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Running out of aces

Running out of aces

Mike Murphy’s harrowing flight during Yellowknife’s smoke-pocalypse
By Katie Weaver
Sep 21
2016
From the August/September 2016 Issue

So we’re going from Yellowknife to Credit Lake, about an hour north. It was July 30th in 2014, the year we had all the smoke from the forest fires. It was in mid-afternoon. There was a lot of low-hanging smoke and it wasn’t really moving around a lot. We held at Credit Lake for about an hour.

On our way back, the visibility started dropping down with smoke and the wind had picked up. I dropped down a bit from altitude so I could see a bit better. It was not bad until about 50 miles north of Yellowknife, and then it got really nasty. All I could see was straight down. I talked to one of our pilots that had just taken off outta Yellowknife, and he says, “Mike, you’re gonna have a tough time getting in, it’s really bad here in town.” When I got about 30 miles back the visibility got really reduced and we got this black ash on the windscreen. I’ve flown in smoke before but I’d never seen this black ash comin’ out of the sky. 

I called to find out what the weather was like in town. The fellow I talked to said that they’re getting lightning strikes in all quadrants and visibility is very low. I thought, “Wow, this isn’t lookin’ really too good, so I headed to Awry Lake.

The weather was even worse there. It was just completely brown, you couldn’t see anything out the window. So I thought I’d just go back and land on a lake. At this point, because of my flying around and the headwind, I’d used up the fuel that we would normally keep as our reserve.

I told my co-pilot, I says, “You know what, if you see any kind of water, just anything, we have to land. We can’t fly in this weather.” We’re getting into severe turbulence, it was tossin’ us around a lot. It was probably the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered. Just land the plane, I thought.

My right hand was on the control and I actually had my left hand out the window trying to scrape off this black sooty stuff that was fallin’ down on us and I could hardly see nothing.

I’m not really a Kenny Rogers fan, but when I was flying around with my hand out that window trying to clean the soot off, these lyrics came into my mind and I have absolutely no idea how that came to be: “Son, you’ve run out of aces.” Pilots always have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C. If one thing doesn’t work, you have another back-up plan. But at this point I was starting to realize that I’d used up all the plans. I’d used ‘em all up. 

All the lakes I could see looking straight down were brown water, covered in lily pads. You gotta be really careful landing in those because they’re usually small. You could start to land on it and suddenly you’d run right into the shoreline.

My co-pilot grabbed my right arm and he pointed and right away I saw a bit of blue water. I yanked the power off the plane and down we went. I just dove at it.

We landed. Within a couple minutes the sky went from a kind of yellowy tan colour to completely black. I worked at Con Mine underground and unless you’ve ever seen complete blackness, there’s nothing that compares to it. Every once in a while there’d be these huge lightning strikes—it was like a welding flash. 

I couldn’t even see the plane’s tail, and almost backed the plane into a cliff. So I ended up docking the plane frontwards on a slopey rock. Normally, I woulda shut the engines off, but if I did that, the airplane would have slid back into the lake. I climbed under the moving propellers and tied the floats to trees. I told my co-pilot, “We’re staying right here, man.

The Bembridges, who have a cabin on Awry Lake, took almost two hours to find us in the smoke. They said, “How’s things goin’?” I said, “Well, we just had another Twin Otter adventure… that’s what we do!”

I followed their boat in my plane to their cabin to refuel. It was 10 at night. Then Mrs. Bembridge says, “Mike, you look pretty tired. Would you like a Caesar?” I told my co-pilot and my passenger, “Guys, we’re staying here for the night. We are not goin’ anywhere.”

The next morning, our airplane, which is normally white, was completely black.

Edited and condensed as told to Katie Weaver