. “The good news is that you don’t have to rush to eat this excellent repast. We will not be changing into concert dress this afternoon.” This was quite an occurrence. One of the rules on ACO tours was we presented ourselves as a Real Orchestra, no matter how small, rural, and naive our audience was. This meant that when we performed, the women wore long black formals, and the men wore tuxedos or black suits.
Immediately, we sensed that the bad news was going to be very bad. It was. “Susan has informed me that the Community Hall has not had the furnace on since the last time there was a meeting there. That was approximately two months ago. The person who was supposed to get it started last night apparently forgot to do so.”
It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what the bad news was, we had just walked over from the airport. “The temperature in there is just slightly warmer than outside. We can’t wait for the hall to get warm or we will be late for our date in Nome.”
A chorus of kvetching greeted this news. “I know, I know. I’m sorry for this. We’ll just have to do the best we can. Anyway, it seems pointless to change into our concert clothes since everyone will probably be wearing coats during the concert.”
We finished our lunch, and sallied forth into the biting wind to walk over to the hall. It was a rather large, open room, with very high ceilings, big enough for all 150 residents of the place to be seated with room to spare. It was indeed very cold in there. For a minute, it was possible to believe that the walls of the room had been painted with some sort of paint that had glitter in it, they sparkled so nicely. Then you realized that what was sparkling was the frost that had condensed there as the room cooled after the last gathering. Up towards the ceiling, the frost had melted, showing that the furnace that we could hear roaring away was making progress in warming the room. It was too bad the stage was near ground level, and not up by the ceiling.
We were all very jealous of the first flute, for she had a pair of gloves that the fingers had been cut out of, and could wear them while she played. It became quite clear very quickly that if you played a stringed instrument that went under your chin, you were going to have to take off your coat to do it. The brass and percussion players were warm in their coats and hats and gloves. The rest of the orchestra was not. The audience was quite comfortable, as they could stay as bundled up as they needed to be, which they did.
We shivered our way through an abbreviated program, which was received enthusiastically by the complete population of the town arrayed before us. Afterwards, we hustled back to the airport, and started loading up.
The pilot looked worried, and collared Gordon for a lengthy conference. After a while, we were instructed to get on the plane, and before he entered the cockpit, the pilot gave us his news.
Apparently, about one third of the runway was a big swamp, and it had not frozen solid yet. There was a crust over some of the mud, but beneath the crust was a morass, and it was not clear just how deep it was. At any rate, he certainly did not want to find out by accidentally driving several tons of airplane into it. This would be what one would commonly refer to as a Bad Thing.
The airplane we travelled in was noted for its ability to take off and land in very short distances. This is what made the C46 such a valuable asset during World War II. We were lucky that we were not overly loaded: there were no bombs or drums of fuel aboard. It was not very clear just exactly how loaded we were. As you may remember we had left Shungnak with a full load of fuel. Our destination from Point Hope was Nome, which was quite a long way, so if dumping fuel was the answer, we would have to land at Kotzebue to get more gas.
There were a couple of options. One was to leave half the people at Point Hope, and run the other half over to Kotzebue, and then come back to get the other half of the orchestra, then stop in Kotzebue to load up the first group and head off to Nome. The town of Point Hope was willing to let us wait in the school if we decided to do this, and there was actually a terminal building in Kotzebue, so no one would be freezing to death during all the shuttling. However, all the running back and forth would use fuel and require us to get gas in Kotzebue. The result of it all would make us extremely late for our concert date in Nome.
The other option was to see if we could get off the ground fully loaded in the amount of runway that was available. There were no guarantees that this was possible, but he had paced out the distance several times and was “pretty sure” there was enough runway. Since we were the ones who would be in danger if option two was chosen, we were allowed to vote on the decision. We unanimously chose option two.
Without any further ado, we received our instructions. The pilot pointed out a flag he had positioned along side the runway. This was his drop dead point. If the wheels had not lifted off the ground by then, or if the airplane wasn’t at least feeling a lot like it wanted to shift from a lumbering ground beast to a creature of the air by the time we reached that flag, he was going to slam on the brakes for real (which made us wonder what he had done when we landed), and hope that we stopped before we ran into the mud at the end of the field. If we did hit the mud, the likelihood that the airplane would tip forward and bury its nose in it was fairly high.
We taxied to the extreme end of the runway. The seriousness of the situation was made even more clear when, once we had gotten turned around, the pilot actually backed the plane up to the point where the tail was overhanging tundra and the wheels were barely on the solid gravel of the runway. Once again, we were instructed to assume the brace position. The pilot revved the propellers up until you could feel the plane straining against the brakes.
With the gay instruction “Think light! And if anyone knows how to levitate, now would be a good time to do it!” the brakes were released and the plane leaped forward. We were all in the brace position, so no one could watch for the all important marker flag. It seemed like we bounced down the runway for an hour. Time passes so slowly when you are holding your breath. We waited for the precipitous braking, but instead, suddenly, the bouncing stopped and the nose of the plane tilted towards the sky.
We let out a rousing cheer and applauded loudly as the plane turned south towards our next performance in Nome. Another day, another spaghetti dinner, another adventure safely negotiated. Life as usual for the Arctic Chamber Orchestra on tour.