JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, AK — According to Alaska.org, the Turnagain Arm tidal bore is one of the strongest in the world. A 6 to 10 foot high layer of seawater moves over the surface of Cook Inlet at 10 to 15 mph, swallowing anything in its path.
A Taylorcraft F-19 was knocked down just offshore on May 16 near Goose Bay Airport west of Anchorage. It wasn’t long before the rushing tide claimed the stricken plane, probably for good.
Through 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, selected warrant officer for flight school; Alaska State Troopers; and Matanuska-Susitna Borough first responders, the two Taylorcraft pilots escaped relatively unscathed.
Cherry said he was the first on the scene, spotting the blue F-19 as he worked on the pilot’s change in his Cessna 140. He said he nearly missed the plane among dozens of wrecked cars littering the shore.
“They crashed right where everyone was knocking cars off the cliff, so something caught my eye, and I said, ‘Huh, that’s a funny car,'” Cherry recalled. “I came back and said, ‘Oh wait, that’s a plane. So, I stopped, I stopped and I ran up the cliff.
Cherry said that before landing he heard the Cessna 180 from Borcherding and made a radio call asking him to relay the situation to Anchorage Approach Control.
Previously, Borcherding, his father, Steven Sr., and Lawrie were en route to the Borcherdings’ cabin at Cow Lake when they entered severe turbulence. After fitting the 180 with big tires to land in the bush, the young Borcherding thought the setback might be a good opportunity to finish touch-and-go practice at Goose Bay.
“I turned due east, flew straight to Goose Bay, and called about 5 miles, and that’s when [Cherry] heard I was incoming,” Borcherding said.
Borcherding flew over the wreckage, seeing for himself the dire situation unfolding as the tide shifted to claim the downed plane.
“You hear about this stuff and you try to prepare for the worst case scenario, but when it happens right before your eyes, it’s just an unreal sight,” he said.
Borcherding said he landed and taxied near Cherry’s 140. They didn’t know what they would find or how difficult it would be to reach the stranded pilots.
With paved roads covering a tiny fraction of Alaska’s 665,000 square miles, small planes are often the only way to reach large swathes of the state dotted with small airfields.
“If you go out to dinner, someone in the restaurant will have their private pilot license,” Borcherding said, explaining the large number of Alaskans qualified to fly in the Alaskan bush.
Borcherding said he remembers wanting to be a pilot since he was 5, but the aviation bug became more pressing during his teenage years.
“At the age of 13 or 14, I had seen [flight operations] done so many times, I thought I should give it a try,” he said.
Borcherding said he started getting his pilot’s license when he was 16, eventually getting full approval when he was 18, two days before he was sent to basic military training. After tech school, he went to work on the massive C-17 cargo planes with regular Air Force Total Force Initiative partners like Lawrie. He said he hoped to earn an officer’s commission, undergo undergraduate pilot training and fly military aircraft.
Cherry said he had similar ambitions, pursuing a pilot’s license to become more competitive for the UPT board.
“I kept going, and all of a sudden I was a professional pilot,” Cherry said. “Then COVID happened, I was hiring commercial pilots. I got my instructor license and here I am a flight instructor at Merrill Field.
Cherry, a former Air National Guard HC-130J Combat King II crew chief with the 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said he recently moved to the Army Guard as a selected warrant officer to to fly UH-60M Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopters.
Cherry said flying small planes in Alaska’s busy skies can be daunting at times.
“Alaska presents unique aeronautical challenges, such as radio communications and other services that are more difficult,” he said. “Also, the airspace here is absolutely insane. Flying from the Anchorage Bowl is one of the most complicated airspaces in the country.
Borcherding noted how the airspace surrounding Anchorage is referred to as “Part 93 Airspace”. The name indicates Title 14 of the Code of Federal, Aeronautics and Space Regulations, Chapter 1, Part 93, which is entirely dedicated to the area as it includes Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the base common Elmendorf-Richardson, Merrill Field, Lake Hood and dozens of small private airfields and lakes used by seaplanes.
Adding to the complexity of the airspace is Alaska’s changeable and often unpleasant weather.
“Alaska does not forgive,” Borcherding said. “The climate is difficult. In the Anchorage Bowl – the “training area” as we call it – all is well. If you go any further than that, you better have some survival gear, second [means of communications]and you better have one [emergency locator transmitter] work.”
When the combined group of Cessnas from Borcherding and Cherry disembarked from their plane, they grabbed their survival gear and medical emergency kits, and were off on a hike from their perch atop the seawall to to the narrow beach narrowing under the advance of the water. .
“It was a long walk on that beach,” Lawrie said. “I don’t know if it was the silt or something. I was not prepared in my equipment to carry this stuff.
“You could see the water coming up,” recalls Borcherding. “It was intimidating to walk on the silt. You could see from the side of the cliff where the line for the water is, and we were definitely under that line.
According to the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers website, Turnagain Arm silt is made up of supersaturated particles, called glacial flour, which are 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 the flight instructor he worked with to get his float rating. Although no one was seriously injured, the instructor had lost her shoes in the crash and she had minor injuries.
“We focused on assisting her, getting her as close as possible for the firefighters to hoist her up,” Borcherding said.
Although Borcherding, her father and Lawrie initially tried to get her to higher ground by helping her walk, Borcherding said they found it easier to carry her due to her lack of shoes and time constraints of the rising tide.
According to a press release from Alaska State Troopers, the Central Matanuska-Susitna Fire Department performed a high-angle rope rescue to safely hoist the instructor who was then transported into a Matanuska-Susitna area hospital. The pilot was able to walk to a landing near the airport and left the scene without needing medical attention.
Cherry said that regardless of experience level, every Airman in Alaska relies on the community in times of hardship.
“If you fly long enough, something is going to happen to you,” he said. “Eventually you’re gonna be the one over there on the upside down mudflats. We did what I wish someone else would do when I’m the one over there upside down on the mudflats because my engine died. Part of being in the aviation community here is helping each other out as much as possible.
Borcherding said he was happy to be able to help his aviation mentor.
“I’m glad we’re here,” he said. “I’m glad we decided to fly. I’m grateful that everyone was able to walk away from a tragic incident like this, and we were able to help them.