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Buck Bukowski
Buck Bukowski
Buck Bukowski talks about a plane crash he and a friend witnessed while on a hunting trip. The pilot wanted the hunters to mush the passengers into town instead of calling for a rescue. He tells another story about a plane crash he was involved in near Nightmute, where they stayed the night on a mountain-top in February while waiting for someone to find them.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2011-27-01

Project: Bethel Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Jan 25, 1996
Narrator(s): Buck Bukowski
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Family has bad luck with plane crashes

Story about a hunting trip from Chevak

While at camp, they hear a plane fly by

The plane is in trouble

Plane crashes

Pilot doesn't want to be rescued

Search party comes to the rescue

Worked as a carpenter for BIA

Hired a charter flight to Nightmute

Plane crashes

Setting up a shelter on the snow

Emergency Locator Beacon

Hal Walsh comes to the rescue

Coming to Bethel to be treated

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Buck Bukowski: Ah, there's people around here that won't fly with me. I'm not a pilot but -- Audience member: Maybe that's why.

Buck Bukowski: There's been five people in my family have been in four separate plane wrecks.

And one of them a fatality. So nobody in my family wants to fly and not too many of my friends fly with me.

I could tell about my own wrecks or my other families wrecks, but maybe later, because we're having fun now.

Anyway, I'd been up seal hunting with Simon Unin. An Eskimo buddy of mine from Chevak.

And we had a couple of weeks of bad stormy weather so we were village bound and the weather got good and we loaded up our dog teams.

Him and I had the only two dog teams. Everybody else had a snowmachine, so we'd leave at the tail end of the storm and get there while everybody else was still in the village waiting for the weather to clear.

And we'd loaded up a drum of stove oil or gasoline and all our dog food and a bunch of stuff. Our boat was already down there.

We had to go 20 miles to the mouth of the Kashunuk River. It took four or five hours to mush that far.

Then when we got there are tent was under four or five feet of snow.

They - the village parked all the boats along the beach and the way the wind blew, if there was 20 boats there were 20 big drifts 100 feet long, four feet high because two weeks of the wind blowing in the same direction, it's like a bunch of waves there.

When we got our boat dug out and flipped over and just started cooking chow for us and cooking chow for the dogs

This plane goes flying down the coast. And we're right on the edge of the ocean. We're, there's about a half a mile of ice and then there's open water and we're gonna put the boats in the water the next morning and chase some seals.

And on the other side of us is the edge of the river which is frozen solid all the way across.

And this plane comes flying by and we watch it going brrrrrrrrr putt, putt, putt - brrrrrrrrr putt, putt, putt, till it goes out of sight. We didn't think any more of it.

Maybe an hour and a half later this plane comes back. And I say, "Hey, I can hear that airplane coming."

So we're looking but we can't quite see it yet and we're looking up here trying to find it.

But we hear this brrrrrrrrrrrrr putt, putt, putt and then we don't hear anything. And then we hear brrrrrrrrrr putt, putt, putt it was way down here.

It kept coming closer and closer and finally we could see it. It kept making that same noise and every time he went silent he'd drop down and then he'd start up again -- brrrrrr putt, putt, putt -- brrrrrr putt, putt, putt.

I said, "Gee that guy's in trouble." And he flew by us and he saw that we had dug the tent out and he saw two dog teams and he saw a boat and

our camp and all our color and our gear there and he realized he was around civilization somewhere and started circling around.

"Simon, he's gotta land but if he lands right here and he hits all them five foot drifts by all those boats he's gonna, you know, he's gonna flip. Let's run down to the beach, onto the ice because the river's flat and there's no snow."

And by this time the snow, when the sun shines all day in the spring, the snow, if it's this deep that's how far your foot goes down.

And that's how far the plane tires would sink too, you know.

So we - we ran, maybe it's a 100 yards, through all the snow and we're huffing and puffing and we get down there and we start signaling this plane whose flying around in a circle.

