Mount St. Helens

My Mount St. Helens story

by Duane Ausherman

I was watching a documentary on PBS about Mount St. Helens, a rescue and later meeting of the near victim and the helicopter pilot that saved her.

The PBS story

This reminded me of my near experience with that same volcano.

The Dan Gordon story

I was traveling with Dan Gordon, my godson, to a National BMW motorcycle rally in Prineville, Oregon.  We stayed one night at my home in Fort Bidwell, CA, before taking the last leg to the rally.

Because Mount St. Helens was in the daily news for the series of earthquakes and steam venting.  We had decided to leave early in the morning in my Cessna 150, which was already fueled up.  The plan was to fuel up again in the Portland area, fly the short distance to Washington state and over Mount St. Helens to view it from the air.  Then head to Prineville, OR., for the BMW motorcycle rally.  I had planned to arrive a couple of days early to learn how they were doing the rally that would start later in the week.  I needed the experience because Craig Vetter had tasked me with the job of organizing The Vetter Rally in Colorado.

While in Fort Bidwell, I received a phone call from the rally people.

It turned out that the BMW ambassador from Mexico had arrived with a ruined engine in his motorcycle.  The failure was the crankshaft, not the top end.  They were desperate and called me to see if I had any spare parts that might help.

Better than that, I had a complete lower end that was rebuilt and ready to go.  It would just need his good top-end transferred over to my case.  It would only be a matter of a few hours of labor, and he would be on the road again.

This part of the explanation is for those that don’t have a pilot’s license.  Dan and I decided to forget about Mount St. Helens and go directly to the rally.  Cold air is denser, and a plane will be able to take off with a larger payload with the engine.  Later in the day, it would be hotter, and a plane might not be able to lift off.  The Fort Bidwell airport was just a gravel runway, but it was nearly a mile long.  The plane comes with a book of flying characteristics, and I had to make use of it.  My density altitude calculations showed the plane to be marginal with our heavy load.  The Cessna 150 isn’t much of a private airplane.  With the long runway, we had plenty of chance to abort the takeoff if the plane wouldn’t lift off.  I kept a car as a backup plan.  Driving would make it a much longer trip, so flying was preferred.

We climbed out quickly and flew to Prineville, and everything worked out well.

I just spoke with Dan about his memory of these events.  He told me that he had been very concerned about our ability to get the plane off the ground.  I hadn’t been aware of that before.

Had it not been for the last-minute request for my spare BMW engine parts, we would have been almost directly over Mount St. Helens when it blew up.

Once again, saved by luck.

Updated 30 March 2023