Landing with a hard jolt, the small, red Super Cub’s left front tire splits open from impacting a sharp, granite rock. Then, without notice, the small bush plane skids uncontrollably back and forth along the abandoned canal road. Because the left landing gear hub is now exposed to the rocky road, it scrapes to a sudden stop; the nose of the plane dives downward and the propeller tip bends as it digs into the road surface. When the dust clears Gordon Eastman and pilot Warren Johnston were okay, but now they’re stranded in the middle of hundreds of square miles in the vast McKenzie Mountains in the Northwest Territories. With no radio, a bent prop and flat tire the situation is dire; though this isn’t the first time the duo has faced being stranded in the wilderness. Several years before, they found themselves floating on a slush ice keg in the Arctic Ocean after the freezing waters swallowed their Super Cub. But that’s a story for another time.
With no communication and the outside world not knowing your location – you’re on your own. So how would you fix a bent prop and a blown tire in the middle of the McKenzie Mountains to try and make it back to the small village of Ross River, Yukon Territory some hundreds of miles away?
Well, fixing the prop was just a matter of taking if off the plane and beating it with a large rock until the tip was straight enough to work. The blown tire was another story. When they hit the sharp rock it ripped a large, lengthwise split half the diameter of the tire. Luckily for them, Gordon always packed a Case three-bladed pocketknife in his front pants pocket. One of the blades was an awl punch used to drill holes in leather. They took the tire off the plane and Gordon with awl in hand, punched small holes along both sides of the slit. Then they gathered up willows from the nearby creek bank and packed them inside the rubber wheel. The flexibility of the willow branches made it easier to maintain a round tire shape. Next, they took bootlaces and sewed the slit shut while ensuring the willows inside maintained the tires roundness.
Slapping the willow-packed tire back on the Cub, Warren was ready to attempt a flight out to the nearest airstrip. Because of the tire and propellers condition, weight was a critical factor, so they elected to leave Gordon behind in the Northwest Territories bush. Warren was to make the flight out, repair the plane, and be back in a few days. With fingers crossed, Warren taxied slowly down the road, lined up for takeoff, and jumped the little Super Cub into the mountain air. As Warren disappeared over the horizon I can’t imagine what dad was thinking, as he stood there alone in uncharted lands hundreds of miles from civilization.
Lady Luck was with Warren during his flight to Ross River. A new tire and prop were quickly mounted and a few days later he was back with Gordon continuing their exploratory hunt.
To this day in the town of White Horse, Yukon Territory, you’ll still find old-timers telling the tale of Gordon and Warren using backcountry ingenuity to make it back out of the bush.