Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Jack Jefford, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Jack Jefford on September 3, 1960 by Sandy Jensen. The location of the interview is unknown, although it is believed to be in Anchorage, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Jack talks about having to make a forced landing in his airplane near Nome, Alaska, and how he survived for many days while he waited to be rescued.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 98-11-11_PT.2

Project: Pioneer Aviators Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Sep 3, 1960
Narrator(s): Jack Jefford
Interviewer(s): Sandy Jensen
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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Sections

Making a forced landing in an old Stinson airplane

Being in survival mode with his downed plane

Spending 7 days in the wilderness after the airplane crash

Importance of pilots being prepared

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Transcript

JACK JEFFORD: I might take this opportunity to tell about a forced landing, like, seems like all the Alaskan pilots or the old–timers have had.

And this incident I -- making one of these mail runs around the coast, which originated in Nome, and the first stop was at Solomon, second stop at Golovin.

I was flying this old Gull–wing Stinson. And I gassed it up at Golovin and took on a load of mail, and it was -- it was pretty heavy. And there was a very strong east wind blowing, and an overcast of about 4500 feet.

So I started Golovin to Elim, which crosses a little mountain range. I think the mountains are around 2000 to 2500 feet high. And going higher further the north.

Well, there was cloud cover to the south, and my route that I elected to fly was further north than usual, which put me up into higher terrain. And I was bumping along the base of this overcast, and I could actually see open water in the vicinity of Elim on the other side, and I got in this downdraft.

And the airplane started sagging down, and every minute I expected it to be boosted back up again. And then the next thing I knew, I'd get down below the tops of the mountains.

And the wind was so strong it was blowing snow, and as soon as I got into this snow, I lost all of my visibility.

And I popped the flaps down, and the next thing I knew, I -- I hit the ground. It broke off one ski and a wing tip.

And I shut off the motor and just couldn't believe that I was down and in one piece, and without much damage to the aircraft.

So we had just installed a radio, and it had a trailing antenna, which was trailing out behind, and I hadn't had time to wind the antenna in. But fortunately, my forward speed was so low that it didn't break the wire.

Well, I was up on this barren mountaintop, and no way to get the antenna up in the air. And I'm realizing that my battery life was limited, so I sent out an SOS and listened.

And this particular radio was CW only. It had no voice feature. So I listened awhile and no answer, and I thought, well, I'd try again at night when signals would -- might perhaps be better.

So I got out my sleeping bag. And the Stinson with all the mail that it had in it was quite crowded, so I made sort of a nest in this mail and crawled in the sleeping bag.

And I woke up about eight or nine o'clock that evening. And I thought, well, I'll have a go at this radio again. So I could see the battery was fast failing, due to the loss of efficiency with the cold.

So I sent several SOS's and was tuning over the band, and gosh I heard my call. So I established communication with a station of Pan American's at Nulato. And I briefly told him that I was down and all right, but not too sure of my position.

And he said he'd spread the word.

So the next day the weather broke a little bit and I could hear several airplanes searching for me. And then the day after that the weather turned bad.

And so I learned the -- quite a lesson about survival.

One thing, I built a snow house. Just happened that we had an old carpenter's saw in the airplane, which I used to cut snow blocks. And I made a round igloo with that little tunnel to enter it.

And then instead of closing the top in with snow blocks, why, I spread the wing cover over the top, which let it breathe. And I found that I was quite comfortable in there out of the wind. And this particular spot I was down, why, the wind just blew a gale up there all the time.

But no timber within several miles.

And then the longer I set there, why, the more the -- the wind started drifting over the airplane, obscuring it.

So I think on the fourth day it dawned bright and clear, and I got all my mail out and strung these sacks out so they'd show up black against the snow. And did everything that I could to -- to make some sort of an indication to any airplane that might be flying overhead. I couldn't -- I didn't have anything I could set afire unless it was the mail itself.

So then -- this day there was -- I counted about five or six airplanes that were flying around. Some of them came over me at a high altitude. And of course, the days are short and in time they all quit searching.

And when I began to -- my radio then and the battery had give up so I couldn't establish contact anymore. And then it started snowing again.

And the can of rations that I had -- I was rationing myself to one meal a day and got to where I was sleeping 18 hours a day. Everyday I religiously opened up my sleeping bag and aired it out.

And then for something to do, I kept building these snow houses. In fact, I built a wall along the front of the airplane, about 7 feet high and about 40 feet long, just -- just to keep occupied.

And I began to get -- to have a little panic that they never would find me, which I think is understandable in circumstances such as these.

Well, I think on the seventh day, when it dawned bright and clear, and I got up and I thought, well, they'll be out today. And I brushed the snow off of my mail sacks and laid them out so they'd be as conspicuous as possible.

And all at once I heard a roar overhead, and a pilot for Ferguson Airways located me. So he circled around a little bit, and I saw a dog team coming.

And they had had a dog team sent up from Golovin, which had been in this area for this week that I was up there, searching. And they had talked to the dog team driver when they got up to where I was at, and they had been on all sides of me several days before.

So then I also found out I was within two miles of a cabin that I could have been snug as a bug in a rug. But I had always decided I'd stick with the airplane, which I did in this case, and I think it -- it's wise to do that unless a guy knows for sure where he's at.

SANDY JENSEN: Hm, mm, Definitely.

JACK JEFFORD: Other than just short forced landings by weather where you go on -- that's the only time I ever was down and had the airplane dinged up before I --

We later flew this airplane out. We had a little welding to do on it, it wasn't hurt bad, it was just a miracle that it wasn't.

One thing, when I landed this wind was at such a high velocity, my forward speed I don't think was over 15 miles an hour when I struck the ground.

But I often think if a guy was hurt at all, why, and alone like that, he -- he wouldn't last long in this country. SANDY JENSEN: No.

JACK JEFFORD: But there again, if you just don't panic and if you have a good sleeping bag, keep yourself warm, why --

SANDY JENSEN: Planes should never go out without survival equipment.

JACK JEFFORD: No, that's right. And -- but I had also found I could eat one meal a day, and I almost was hibernating like a bear. I was sleeping 18 -- a good 18 hours.

It seemed like the more I slept, the more I wanted to sleep. And I was conserving my energy, and I did quite well up there. SANDY JENSEN: Uh–hum.

JACK JEFFORD: But I think all the pilots up here in the early day, I mean, at least all of them had something happen to them like this.

SANDY JENSEN: Well, they were bound to with the old planes they were flying and --

JACK JEFFORD: And lack of facilities. SANDY JENSEN: Uh–hum.