We're trying to line him up. I used to do that on an aircraft carrier. It worked all the time.

And we're going like this and we're going like this and he lines right up with us and he's flying goes right over us. And I was hoping he'd kept the engine going until he got by me and he did but it didn't land.

He made another big circle around and he comes in brrrrrrr putt, putt, putt and then no more noise and he came in, we call it silent or dry or quiet or something.

But he didn't come where we wanted him. He landed up on top right into all those drifts and he hit the first drift and he went way up in the air and he came down like this and hit the second drift and stood right on its end.

We're a 100 yards away and we got to run uphill through snow this deep.

Simon starts running and I say, "Simon, we're too tired. Don't run. We're not going to be able to help him when we get there. We'll be too exhausted." He says, "Oh, I'll make it."

And this plane is on its nose but now, all of a sudden, this big giant white cloud goes up. I said, oh, my God, we're gonna have to pull him out of a fire. I don't want to do this.

And then I started laughing cause all it was was snow got under the crawling of the engine and made steam.

It would have put out any fire that might have got started, you know.

So we get up there and the plane was still on its nose and people are in there hanging on their seat belts and we open up the door.

The pilot gets out and we start letting the passengers out and we say, "You okay, you okay?"

There was a preacher's wife from Mekoryuk, was the first person out of the plane. She said, in perfect English, "Where can I go to the bathroom? "

I says, "Well, right behind that tent is where everybody else goes." So she did. Everybody was okay. Nobody was hurt and the pilot just called up and canceled his flight plan.

I says, "Aren't you gonna tell em you crashed or something. Aren't you gonna have a plane come out here and pick these guys up."

He says, "No, you guys are going to continue my charter. I'll pay you to take us." I says,

"My dogs are tired. We pulled drums of fuel down here and it's been four hours of hard work for these dogs.

We ain't even gotten their supper cooked yet. And we're beat. Just wait here. A search party will come." "Oh no, I didn't call no search party." I said, "Well, don't worry. If you're supposed to be in Hooper Bay there will be a party. I know, I live here. They'll come, you know."

And Hooper Bay in a straight line was right over there about 25 miles away. Chevak was right over here 20 miles away.

And Hooper Bay, the Bay itself makes a big circle like so. The only way to get to Hooper Bay is to go almost to Chevak and then over.

He says, "Well, just take us to Hooper Bay." "My dogs can't swim that far. You know, we're not going to do that. "

He says, "Well, I'll pay you." I said, "The bay is open - we can't get across it. You have to go to Chevak and by then you can get on a snowmachine and go over.

And I don't even want to take you to Chevak. Just wait here. They'll come and get you."

"No, no, no." So I says, "Okay, let's go in the house, have tea, tea in the tent. Have some tea and crackers and whatever, sardines, spam.

We'll get the dogs fed. Give them a half an hour and then we'll take you." So there's the pilot, the preacher, his wife and a deacon or somebody.

And I took two guys and Simon took two guys and we headed back. And it's dark now.

Every once in a while on the coast we hit a little high ground, you know. Eight or ten feet above sea level.

And you can see for 20 miles if you get that high up. And I saw the lights in Hooper Bay kind of split heading toward Chevak. I said, well, that's gotta be 20 snowmachines coming for a search party.

But he's down in a sleeping bag in the sled and nobody could see this. I got a musher's headlight on and I'm up as high as I can on my sled and get on top of the gas can and kind of go like this with the light, you know.

All them headlights that were heading this way kind of turned like this and 15 minutes later I'm out in front of my dog shining my light up and down the team so these 60 mile an hour snowmachines don't run us over.

And he said, "Hey, we didn't call for no search party." He's worried about his insurance and he's worried about FAA and all this stuff here, you know.

I said, "I didn't call them. Here they are." So we only got to go about 4 or 5 miles and got to go back down to our camp. And the search party brought them back to Hooper Bay. And that's - that's it. Nobody died.

Buck Bukowski: I've been hearing these guys talk about Nelson Island and Noatak and Tununak and Toksook Bay.

