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Finding the Anna

The search party consisted of myself, Dan Saunders, my son Mark Wilbur, and my daughter Lindsay (Wilbur) Martin. We arrived in Anchorage, AK from Colorado Springs, CO in the first week of June 2008. Our search aircraft consisted of a Cessna 150 on loan from my mom, Anne Wilbur, and an L-2 Taylorcraft on loan from the Alaska AviationHeritage Museum. The Cessna 150 was hangered in Girdwood, AK so Dan and I drove there to pick it up and ferry it to Anchorage. We had planned to land at the Lake Hood runway next to Anchorage International Airport. En route to Lake Hood we discovered that the radio was inoperative. With the radio out we were forced to either return to Girdwood or continue to Merrill Field, a smaller airport in downtown Anchorage. Merrill Field is the airport where I learned to fly and where my family’s aviation business was located. The no radio procedure is to fly toward the control tower flashing the landing lights until you get a green light to land or a red light to go around. So we flew right towards the control tower flashing our landing lights, we got a green light signal which meant we cleared to land. After landing we taxied to the local radio repair shop. It turned out to be a bad on\off switch, which the shop had in stock. The radio shop was able to repair the radio that afternoon. Dan stayed with the Cessna and I went to the museum to get checked out in the Tailorcraft, an insurance requirement.

At the museum, Dick Benner, a museum volunteer pilot/mechanic and I got the Tailorcraft out of the hangar, washed and pre-flighted it. The Tailorcraft was built in 1946 and had no electrical system which means that it has no electric starter or radio installed. The engine is started by hand propping. Radio communication was with a battery operated portable radio. The museum was unable to locate the portable radio so we called all the radio shops and were able to locate one we could buy at Merrill Field where Dan was waiting for the Cessna radio to be fixed. By the time Dan arrived at the museum with the Cessna the wind had increased to a point that my checkout had to be postponed until the next morning. I met Dick the next morning for my checkout only to find out that we couldn’t make the new radio work. Dick’s solution was to check me out in his own airplane, a Stinson, as it was also a tail wheel equipped aircraft like the Tailorcraft. I hadn’t flown a tail wheel equipped airplane for more than fifteen years so I was a little apprehensive. I took off, flew half way around the traffic pattern, expecting to do several landings, when Dick said to make it a full stop instead of touch and go. I wheeled it on almost perfectly, cleared the runway and Dick said that’s good enough for me. Flying isn’t something that you forget how to do. I bought Dick breakfast at a local diner and off I went to round up my crew and gear. The problem with the portable radio was solved and the weather forecast was good so we departed Lake Hood for Northway.

Dan and Mark in the Cessna and Lindsay and I in the Tailorcraft. The Cessna is a much faster airplane than the Tailorcraft by 30 miles per hour so Dan was practically slow flying to stay beside me in the Tailorcraft. Our planned route was from Anchorage to Palmer to Gulkana via Gulkana Pass to Big Delta via Slana Passto Northway, a total of over 400 miles. This is the same route of the Alaska – Canada highway; also known as the Alcan Highway. Our first fuel stop was Palmer. From there we headed up into Gulkana Pass. Along the way I had been teaching Lindsay how to read the aviation sectional map. As we started getting into the pass, Lindsay remarked, "Dad you probably need the map to know which way to go." I said, "Well, the highway goes all the way through the pass and that river down there goes to the top of the pass. I have flown through this pass over a hundred times, so I think I can find my way." Our second fuel stop was Gulkana Airport in the town of Glenallen, AK. The weather was still good so we continued on through Slana Pass to Northway, AK. It took seven hours to reach Northway, the nearest town to the crash site. The map that Jerry had given me showed five possible locations along the Nabesna River. He wrote on the map that the Anna was west of the river and north of the hills. One of the locations was actually in the hills. The other four were grouped together along the Nabesna River.

We began our search that evening, since we had continuous daylight at that time of the year. We searched the four areas that were on the Nabesna River, and I flew just above the tree tops in the Tailorcarft; Dan flew the Cessna at one thousand feed above ground. We searched the area for about an hour before returning to Northway for the evening. We were looking for the ski sticking out of a pond, a proverbial needle in a haystack. Two of the areas were high ground and had no ponds. Unfortunately, we didn't see anything in any of the ponds near the other two areas. That evening we hung out at the lodge, making it a point to talk to anyone that would listen about what we were looking for. The next morning we continued the search of the same area and took pictures of all the marsh areas with a digital camera so we could look at them more closely on a computer. After examining the photos we were unable to locate anything that resembled an aircraft ski.

I continued calling local residents but was unable to find out any other information about the location of the Anna. While eating lunch, several local residents approached us. They all knew of different aircraft that had crashed in the area, but none knew of the Anna. We were getting ready to go search some more when we were approached by two individuals who thought they knew what we were looking for. They said their families had trapped in the area and knew of the crash site. I gave them a map and asked them to try and find the location. After about 20 minutes, Keith Albert and Joe Spitler both agreed on the Anna's location. It turned out to be the fifth area on the map that Jerry Chisum had given me that we hadn't searched yet.

Dan and I decided to go in the Tailorcraft by ourselves to do one final search. Our initial search of the area was very difficult due to a rain shower in the area, but Dan spotted something in the water by some moose. It was very windy and turbulent so I discontinued the search for a few minutes to allow the weather to improve. When we returned to the search area, Dan was able to find the same spot although the moose were gone. We found the Anna in a pond with the ski sticking out of the water, just as Jerry had told me. We flew back to Northway to upload the pictures to make sure we had proof. We were ecstatic to have found the Anna! One of the locals offered to take us up the river by boat, but I declined the offer as we were not prepared to hike to the crash shite. Our flight back to Anchorage was hampered only by a small rain shower in Slana Pass. We arrived back in Anchorage that evening.