On April 12, 1951, Lieutenant John W. Hodgkin, age 42, a pilot stationed at McChord Air Force Base, flies his ski-equipped Piper J-3 Cub from Spanaway Air Strip to the top of Mount Rainier (14,410 feet), establishing a new world record for a high-altitude landing. However, when Hodgkin prepares to leave, the engine will not start in the rarefied air and he is forced to spend the night on top of the mountain, huddled in the Cub’s cockpit. The next morning, Hodgkin will push his airplane down the snow-covered face of Nisqually Glacier, glide, without power, to frozen Mowich Lake, at the 5,000-foot level, and land safely on the ice. With the help of a National Park Service ranger and 20 gallons of gasoline, dropped from an Air Force rescue plane, Hodgkin will take off again and return safely to Spanaway. He will be charged in federal court with landing a private aircraft in a national park without permission and be fined $350. Hodgkin, whose escapade captures newspaper headlines for four days, tells reporters he undertook the flight to demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of using light aircraft for high altitude rescue work and mountain warfare.
Pilot with a Passion
John Wilfred Hodgkin (1909-1989) was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, attached to the 14th Troop Carrier Squadron, 61st Troop Carrier Group at McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County. Stationed at Thule Air Base in Greenland during World War II (1941-1945), Hodgkin had been reactivated during the Korean War (1950-1953) to fly Douglas C-54 Skymasters on the polar route to Japan, providing airlift of personnel and supplies for United Nations forces. The 61st Troop Carrier Group also flew combat missions into North Korea, carrying ammunition, supplies, and equipment to besieged UN forces and returning to Japan with wounded personnel and evacuees.
Hodgkin, an experienced mountain climber, glider pilot, and photographer, had a passion for landing his small Piper J-3 Cub at high places. With photographs, he documented numerous landings on slopes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including Mount Whitney and Mount Shasta, and wrote an article for national magazine titled “I Land Anywhere.” His goal was to establish the world record for a high-altitude landing and he had been planning a quick trip to the top of Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) for several weeks.
His Piper Cub
The Piper J-3 Cub is a light, single-engine aircraft, manufactured from 1938 to 1947 by the Piper Aircraft Corporation in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. The fuselage, made of welded tubular steel, and the wing assembly, made of aluminum, are covered with fabric. The small, unpressurized cabin has accommodations for only the pilot and a passenger, sitting in tandem. The Cub uses a tail-dragger configuration with a fixed landing gear. The wheels can be easily removed and replaced with skis for landing on ice and snow, or with pontoons for water landings. Used extensively by the military during World War II for intelligence gathering and artillery spotting, the Cub, designated the L-4 “Grasshopper” by the Army, had the well-deserved reputation for being able to land anywhere the pilot dared to go.
The original Piper J-3 Cub was equipped with an air-cooled Continental 65-horsepower engine, with a service ceiling of 11,500 feet. In order to reach higher altitudes, Hodgkin replaced this with a Continental 85-horsepower engine, giving him a service ceiling of 15,000 feet. The Cub lacked an electric starter-motor, therefore the engine had to be hand-started by spinning the propeller. The plane also lacked a two-way radio.
On Thursday afternoon, April 12, 1951, Hodgkin did a preflight inspection of his ski-equipped Piper Cub at Spanaway Air Strip, south of Tacoma, and prepared to takeoff for his record-breaking flight to the top of Mount Rainier. The cabin of the aircraft was loaded with 100 pounds of gear, including extra clothing, a heavy-duty parka, three comforters, two large sacks of food and a three-gallon can of gasoline. He did not carry snowshoes or climbing equipment, but did take a variety of cameras to document the event.
To facilitate the takeoff, Hodgkin seated the Cub’s skis on a pair of skids with a towing yoke attached. Straw had been scattered over the grass runway to make the surface slipperier. A friend, George Brooks, assisted Hodgkin by pulling the skids down the runway with his automobile until the Cub became airborne. Two light aircraft, one piloted by Sergeant Charles Bunch, U.S. Air Force, and the other by Ernest Jenson, accompanied Hodgkin from Spanaway Air Strip to witness the historic landing atop Mount Rainier.
On the Mountaintop
Hodgkin landed his Piper Cub safely on the snow field in the saddle between Point Success and Columbia Crest, the highest peak on Mount Rainier, north of the face of Nisqually Glacier, just outside the crater. A 30-mile-per-hour head wind enabled him to stop his plane almost immediately after touching down. As Bunch and Jenson circled overhead, Hodgkin left the cockpit and climbed to the edge of the crater. After taking several photograph himself and his Piper Cub, he return to his aircraft for the flight back to Spanaway, but couldn’t get the engine restarted in the cold, rarefied air.
While Jenson circled, Sergeant Bunch returned to Spanaway Air Strip and notified the Fourth Air Rescue Squadron at McChord AFB of Hodgkin’s predicament. Rescue by helicopter was immediately ruled out because of the high altitude and strong winds. The Air Force sent a Fairchild C-82 “Flying Boxcar,” and a specially equipped Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress to assess and monitor the situation. Hodgkin waved to the circling aircraft and continued spinning the Cub’s propeller. Just before dark, the Air Rescue C-82 dropped a survival kit containing food, clothing and a battery-operated two-way radio on the peak, but the parachute was blown a quarter mile away from Hodgkin’s position. Included in the kit was a written message ordering him to wait for an overland rescue party.
