Beech 18 AT-7 Navigator Copyright Museum of Flight - all rights reserved

November, 2007


a blog by Peter Stekel


FINAL FLIGHT is the story of four aviators lost in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks on November 18, 1942


FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010

Read more about FINAL FLIGHT here.

November 29, 2007

I rented a truly atrocious movie the other night - Flight of the Phoenix, starring Dennis Quaid and a host of others. I've been impressed with some of Quaid's other movies. He can be quite believable in some [Come See the Paradise], passable in the purely commercial [The Big Easy, The Alamo,  - dig those sideburns!] but also equally a hack [Everybody's All-American]. This particular movie was pretty obviously one made for money, not art.

Now, I'm pretty drawn to airplane crash movies and books right now, for obvious reasons. Anything that can give me any sort of insight as to what happens in the cockpit of an airplane when "the chips are down" is very important to a person [like me] who's sole experience in airplanes is as a passenger [I've piloted one airplane, with an instructor].

Granted, anybody who believes movies are accurate representations of reality deserves every rude awakening they experience. But, I am also interested in the visual experience and movies do that very well - even if the authors have no real idea of what they are representing.

I interviewed William Langewiesche a couple of months ago and he told me quite a bit. Being a writer and a pilot, he knew exactly what I meant when I asked him what must it be like inside the cockpit of an airplane when nothing looked good. "You can't sustain panic very long," he told me. After that, you start looking for solutions.

Some of you must be as old as I am [I was born in 1952- Ouch! That seems aged!] and remember the 1965 movie version of Flight of the Phoenix with Jimmy Stewart who, apparently, was a pilot as well as an actor. I have good memories of that movie [I was 12 or 13 when I saw it, and it's currently on reserve for me at the Seattle Public Library]. I saw a short piece of it on AMC recently but was distracted by the haircuts. OK. I'm shallow. The 2004 version strikes me as a poor imitation - full of stereotypical characters, none of whom exhibit any depth. It's easy to see who will crack under pressure or rise [like yeasted dough] to the hero classification. And the filmmakers telegraph who will die and who they want you to think will die with, apparently, no idea that their audience is smarter than they. This is a style perfected by Agatha Christie in her extremely popular mystery novels.

What I am interested in goes beyond characters who "play to type." What I want to know about is real people.

I've begun reading the novel that the movies were based upon. It's written by Elleston Trevor, born as Trevor-Dudley Smith [he published over 100 thrillers, mysteries, plays sort stories, etc] including books with the pseudonym Adam Hall [British agent Quiller] and Simon Rattray [crime-solver Hugo Bishop]. Trevor, according to the biography published with the 2004 Harper Entertainment paperback re-release of Flight of the Phoenix, served in the RAF during WWII as flight engineer - which explains the mechanical and navigation details of the first chapters. After which the novel has all the elements of an Ernest K. Gann book [stock characters saying and doing stock things]. Gann was a great storyteller, and by all accounts a great pilot, but... well... The High and the Mighty was Stagecoach in an airplane.

What annoys me so much about the Dennis Quaid film is that it reduces a horrendous event into a feel-good experience. We all know from watching the evening news that the survivorship rate from an airplane crash is close to zero. And those who do survive, like the soccer team in the Andes during the 1970s, often resort to terrible behaviors in order to live.

Yet the whole genre of airplane crash movies and books [there's a whole television series devoted to this right now - which my normally TV-adverse mother-in-law has to watch every week] always works under the assumption that what we want is something heroic and uplifting. I submit that what is more interesting than a created experience is one that is truthful. I've found that reality is always more dramatic than fiction.

November 16, 2007 [Ruth Mortenson]

I was able to meet Ruth Mortenson this afternoon. Though her health is good, at 97 years of age she has lost most of her memory. She was happy to pose for a photo but she wanted to straighten out her hair and tidy up a bit first. Miss Mortenson did manage to tell me that her brother

Melvin [he changed his name when he went to college] was a good-looking man, very serious and had mechanical abilities. Her cousins are in their mid 70s and still live in Moscow, ID. I was able to get their phone number. I'm hoping they will have photos and, perhaps, letters that John Mortenson wrote to his family. These are the things that will bring life to the aviator's story. I'll be calling them in the coming weeks.
November 7, 2007 [Ruth Mortenson]

I spoke with Erlinda, Ruth Mortenson's primary caregiver, this morning. Miss Mortenson fell over the weekend and has been confined to bed. She hasn't been eating either. Evidently the weekend caregiver didn't take Miss Mortenson to the doctor for an examination and when Erlinda returned on Monday, she had to wait until yesterday [Tuesday] because the doctor wasn't in the office.

I asked Erlinda about Miss Mortenson's memory and mental state. She has suffered from dementia but her memory is still good. "But she needs her strength too," and until she can get out of bed, Erlinda doesn't want any visitors. Erlinda says that Miss Mortenson won't eat if there are too many people around.

November 2, 2007 [Other Missing Aviators]

I'm gratified at how this story resonates with people. Many have written to me after seeing the story reported in the newspaper or on television. Airplane experts and owners of Beech 18s have contacted me with information about the engines I found in the ice of Mendel Glacier. I have also received mail from people who are hoping that I have come across something that refers to a  family member still missing from World War II.

I got an email this morning from Michele Aucoin. It's about her uncle, Henry Neal Henson. He was stationed in the San Francisco area on the USS Bunker Hill, practicing takeoffs and landings in San Francisco Bay on a ship retrofitted to work as an aircraft carrier.

"He joined the Navy when he was 15 or 16 years old, by lying about his age and having his mother [my grandmother] collaborate the lie."

"He had the soul of a poet and frequently wrote poetry to his mother and his girlfriend. He had just mailed a poem entitled "The Last Flight" - yes, it is extremely eerie that you have used similar words on your site. His last flight ended with a crash into San Francisco Bay. I was always told that nothing was found except the wing and tail of the plane. The girlfriend received the poem after she had received the news of his death."

The family never got much in the way of information about what happened and now, all the members of that generation are gone. Michele has inherited all of Uncle Henry's memorabilia and is, like her mother and grandmother before her, trying to find out as much of the story as she can.

All of this reminds me of something I was told by Pat Macha. Not much effort was ever devoted to recovering the remains of the over 35,000 men and women aircraft service personnel killed during World War II on training flights.

If you know anything about Henry Neal Henson, please write to me and I will put you in contact with Michele.

November 1, 2007 [More on Ruth Mortenson]

A disappointing day. This morning I got a call from Erlinda just as I was getting ready to leave the house. She said she had an "incident" last night and had to call 911 because of her heart. She asked that I call next week to re-schedule. It was difficult to understand if the real reason had to do with her not wanting me to come visit or with Ruth Morgenson not having the heart to talk about her baby brother.


Mendel Glacier, Kings Canyon National Park



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copyright 2010 Peter Stekel, all rights reserved

FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010