I seen the wreck of George’s [Hohman] in Toksook Bay the first time I went there. The plane was still there.

I was working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a carpenter in Chevak and I got promoted to foreman and got sent on a job to Nightmute.

Spent six months in Nightmute and then we broke down for Christmas vacation and got sent home.

They called up the only telephone in the village of Chevak, pay phone, and told me to charter a plane and take a bunch of plumbing material to Nightmute and meet the plumbing foreman out there.

Hire a crew back up and get to work in February. This is 19 years ago.

Well, I felt pretty important. You know I used to pay $37.00 dollars to get from Chevak to Bethel and now I'm going to charter a $350.00 dollar flight and I don't even have to pay for it.

I got Sea Airmotive, the most expensive outfit they had.

And we - they landed out in Chevak with a Cherokee 6 which is a pretty good sized plane. Six passenger or so.

We had 10 foot lengths of copper pipe inside it, a couple of my toolboxes, all my gear for being there six months, winter gear, summer gear, parkas, everything I needed.

Boxes of nails. We really loaded that plane up with, more like a pickup truck.

And it was a beautiful day, February. We headed right straight for the coast. Going to Newtok or Nightmute.

And we're following the coast down and I'm looking out the window cause it's just barely starting to be seal hunting time and some of my buddies are out on the beach.

And I'm trying to see if I see big blood spots on the icebergs and on the snow and finding out if they're catching anything and I'm not gonna get to hunt, so I was watching.

It's a low wing aircraft. I'm having to watch in front of the wings as I look out the window.

And all of a sudden I see this mountain in front of me.

I mean it's out the side. I look and well, we'd been flying to Nelson Island which is, it's flat for 60 miles.

I mean about 4 feet above sea level for 60 miles and all of a sudden Nelson Island is this big mountain.

I don't know, 1700 feet? Jimmix Samuelson: Yeah, it's about that.

Buck Bukowski: Well we were flying at 360 feet. And so we turned to the left.

If we'd have turned to the right we'd have gone to Tununak and then Toksook and then around the mountain to Nightmute.

Well if he turned left and we went to Newtok and then supposed to go around the mountain.

But I look ahead of us and I see this big bunch of blowing snow coming over the mountain.

I mean this is, we're in beautiful nice clear weather and here's this blizzard.

As high as I can see and I don't see no more mountains or don't see nothing. We flew into this white out.

And it's like being inside a milk bottle. So I light up a cigarette. I mean you could smoke in those days on an airplane. I mean they had ashtrays and everything, you know.

And I woke up three hours later. I was upside down and I was in a parka and I was being held up by the seat belt.

I had busted ribs on one side and cracked ribs on the other and my feet were in the air and my arms were in the air.

My mustache was kind of all like this, with blood and snot and frost and ice, cuz it was February and I’d been there for three hours.

And I had this carrot on the end of my nose, it was blood and snot and mustache.

I’d split the end of my nose open. And after I got out of my seatbelt and fell down and climbed out.

I tried -- I tried to move but every time I tried to turn I'd bump -- bump it into something.

The pilot finally came up to me and said, "Oh, I see you're okay." I said, "Yeah." I said, "You weren't here a while ago. Where were you?"

And I'm still kind of dazed and that's pretty bad when you're already Polish to begin with, you know.

So he said he was out picking up parts, you know. And now I'm finally on the outside of the airplane and I'm looking around and no wheels, no wings, no doors, no windows, no engine, no tail. Just two seats with some metal around it. That's what I was in.

And I look and I see there three swimming pool size holes behind me gradually going up.

The plane was in the last one. I asked him what happened and he said, "We crashed."

I didn't remember none of it. I still don't remember. All I knew was that we flew into this white out and he didn't see the mountain and we hit it.

Not trying to land, mind you. We were just flying. And it's February and it's cold. The crash had sucked my socks down around my toes and I didn't know it.