Fearing he might lose his bearings in the dark, Hodgkin decided he didn’t need the survival kit. After tying the Cub down, he climbed into the cabin and spent an uncomfortable night on the mountain top. Winds, gusting up to 40 miles-per-hour, continually shook the light aircraft and the temperature dropped to 20 degrees below zero.
The Rescue Party
At 4:00 a.m. on Friday, April 13, 1951, a National Park Service (NPS) climbing team set out from Longmire Ranger Station for Columbia Crest to rescue the stranded flier. William Jackson Butler (1909-2000), Assistant Chief Ranger of Mount Rainier National Park, led the main rescue party, which included Rangers Delmer Armstrong, Dee Molenaar, and Eldon Johnson. A rescue support party, which included NPS Rangers Gordon Patterson, Corry Molenaar, and George Senner, and Seattle Mountaineers Louis Whittaker and Wolf Bauer, left about one hour later. It was normally a two-day climb and Butler’s party hoped to reach Hodgkin’s location in the late afternoon. The rescue teams planned to spend the night, and if there was no emergency, start down the mountain at dawn. Butler had been instructed to bring Hodgkin and leave the airplane on the snow field.
The Fourth Air Rescue Squadron watched Hodgkin periodically throughout the day as he tried, unsuccessfully, to start his airplane engine. Seeing snow slides in the vicinity, the Air Force warned all civilian aircraft to stay clear of Mount Rainier, fearing engine vibrations could trigger avalanches and endanger the climbers. At 3:30 p.m., Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler radioed Longmire Ranger Station that the rescue party was at the 13,000 foot level, but progress was slow due to strong winds, gusting at 35 mph to 50 mph, and poor snow conditions. They expected to reach the summit at about 5:00 p.m.
Climbing in and Gliding Out
At about 3:45 p.m., Hodgkin, unaware the rescue party was approaching, unfastened the tie-down ropes, turned his plane around and started it sliding towards the steep face of Nisqually Glacier. As the Cub gained momentum, he jumped into the cockpit and strong updrafts enabled him to glide off the mountain top. Once airborne, Hodgkin dived the aircraft 5,000 feet, hoping to restart the engine, but it wouldn’t catch. He made a dead-stick landing on frozen Mowich Lake (4,929 feet) two-thirds the way down the mountain in the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park.
While en route to the summit of Mount Rainier, Staff Sergeant John E. Robbins, a crew member of the Air Rescue C-82, sighted an object on the frozen surface of Mowich Lake. Captain Leon A. Miller decided to take a look with a low-altitude pass and discovered that it was a small plane sitting on the ice. At first they thought it was another civilian aircraft that had been forced down by engine trouble. But then Captain John McGarry, flying his special Air Rescue B-17 over the peak, announced that Piper Cub was gone. Captain Miller soon came to the conclusion that it must be Hodgkin’s plane on the ice. Through binoculars, Staff Sergeant R. T. Elliott, another C-82 crew member, spotted a red distress flag and was able to read “Drop Gas” stamped out on the snow-covered lake.
Meanwhile, the NPS rescue party reached the summit of Mount Rainier only to find no trace of the stranded flier. Butler radioed Longmire Ranger Station and was informed that Hodgkin had flown his plane off Nisqually Glacier and was safe and sound. The support party camped at 9,500 foot level, while the main rescue party had to spend a frigid night on the mountain top. “The ice didn’t melt off our boots in our sleeping bags and the fruit juice froze solid inside our packs, wrapped in our clothes” Butler said (The Seattle Times).
Working on the Engine
While Hodgkin worked on his engine, Captain Miller flew back to McChord AFB for containers of gasoline and more supplies. At 6:10 p.m., the C-82 “Flying Boxcar” returned to Mowich Lake and dropped four five-gallon jerry cans of fresh aviation gas. This time, the parachute-drop landed right on target. The C-82 made one last pass at 8:30 p.m., and observed that Hodgkin was still on the lake, apparently staying overnight.
On Saturday morning, April 14, Hodgkin drained the gasoline out of his tank, which he believed was the cause of the trouble, cleared the fuel line and began to reassemble the Cub’s engine. At about 9:25 a.m., District Park Ranger Aubrey L. Haines, age 36, from Carbon River Ranger Station, arrived at Mowich Lake. He had snow-shoed for two hours over six miles of rugged terrain to reach the downed flier.
Hodgkin asked if Haines had a wrench he could use to take out the spark plugs. The ranger hiked to a nearby lineman’s shack, found a pair of cable splicers and crafted a makeshift spark-plug wrench. When Hodgkins removed the plugs, he discovered they were fouled and after a thorough cleaning, plus fresh fuel, the engine started immediately. Haines was reluctant to let Hodgkin take off from the lake, but the flier talked him into allowing a practice run down the ice, demonstrating it could be done safely. After returning, the ranger consented to the flight. At 11:24 a.m., Hodgkin took off for Spanaway Air Strip and landed there at 12:10 p.m.
