I long have been proud to say that my career allowed me to do things that most folks don’t get to do . . . such as fly over an erupting volcano!
But in late March 1980, I had that singular honor thrust on me.
You’ve heard of the cataclysm that occurred on May 18, 1980 when Mount St. Helens exploded, wiping roughly 1,400 feet off dirt, ash and rock off its summit. It killed about 65 individuals and wiped out Spirit Lake, Wash., and thousands of acres of virgin timberland.
What you might not recall is that the eruption began two months earlier.
I was editor of the Oregon City (Ore.) Enterprise-Courier at the time. I had written a feature story about a father and son in Clackamas County who restored vintage aircraft; the son gave me a ride in a biplane, which was a thrill in itself.
I got back to the office and a day or two later we got word of Mount St. Helens rumbling; the earth was trembling under the mountain. The U.S. Geological Survey sent teams to the region to monitor the quakes. The USGS then determined quickly that the mountain was entering a pre-eruptive phase. It could blow at any minute.
I called my young friend who gave me the biplane ride and said something like this: “If Mount St. Helens starts to erupt, can I call on you to fly me to the mountain to take pictures?” He agreed.
Then came the pre-cataclysm. St. Helens began to “erupt,” meaning that the quakes began creating craters along the summit. I called my friend. I drove out to his airfield. We boarded a two-seat single-engine prop airplane and took off. In the meantime, a colleague of mine at the newspaper, David Peters, drove about 75 miles to the USGS station near the foot of Mount St. Helens, where he would interview a young man who became a legendary figure in the Pacific Northwest; more on him in a moment.
My pilot friend and I arrived at the mountain and buzzed the summit repeatedly. I threw open the window on the passengers side of the plane and snapped hundreds of pictures of the summit as ice and snow began caving into newly created craters on top of the 9,600-foot peak.
Now, full disclosure time: The plane had no working radio. We were unable to hear any warnings from the FAA or the USGS about the “stunt” we were pulling off in the moment. I would learn upon returning to the airfield that the FAA had placed a no-fly zone around the summit. We were unaware. The statute of limitations ran out long ago, so I won’t be prosecuted for this admission.
As for Dave Peters’s assignment, he interviewed a USGS volcanologist by the name of David Johnston. On May 18, 1980, it was Johnston who radioed to his headquarters in Vancouver, Wash., from a ridge north of the mountain as the peak exploded.
He yelled: Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it! The pyroclastic flow of white-hot ash and rock that sped across the ridge vaporized Johnston in an instant. He was gone. The spot where he told the world of what was occurring now carries the name Johnston Ridge.
I was enabled because of the work I did to have more fun in pursuit of that job than I really deserved. That event in March 1980 pretty much tops the list of unique experiences.
I caught my breath. We published some pictures in the newspaper. Dave Peters wrote a wonderful feature on Johnston.
My wife shared with me the thrilling experience I had on that fateful day. I told Mom and Dad about it the next day.
They, um, were not pleased.