But I figured we'd better get some shelter. So we, I had all that gear. I had sleeping bags, army blankets.

I had every kind of thing I could think of for these two months I was gonna stay there and he didn't have nothing, you know.

So we tried draping a sleeping bag over the airplane but it wouldn't fit.

And then we tried draping it on the other end and it wouldn't fit, so we picked up a wing that didn't weigh nothing

and leaned it against the side of the plane and then picked up the other wind and we made a triangle between the fuselage and one wing and the other wing.

And then I took all those copper pipes we had and I laid them on top of the wing and I took the Army blanket and took nails out of my pocket and stuck the blanket around the copper pipe and stuck a nail through it and just did that.

And then we put snow on top of it to block it.

Went in and out where the door used to be to get inside this thing and brought some chairs in there. We're pretty good in there and stayed in there pretty good.

And then I stove up after that I couldn't move, so aft - you know when the shock set in.

We stayed on the mountaintop in February with no heat, no fuel, no nothing - 26 hours.

And I kept asking him, "is that emergency locator beacon on?" He said, "Yeah, it's on, it's on."

And he - it goes on in impact and we crashed forward and there's a weighted arm on this emergency locater device that you don't have to do it. If you crash it's going to do it itself. And he says, "It's all the way forward. See?" I said, "Okay, fine."

And then I says, "You know, it's February and we might be here a week. Let's turn it off at night when it got dark." He says, "Yeah, a good idea" and he turned it off.

And we spent the night and the next morning, kind of bum weather, not terrible.

I said," I don't know if they miss us or not. Let's turn that beacon back on." He turned it back on and there was a Sea Airmotive pilot that had spent the night at Newtok.

They’d been out looking for us but had no idea where to look.

That thing didn't work until it was turned off once and then turned back on.

And he heard it go on at 10:00 AM when we turned it on. He came and found us.

He couldn't land where we were so he landed on top of the mountain on skis and he skied right past us. Couldn't stop.

He went all the way down to the bay and he tried to make a turn on this nice flat ice and his ski went into a pressure ridge crack and then he was hung up. His wing tip was on the ground.

That guys name was Hal Walsh. A good pilot. A good, a nice guy. He hikes up to us.

I say, "Well, we gotta get down to that plane." And I says, "I'm not leaving my tools up here. I know you guys ain't never gonna do nothing up here again. I'm not leaving this plane unless I got my tools." So they lugged all this 300 pounds of stuff down the mountain and they tried to set me on a sleeping bag and drag me down.

But it hurt. So I said, "No, I'll walk down." I got down about two hours later. They were there in about 5 minutes.

And they picked me up and set me on top of the wheel, on top of the ski to counter-balance. And they all went on the other side and tried to lift up the plane.

They couldn't get it and then National Guard helicopter came and got us.

And they brought us back to Bethel in the helicopter and then they loaded me back in the back of a pickup truck.

I don't know why they didn't use an ambulance, but February and I'm laying in back of this pickup truck with this carrot sticking out of my nose.

And they get me to the hospital and then rather than let me walk in after riding in the back of the pickup, they put me on a stretcher and take me through the front door of the hospital.

And I'm of course, my hat was frozen to my head because I had cuts up here too and the blood froze and dried.

Got this big carrot and black eyes and busted ribs and to stove up to walk.

And they bring --and I see this woman from Chevak looking down at me and she's saying in Eskimo, "Oh, you poor thing."

They get me in there and the nurse tried to take the carrot off and I said, "No, don't touch --"

And she tried to take it off and it split my nose wide open and I just shot blood all over her.

She put it back on and the other nurse said - the other nurse said, "We'll take it off."

And they took a hot wash cloth and they just kept putting a hot wash cloth off and melted my nose down.

I stayed four days in the hospital. Two weeks in the Kuskokwim Inn, cause they needed the bed space I guess.

And then one more day in the hospital and then nine days in the Kusko Inn and then they brought me up there, released me and let me go back to the village. But thirty some days for that flight.