A Perfect Landing
Although veteran pilots predicted Hodgkin would crash when the Piper Cub’s skis touched down on the grass strip at Spanaway, he made a perfect landing and slid to stop within 25 feet. Stepping from his plane, he was greeted by an assortment of high-ranking officers from McChord AFB, including his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R. W. Etter, 61st Troop Carrier Group, and Colonel Richard E. Bromiley, Commanding Officer of the 1705 Military Transport Wing, of which Hodgkin’s squadron was a part, and a throng of newspaper reporters and photographers. Hodgkin was chagrined his misadventure had caused so much trouble and attention.
At 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, the two NPS climbing parties arrived at Paradise Lodge, where they were met by Park Superintendent John Preston and Assistant Park Superintendent H. L. Bill. After thanking the men for their heroic rescue efforts, Preston announced the National Park Service intended to prosecute Hodgkin for violating a federal misdemeanor statute, which prohibited landing private aircraft in a national park without authorization. The maximum penalty for the violation was $500 fine or six months in jail, or both. In addition, Preston was considering charging Hodgkin between $500 and $1,000 for expenses incurred in the rescue attempt. Assistant Chief Ranger Butler said the climbers were just glad Hodgkin was safe and they didn’t have to bring him down the mountain.
At an impromptu news conference at Spanaway Air Strip, sponsored by the Air Force, Hodgkin told the remarkable story of his landing and departure from the summit of Mount Rainier and his powerless flight to Mowich Lake. He said the updrafts on the mountain were so strong, he could have stayed aloft all day without power. Hodgkin explained a combination of high altitude and low-octane fuel had fouled his spark plugs and he was unable to restart his engine. After solving the problem and refueling with high-octane aviation gas, he took off from the lake and flew to Spanaway without any trouble.
In addition to setting a world record for a high-altitude landing, Hodgkin said he wanted to demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of using light aircraft for high altitude rescue work and mountain warfare. And, of course, he hoped to sell his exclusive photographs and story of the record-breaking event to a national magazine. Although expressing regret at the inconvenience he caused, Hodgkin went on to say: “It was just bad luck. I had some bad gas and couldn’t start my engine after landing on the peak. Except for that, I would have taken off the same day I landed and nobody would have been the wiser” (The Seattle Times).
Bold But Unlawful
Technically, Hodgkin had been AWOL (away without leave) since 8:00 a.m. Friday morning. The flight on Thursday had been on Hodgkin’s day off and was not within the jurisdiction of the Air Force. However, Hodgkin’s squadron commander had allegedly told him previously not to attempt the risky landing. Lieutenant General Howard A. Craig, Inspector General of the Air Force, ordered a formal investigation to determine whether Hodgkin should be court-martialed for disobeying a direct order. In the meantime, he was restricted to McChord Air Force Base. Ultimately, the Air Force decided not to pursue the matter. Experienced pilots were valuable and there was the Korean War to fight.
On Monday, April 16, 1951, Lieutenant Hodgkin, accompanied by his attorney, Earl Mann of Tacoma, was arraigned before U. S. Commissioner Earl Clifford at the Longmire Ranger Station and pleaded not guilty to a charge of unlawfully landing his plane in a national park. Since the Air Force had already restricted him to base, Hodgkin was released on his own recognizance, pending a formal hearing.
On Friday, April 27, 1951, Hodgkin appeared in U.S. Commissioner’s Court at Longmire for trial. Defense Attorney Mann argued the law stated aircraft may not land on the ground or on water in a national park; his client had landed on snow. He conceded, however, the intent of the law had been violated. In a statement before the court, Hodgkin declared that private aircraft should not be banned from national parks; the mountains were his religion and the flight was his crusade against the injustice. Commissioner Clifford found Hodgkin guilty of the offense and then fined him $350 and gave him a six-month suspended jail sentence. In closing, Clifford told Hodgkin that he was obviously not a criminal, but he needed to reevaluate his thinking.
Undaunted and Ungrounded
Undaunted, on June 30, 1952, Hodgkin made front-page news again when he landed a light aircraft on top of Mount Adams (12,307 feet), Washington state’s second highest peak, located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. He found a snow field, 1,000-feet long, and landed safely. After reconnoitering for half-an-hour, he took off without difficulty and flew to Hood River, Oregon. Although on federal land, the U.S. Forest Service had granted landing rights to a mining company that had holdings in the area. The company, through a series of landings, wanted to determine the feasibility of flying mining engineers to the mountain to explore for sulfur deposits. Hodgkin repeated the flight to Mount Adams on July 2 with a passenger, Earl Dean.
Aviators have a saying: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are few old, bold pilots.” Apparently John Hodgkin beat the odds, having survived World War II, the Korean War, and many flights to the tops of mountains. He died in Long Beach, California on May 13, 1989, at age 80. Hodgkin will always be recognized as the only person to have ever landed and taken off from the summit of Mount Rainier in a private airplane.