I don’t remember certain details about the first time I flew the mountain. The date for one. My father, Ken Whitmire, swore it was May 25th, I remember it being May 28th, 1980. I remember it being 10 days after the May 18th eruption of Mt. St. Helens. He was 86 the last time we talked about it, and I’ve since suffered a traumatic brain injury…So it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
What I will always remember about that morning, I think, was that we were late, and we still had to drive down to the studio to pick up film. The posted speed limit was 30 MPH, but due to the one and a half to two inches of volcanic ash covering everything in Yakima, the county wide speed limit had been reduced to 25. We were going down Summitview Avenue at around 70 MPH in our brown station wagon.
I remember looking to the side and seeing this police officer sitting in his car, speed checking everyone. Why we weren’t stopped and ticketed, or more likely thrown in jail, I will never know for sure. I can only speculate that the wake of ash that our station wagon kicked up, hid us from both the cop, and any primitive radar he might of had with him.
The Yakima Airport was closed, so we drove down to The Dalles, Oregon, which was the closest airport that was open. We met a photographer friend of ours from Sunnyside, John Kasinger, and flew out from there.
John and dad had been in contact with National Geographic Magazine. The way it worked then, there were photographers on assignment for the magazine, or for very special events, like erupting volcanoes, tornadoes and such, other photographer’s stuff was sometimes looked at, and seldom excepted. I don’t even think the National Geographic took down their names. But, if they turned in really good stuff, maybe they would look at it.
The morning air was smooth in the little plane. We flew above the clouds.
Clouds had covered the volcano since the May 18th eruption, due to condensation around all the warm ash in the air. But as our Cessna 172, single engine plane approached the red zone, a mile wide federally restricted no-fly zone, the clouds cleared and we were among the first to see the mountain as it is today. We were shocked.
John told the pilot to fly closer, so we headed in.
Soon, the radar guy came on the radio, “You are flying in a restricted area, unless you turn around now, your pilots license will be revoked.”
The pilot banked the plane around.
Dad put his hand on the pilot’s shoulder, “Tell them we’re from the National Geographic.”
There was a pause, then, “You’ve been cleared to fly wherever you want.”
Hearing that the pilot turned the plane around, and we made our first run. We got really close to the mountain and soon it began its eruption that rained mud on Portland. We were flying dangerously close. There was a lot of turbulence, because air temperatures and pressures fluctuated wildly.
The wind direction changed, which sent the plume of ash and pumice directly in our direction. The pilot dove the plane straight down, in what seemed like a thousand foot drop.
Below us, I saw trees laid down and floating on Spirit Lake like a box of spilled tooth picks.
Soon the pilot recovered from the dive, and the plane flew back about a half a mile, giving us the space we needed to get the whole mountain in the frame. Dad captured images of a Chinook helicopter flying very close to the North side crater. The double bladed copter probably had the photographer assigned by the National Geographic in it, but it gave the photographs a kind of size relation.
We flew back to The Dalles and had breakfast at Sambo’s. Certain things. I can still remember the taste of those syrup soaked pancakes.
Then we drove back to Yakima, and dad had some film processed. We went down to the Herald Republic newspaper. He sold an image of the previously hidden volcano to the UPI, a news and photo agency, and had it in every newspaper across the country.
Although, we weren’t “From the National Geographic,” as dad had said, one of his photographs was excepted for the Mt. St. Helens issue of the Magazine. The image was of a dead bird, covered in ash on the sidewalk outside the studio, and I think it’s one of the most dramatic images in the peice.
Quite an exciting morning for a thirteen year old.
In, I think, 2005 or 2006 there was some heating under a glacier on Mt. Rainier. I read about some flooding of a river because of it. And Mt. Rainier was under a pretty special geologic volcano watch for about a month. I remember calling my dad.
He said, “Wanna fly another mountain?”
I replied, “Damn straight, dad.”
We both giggled.