JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
According to Alaska.org, the Turnagain Arm bore tide is among the most powerful in the world. A layer of ocean water 6 to 10 feet tall travels on top of the Cook Inlet surface at 10 to 15 mph, swallowing anything in its path.
A Taylorcraft F-19 was flipped upside down just offshore May 16 near the Goose Bay Airport west of Anchorage. It wasn’t long before the rushing tide claimed the stricken aircraft, likely for good.
Thanks to the efforts of Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Steven Borcherding, 176th Maintenance Squadron C-17 Globemaster III aerospace craftsman; U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Lawrie, 3rd Maintenance Squadron C-17 aerospace craftsman; Alaska Army National Guard Spc. Zach Cherry, 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, warrant officer flight school selectee; the Alaska State Troopers; and Matanuska-Susitna Borough first responders, the Taylorcraft’s two pilots made it out relatively unscathed.
Cherry said he was the first on scene, sighting the blue F-19 while he was working on pilot currency in his Cessna 140. He said he almost missed the aircraft among the dozens of wrecked cars littering the shore.
“They crashed right where everyone kicks cars off the cliff, so something caught my eye, and I said, ‘Huh, that’s a funny-looking car,’” Cherry recalled. “I came back around again and said, ‘Oh wait, that’s an airplane.’ So, I stopped, shut down, and ran over to the cliff.”
Cherry said before he touched down, he heard Borcherding’s Cessna 180 and made a radio call asking him to relay the situation to Anchorage Approach Control.
Previously, Borcherding, his father, Steven Sr., and Lawrie were on their way to the Borcherding’s cabin at Cow Lake when they came into jolting turbulence. Having just fitted the 180 with fat tires for landing in the bush, the younger Borcherding figured the setback might make for a good opportunity to complete practice touch-and-goes at Goose Bay.
“I turned due east, flew straight over to Goose Bay, and called 5 miles out roughly, and that’s when [Cherry] heard I was inbound,” Borcherding said.
Borcherding flew over the wreckage, seeing for himself the dire situation unfolding as the tide moved to claim the overturned aircraft.
“You hear about this stuff, and you try to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but when it actually happens right in front of you, it is simply an unreal sight,” he said.
Borcherding said he landed and taxied over near Cherry’s 140. They didn’t know what they would find or how challenging it would be to reach the stranded pilots.
With paved roads covering a tiny fraction of the 665,000 square miles of Alaska, small aircraft are often the only means of reaching vast swaths of the state dotted with small airfields.
“If you go out to dinner, someone in the restaurant is going to have their private pilot license,” Borcherding said, explaining the sheer number of Alaskans qualified to fly in the Alaska bush.
Borcherding said he remembers wanting to be a pilot since he was 5 years old, but the aviation bug grew more urgent during his teens.
“By the time I was 13 or 14, I had seen [flight operations] done so many times, I thought I should try and do this,” he said.
Borcherding said he began pursuing his pilot license at the age of 16, finally earning a full endorsement at the age of 18, two days before shipping out to Basic Military Training. After technical school, he went to work on the behemoth C-17 cargo planes with regular Air Force Total Force Initiative partners like Lawrie. He said he hopes to earn an officer’s commission, attend Undergraduate Pilot Training, and fly military aircraft.
Cherry said he had similar ambitions, pursuing a pilot license to become more competitive for the UPT board.
“I just kept going, and suddenly I was a commercial pilot,” Cherry said. “Then COVID hit, I was hiring commercial pilots. I got my instructor’s license, and here I am a flight instructor at Merrill Field.”
Cherry, formerly an Air National Guard HC-130J Combat King II crew chief with 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said he recently crossed over to the Army Guard as a warrant officer selectee in order to fly UH-60M Black Hawk medevac helicopters.
Cherry said flying small aircraft in the busy Alaska skies can sometimes prove daunting.
“Alaska presents unique aviation challenges like radio communications and other services being tougher,” he said. “Also, the airspace here is absolutely nuts. Flying out of the Anchorage bowl is some of the most complicated airspace in the country.”
Borcherding noted how the airspace surrounding Anchorage is called “Part 93 Airspace.” The name indicates Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations, Aeronautics and Space, Chapter 1, Part 93, which is entirely dedicated to the area because it includes Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Merrill Field, Lake Hood, and dozens of small and private airfields as well as lakes that are used by float planes.
Added to the complexity of the air space is the ever-changing and often foul Alaska weather.
“Alaska is not forgiving,” Borcherding said. “The climate is challenging. In the Anchorage Bowl – the ‘practice area’ we call it – you’re okay. If you go any farther than that, you better have survival equipment, a second [means of communications], and you better have an [emergency locator transmitter] working.”
When the combined party of Borcherding’s and Cherry’s Cessnas disembarked their aircraft, they grabbed their survival gear and medical emergency kits, and they were in for a trek leading from their perch on top of the sea wall down to the narrow beach getting narrower under advancing water.
“It was a long walk on that beach,” Lawrie said. “I don’t know if it was the silt or what not. I wasn’t prepared in my equipment carrying that stuff.”
“You could see the water creeping up,” Borcherding recalled. “It was daunting walking on the silt. You could see on the cliff side where the line is for the water, and we were definitely under that line.”
According to the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers website, the Turnagain Arm silt is made up of super-saturated particles, called glacial flour, which is ground up by glaciers and carried by streams into the inlet.
Borcherding said when they made contact with the two crash victims, he recognized one as a flight instructor he worked with towards earning his float rating. Though no one was badly hurt, the instructor had lost her shoes in the crash, and she had minor injuries.
“We were focused on assisting her, getting her as close as we could for the fire department to hoist her out,” Borcherding said.
Though Borcherding, his father, and Lawrie, initially tried to get her to higher ground by helping her to walk, Borcherding said they found it easier to carry her due to her lack of footwear and the time constraints of the incoming tide.
According to an Alaska State Troopers news release, the Central Matanuska-Susitna Fire Department performed a high-angle rope rescue to safely hoist the instructor who was then transported to a Matanuska-Susitna area hospital. The pilot was able to hike to a landing near the airport and departed the scene without requiring medical treatment.
Cherry said regardless of level of experience, every Alaska aviator counts on the community during times of duress.
“If you fly long enough, something is going to happen to you,” he said. “Eventually, you’re going to be the one out there on the mud flats upside down. We did what I would want someone else to do when I’m the one out there upside down on the mud flats because my motor died. Part of being in the aviation community here is helping each other out as much as you can.”
Borcherding said he was pleased he could help his aviation mentor.
“I’m happy we were there,” he said. “I’m happy we decided to go flying. I’m grateful everyone was able to walk away from a tragic incident like this, and we could help them.”