Nowhere to Land

“Nowhere to Land,” Ensign, Jan. 2006, 66–67

Nowhere to Land

In January 1951 we lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, just 100 miles (160 km) south of the Arctic Circle. I was a United States Air Force pilot and had been ordered to Nome, Alaska, for two weeks to ferry freight to various sites.

During the Alaskan winters the daylight hours are very short, so operations requiring daylight had to be conducted in a narrow window when the sun was above the horizon. In January there was just less than one hour of daylight at midday. I was delivering cargo to a small outpost at Gambell, a native village on St. Lawrence Island, just a few miles off the Chukchi Peninsula of Siberia and about 200 miles (320 km) across the Bering Sea from Nome.

St. Lawrence Island had no airfield at that time, so we used a frozen lake near the coast. With 19 inches (48 cm) of ice on the lake it was safe to land a loaded C47 transport. But there was no lighting available, so we had to plan our arrival for sunrise, about 11:30 a.m., and our departure before sunset at 12:30 p.m., one hour later.

The weather reporter had assured me the weather would be fine all day, so I elected to take less than a full load of fuel in order to carry another 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of cargo to the men at Gambell. Our fuel was sufficient to take us to Gambell and back to Nome with enough to fly 30 extra minutes.

We took off at 10:00 a.m. A few stars were visible through the scattered clouds. We arrived at Gambell on schedule—just as the Arctic sun was peeping over the horizon—landed, and started unloading cargo to the delight of the troops.

By the time we were ready to take off again, it was getting dark. And just after takeoff we received an urgent call from the weather station at Gambell telling us we should check the weather at Nome. As we flew we radioed Nome and learned that an Arctic blizzard was moving in. They were expecting clouds at ground level with visibility of less than one mile (1.6 km) within an hour. The Nome airport had no radar instrument landing system. Under those conditions the airport was closed for landing. With only a half hour of extra fuel, we would be unable to reach an alternate airport. And with a massive storm bearing down, there would be no airports in northern Alaska where we could land anyway.

Needless to say, our situation was precarious. Because the outside temperature was -40° F (-40° C) with wind gusting to 35 mph (55 km/h), any attempt to bail out with parachutes would have meant nearly instant death.

I had been taught to pray as a child and had always said my daily prayers, but never had I needed the Lord’s help more than on that day. I asked Heavenly Father to tell me what to do. I had a wife and three children back in Fairbanks, and my copilot and crew chief also had families. We knew we would never see our families again unless Heavenly Father helped us. After praying and flying for nearly an hour, I had the feeling that I must land somewhere in the vicinity of the Nome airport so that maybe someone could find us if we survived a crash landing.

Nome radio had notified the Alaskan Air Command of our predicament and received an urgent inquiry about my intentions. When I advised Nome that I would land there, they quickly responded that it would be impossible with the existing weather conditions. But they offered no alternative.

As we neared Nome, I told the radio operator we would attempt as many low approaches as fuel would allow to see if we could find an opening in the clouds. We made three such approaches and saw nothing but blinding snow. On our fourth approach I saw a red light for a fraction of a second. Then as we reached our minimum altitude I saw a white light in front of me for a fraction of a second, just long enough for me to line up where I had seen it. I was pretty sure I was over the airfield but had no idea exactly where.

I knew it was now or never. I was expecting a crash and possibly an explosion. Instead, the airplane landed in the middle of the runway and came to a stop without any problem.

The odds against such a landing were astronomical. There was no way I could have put that airplane down like that without the Lord’s help. How did He help me? First, He told me where to attempt to land despite all protests from the ground. Second, by some process unknown to me, He guided me onto that runway.

I have a testimony of the power of prayer. Nothing is impossible for the Lord. I know He will help us if we earnestly seek Him and strive to be obedient to His teachings.