2010 - The Ghost Airplane at Cripple

By Ernie Borjon


On Tuesday, February 23, 2010, I met up with Marty at the Willow Airport gas pump, about 1:15PM for a trip to McGrath to begin flying supplies to the Iditarod Trail checkpoints in that area, namely, Rohn, Ophir and Cripple.


Already at Willow was Wes Erb who was getting ready to depart for McGrath, as well.  Wes was almost ready to go when I arrived and so departed just before Marty landed.  He said he would relay any weather information to us that was pertinent to our route of flight.


After topping off with fuel, Marty and I departed together as a flight of two to the west and McGrath.  I filed a flight plan with the Flight Service Station in Talkeetna just after departing Willow.  We climbed up to 7500 ft. to get over the scattered clouds that initially lay over the Alaska Range and after conferring with Wes on the radio we climbed on up to 8500’ until passing Nikolai and then gradually descended to get under the 1800’ being reported at McGrath.


After landing and unloading our personal gear to the bunkhouse, we were asked to go to the loading area, load up and make a trip to Cripple before ending the day.  I also took on more fuel but Marty who has long-range tanks declined because he said he had adequate quantity.


Wes also headed for Cripple but was well ahead of us and we did not expect to see him along our route.  Marty and I departed and figured we could easily make the round trip well before dark.


The ceiling at McGrath was a little bit better when we departed and the weather to the north, towards Cripple was reported to be clear.  The flight is about 45 minutes going north and a little faster coming back due to the prevailing north wind at that time.


We had climbed up to about 2000’ below the cloud layer for the flight and were descending as we approached Cripple.  The weather here was beautiful, blue sky, and bright sun.  As we approached the checkpoint, Marty was describing to me the location of the strip, where there are about three cabins located on the edge of a slew or boggy area, all solidly frozen at this time of year.  The cabins face southwest at a curve on the shoreline, just off the turnaround at the south end of the runway.  Normal operation is to land to the south, turn around at the end of the strip, unload your airplane and take off to the north.


This was my first time to Cripple and so Marty, as the more experienced volunteered to land first but wanted to fly low over the strip, to look it over before landing and asked me to stay high and fly cover.  I agreed and flew about 700’ above the ground to the left (west side) of the strip as Marty entered a descending downwind leg on the opposite side.


I saw the cabins at the south end of the strip at the turnaround and then something caught my eye off to the left and just a little north of the strip.  I thought I saw an airplane on the ground in a “U” shaped clearing that opened towards the same bog we were going to land on but on the far northwest corner.


The airplane was facing me and I could see it’s propeller turning and then I noticed it’s rotating beacon and saw one person on the ground to the left of the red/maroon, airplane.  I was describing what I was seeing to Marty, over the radio, as I saw it.  I described a red airplane, running and thought it might be Wes.  As I flew closer, the intensity of the rotating beacon seemed to increase to the point that it grew in size and brightness.  The closest I got to what (I thought) I saw was probably a mile and then I had to break visual contact to look over at the traffic pattern and locate Marty.


After seeing Marty doing his fly-by, I flew over the area where I saw the mirage by turning to the left, I lost sight of the ghost and never saw anything again resembling what I had just seen.  Marty landed and I flew over to the other side of the strip, entered a downwind leg to the north and landed to the south, meeting up with Marty at the turnaround and supply dump.


Our return flight to McGrath was pretty much uneventful and we got back well before sunset in plenty of time for supper.


Over the next two days I made five more trips back to Cripple and on every trip I looked at the area where I thought I had seen the Mystery Airplane.  There was no sign of anything in the area, no tracks, nothing.


The obvious fact is that I did not see anything but I remember it very vividly, imagining what I just described and what is really strange is that I was describing it to Marty as I was seeing it, the whole scene, in the bright, bright, snow.


The two pictures show the Cripple checkpoint, the first shows Scott by his airplane and the cabins in the background.  The second is looking down the airstrip, to the north, in the direction that I saw the ghost airplane, off to the left, in the distance.  The diagram shows some details.




This diagram shows the location of the apparition in respect to Cripple checkpoint and the airstrip.  The mirage was actually a little further north than where I drew it, maybe about even with the north end of the strip.  This was before the race and the checkpoint was not staffed at the time, Marty and I were the only ones there that day, or, so we thought……