Colleen Mondor grew up in Florida and spent ten years living in Fairbanks, Alaska. "Our Missing Airman" is excerpted from Flying Cold, a fictionalized account of her experiences working for a small bush commuter airline.

Mondor is the reviews editor for Eclectica, a columnist and regular contributor to Bookslut and Voices of New Orleans, and a reviewer for the ALA's Booklist. She also keeps a blog, and has an essay in the recently published collection, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

Do You Know
© Chin Music

Mondor lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.

Our Missing Airman

posted Mar 27, 2006

What is there to say when a flier drops out of sight as completely as Pilot Merrill appears to have done? The Times gropes for words but cannot find them. It is not a time for hasty conclusions, for, in the absence of proof that serious mishap has befallen the missing airman, there is the chance that he will yet be found; in the face of all the good luck that has brought him through his earlier narrow squeezes in Alaska, it is hard to believe now that he has not had another lucky escape from disaster.

Anchorage Daily Times
September 28, 1929

"Have you ever been scared," his father asks, staring off into the distance, trying not to sound too eager for an answer.

They sat on the back porch, drinking beer and eating plates of barbeque. They’re having a party because Sam is home. Like every other party his parents had thrown, it filled the backyard and kitchen to overflowing.  Already one of his cousins was drunk, with several more on the way to joining him. His mother was playing Elvis Presley’s greatest hits, his Aunt Patty brought potato salad, and the next-door neighbor made chocolate cake. It is 1973 tonight, Sam thinks, and I am five years old, running around out there on the grass, staying up late because everyone is having too much fun to notice me. And he looks because he can’t help it; he looks for himself with no idea what he would say to that little boy if he found him.

After a few years of Alaska flying, Sam wondered if anyone really had accidents. Was it possible for so many apparently decent pilots to repeat each other’s fatal mistakes again and again? Were they all trying to kill themselves, or just suffering from some collective form of suicidal stupidity? Did Alaska attract only those pilots who had to defy death in order to consider themselves any good?

God, were all of them just idiots, including him?

Has he ever been scared? There was the occasional fight in junior high and the time he nearly crashed his first car. He remembers his first kiss, his first touch, his first time. When has he not been scared? Scared of falling, of failing, of finding himself to be lacking. He has always been scared.

Pilot Russell H. Merrill, who hopped off for the Kuskokwim river a week ago yesterday, in the Travelair cabin plane of the Alaskan Airways, appears to have disappeared completely, the search for him, which has been in progress since Saturday, having failed to find any trace of the missing pilot or his plane.

Anchorage Daily Times
September 24, 1929

“No,” he says, his voice strong and sure. “You can’t be scared up there, you have to be confident. Fear will crash you; it will kill you. If I’m scared of flying then I shouldn’t fly.”

And this then is why Sam Beach has come home. Because at fifty feet looking for the runway in Barrow you cannot notice for the first time that your plane is nearly out of fuel. You cannot realize at that moment, when the snow is blowing everywhere and the ground is gone, completely gone, that your fuel has vanished into all those delays, all those slow moments of straying and forgetting and not paying attention. You cannot have your sudden moment of clarity then, you needed it thirty minutes ago, or an hour. You needed it before you left that afternoon for Kaktovik, when you were already exhausted from flying half the day, when you were already making mistakes. You needed it two months ago when the Bosses told you to work more hours, to “justify your paycheck.” You needed it last year when they told you Barrow was only for a month, and you already knew they were liars. You needed it when it could have saved you, not now when there is only silence and gravity and prayer.

Where is the runway, you ask yourself, where oh where is the runway?

And you talk to the airplane, you call her sweet and good and strong. You promise her an overhaul, a polishing, a total refurbishment. You promise to love her forever. And you look out that window and you lie on the radio. You say you see it, you say the runway is clear and true because how can you admit that you are in trouble? And how would it help anyway if they knew? All the time your palms are sweating, your shoulders cramping and your hands are gripping the yoke so tightly that they bleed.

And still you cannot see the runway.

Wait for it, wait and wait and wait. It is there, down there, it has to be there. And if you could reach down and grab the pavement yourself you would, because you are trying that hard to see it, that hard to find it. And your whole life becomes that single stupid moment flying over the tundra looking for pavement in the middle of snow, looking for home.

Your whole life is that moment all alone at the top of the world where there is no one to look for you, no one to miss you, no one who loves you at all.

Mrs. Merrill, wife of the missing pilot, joined the search late yesterday afternoon, making a three-hour flight in the Waco plane, piloted by Joe Crosson and accompanied also by Mechanician [sic] Alonzo Cope. They took off from the local airport at 4 o’clock and returned at 7 o’clock, making a landing in the dark. The country was closely scanned for many miles around and the flight extended to the Stillman camp in the Rainy Pass district, to make certain that Pilot Merrill had not altered his course after taking off from Anchorage. A note was dropped to the big game hunters, inquiring if the missing pilot had been seen there since the early afternoon of September 16, and the answer was that he had not.

Anchorage Daily Times
September 26, 1929

So many things go missing in the Arctic, Sam knew. He lost weight when he was up there, he lost hair. He could not find his camera, his favorite baseball cap, the pen that wrote at twenty below. He lost a Notre Dame sweatshirt, a copy of The Martian Chronicles, and the names of a dozen old friends. In Alaska the emptiness collected things, it took them while you weren’t looking; it stole them when you turned your back. It was relentless. Close your eyes for just a second, forget who you are or where you belonged, and it was easy to disappear forever. It was easy to lose everything.

Sam doesn’t realize that his hands have started shaking, that the beer is spilling slowly, gently, onto the concrete floor. His father reaches over and grabs hold of them, his own hands wet and smeared with sauce. His father holds his hands on the patio, while Elvis sings and all the pretty girls drift barefoot across the grass in their summer dresses. Sam thinks how he wants to bury his head in their hair, smelling lemonade and fireworks. He doesn’t want to remember that last fifty feet, doesn’t want to wake up anymore with desperate prayers revisiting his dreams. He just wants that comfort found in the nape of a neck, in a perfumed collarbone. He wants that bit of home found in a shoulder’s sweet curve. He wants to be five years old again and tell that little boy never to leave. “Don’t go to Alaska,” he calls out to his dream. “This is the wrong adventure, this one is not yours. It will hurt you; it will break your heart.”

He doesn’t realize that his father hasn’t asked the question again or that from across the yard his mother sees the two of them and has silently started to cry.

“It was the wrong flight, he tells his father, “the wrong flight on the wrong day.”

And because he will never know, he will never understand, his father says nothing but listens to what Sam has to say. He listens for the stories he always knew his son needed to tell, the ones they have all been waiting to hear.

Sam has come home and he knows why now. He knows why he had to finally come home.

Mrs. Thyra Merrill, wife of R.H. Merrill, the Anchorage flier who has been missing since last September, passed through Juneau on the steamer Admiral Tonys last night, on her way to visit her parents, Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Allen Tigard of Portland, Oregon. Mrs. Merrill’s two little boys accompanied her.

Diligent search by air and water has failed to reveal the slightest clue and the disappearance of aviator Merrill remains one of the mysteries of air navigation in Alaska.

The Daily Alaska Empire
January 31, 1930