“...a captivating tale about aviation judgment, the will to survive and the aviation community's enduring ambition to make flying safer for all.” —Rod Machado, Author, Speaker, Flight Instructor

Read an excerpt from Finding Carla by Ross Nixon
(©2016 Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc.):

The deer hunters found this note on top of the stack of letters:

“Whoever finds this wreck
Please mail these letters for us. We waited so long for you. Where were you?
Our daily log is here for you to see in the folded airman’s guide.

I’d sought these mysterious messages for almost forty years. My hands shook and heart thumped as I held them. A lifelong, personal mystery was solved.

It all began when I was a boy. In my family we never went to church. We went to the airport instead. Both my parents flew planes. Although he was one, Dad did not resemble a member of the American College of Surgeons when at his hangar. He was a big strapping guy who wore overalls and puffed on Swisher cigars when he worked on his planes, while I rolled around on my back on a mechanic’s creeper scrubbing the airplane bellies clean with Formula 409 and old rags. As the cleaner dripped into my eyes, I dreamt of the day I’d fly a plane.

Dad had a bunch of planes. They were the type of planes a welfare kid from the 1930s purchased once he made some money. The crown jewels were the Staggerwing Beech D-17S, and a pristine Cessna 195. That elegant Staggerwing took up most of my polishing time with her oil and smoke-belching Pratt and Whitney 450 HP engine. In spite of her dirty ways, she was a great classic. In her day, in the ’30s, she out-flew frontline U.S. military fighters. Mom flew a Cessna 170 and I helped restore a Cessna 140 that I soloed at age 16.

A weak, sickly kid, I loved the Beechcraft but I preferred our Cessna 195, a fast, all-metal bird with handsome lines. The 195 “Business Liner” embodied the way I sought to be but was not: strong and solid. I worked cleaning her blue and white Alumagrip paint because someday the plane would become mine, or so dad said.

My father had been a logger, a tugboat man, and a fireman on a steam locomotive; the last one on the Canadian West Coast, he’d remind you. When he began his medical practice in Canada he was a bush flying doctor. He landed his Stinson Voyager near your place on wheels or skis, then walked up to your front door with his medical bag in hand. He was one of those old school pilots who learned to jump in a plane, point the nose and go.

He got good at flying doing that sort of work so when he spoke I soaked up the words. In aviation there is an art of storytelling known as “hangar flying,” occurring wherever pilots gather and talk. Dad’s stable full of planes provided the local pilots a perfect place to hangar fly. His friends saw his dingy 1962 Pontiac airport car parked outside and stopped there to “shoot the bull” with Doc Nixon, while I rolled around the hangar floor, ignored like Chief Broom from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

I see Dad now on that particular day during the early ’70s at the hangar, standing in his overalls puffing on a cigar, talking solemnly with some of his pilot friends. In his hands he held an orange plastic box. It looked like a radio, but carried no antenna or speaker. Through puffs of the Swisher cigar smoke he explained how the box housed an emergency locator beacon, or transmitter (an “ELT”). Impact forces triggered a switch activating the radio, which sent out a distress signal. He showed them the flexible whip antenna on the fuselage of the Cessna 195.

He followed this demonstration with the tale of a family who died in the wilderness, down in the “Siskyous.” The people survived the wilderness crash of their own Cessna 195, but slowly wasted away after living for months in the wreckage. They left behind a diary and series of letters. Because of this event, the FAA passed laws requiring these emergency locator transmitters to be put aboard all U.S. civil aircraft. Dad installed the ELTs in all four of his planes.

The tale haunted me and I could not shake my visions. Bleak mental sketches in artist’s gray pencil imagined a Cessna 195 wrecked on a mountainside, a man walking through thick, snowy brush and a mother and her daughter at the crash, slowly starving. I saw images of handwriting. The doomed family lived in my mind, always in the bleak colors of gray, white, and black. Questions ran through my head. When did this happen? Where and to who? Terrible indeed, but the sort of thing that happened to other people, not us.

Dad was a hell of a pilot. He held a world flight distance record and had won the Bleriot Medal, but he proved me wrong by going down when I turned seventeen years old, leaving my mother and four siblings with broken hearts and bills. He’d not been the most sensible money manager and our affluent ways went down with his plane. One by one the planes were sold so we could live. The classic Beechcraft went off to Canada. My beautiful 195 flew off with some dentist. Time healed the wounds of our derailment and eventually I got back on track.

For years after I’d stood in that western Washington hangar, I wondered about the lost family of the Siskiyous. Who were they? When did they crash? Did it really even happen? As a man I flew commercial planes. At work I taught pilots about the orange rescue radios known as ELTs. One even saved me from some lonely hours after a mishap on the Alaska tundra when I misjudged distance during an off airport venture, and my Piper bush plane flipped upside down in thick tundra grass. I switched on the portable ELT and prepared for a lonely night. It wasn’t long until my flying buddies found me, landed nearby, and helped right my damaged bird onto her wheels. Later, safe after my stupidity, I silently thanked the long-lost family who inspired the push to include the radio technology. I now owed them. Their ghosts lived in my head. Again the questions rolled through my brain…. Who were these people? Did they ever really exist?

Over the years in libraries I’d checked the reader’s guidebooks for periodical literature for articles about a marooned family in the Siskiyou Mountains without any luck. Later on, with the Internet available, I searched again for details on a Siskiyou-area plane crash involving marooned people who wrote a diary, and found nothing.

The mystery family tugged at my mind like the fable of some lost gold mine. One day I came across a note in a flying article referencing the “Carla Corbus death diary.” When I saw those words, I knew I’d finally found the key to the old hangar tale. Yes, it actually happened. Feeling like I struck an Internet mother lode, I stayed up late Googling Carla Corbus and her diary, and reading the details of the tragedy.

I felt I’d seen it all before, viewing the black and white newspaper photos of the crash victims peering back at me from the computer screen. The pilot, Alvin F. Oien Sr., carried the same confident grin of my father. Carla Corbus and her mother Phyllis looked straight to my heart from the ancient pages. As I read through the news stories, the horror of it all struck me. Though their demise was torturously slow, I noticed a brighter side to the story, too—the epilogue known by few.

Links to stories of people who’d been saved by ELT radios appeared. I saw the suffering of Carla Corbus indeed directly tied to the advent of the ELT rescue radio. Because of the suffering of three forgotten people on a forgettable California mountainside, thousands of others lived.

... [ complete book coming Summer 2016 ]