It was a perfect day for flying, a beautiful day in May, sunny and mild. Perfect, if you like getting blown out of your flight path and having your plane tipped on its side, ready to fall from the heavens to the earth below. But the earth wasn’t entirely below you any more. Almost a cubic mile of it was now flying past your window, trailing dirt, cinders and smoke that formed a gigantic cloud of soot. That’s the day Steve Brenner was having as he tried to bring his little Piper Cessna airplane back under control.
May 18th, 1980. Steve was on assignment to fly John, a National Geographic photographer, around a snow covered mountain in Washington state. Mt. St. Helens was an old volcano that was coming back to life. Scientists were fascinated by it. Politicians hated it. The scientists said it was going to blow soon, but they couldn’t say exactly when with any certainty. Politicians had to weigh the potential cost of human life with the cost of evacuation and the loss of tourist revenue. Volcanoes are expensive. Scientists had been saying “any day now” since March. It was now May and there had been so many false alarms that people had almost lost interest.
On that clear May morning, Steve and John had been in the air about twenty minutes, flying at 4,000 feet above ground level when the small plane was blasted by an enormous force that tipped the plane sideways. They didn’t know what had happened until Steve managed to right the plane and looked out the window. They saw a huge plume of dirt and ash billowing out beside them.
Mt St Helens had blown her top. She was now 1300 feet shorter than she had been just moments ago. Almost a cubic mile of dirt and stone had been thrown into the air. Steve and John were there, up close and personal with an exploding volcano.
The radio crackled to life, ordering all planes to clear the air space immediately. Steve looked at John, then at the massive cloud beside them, and calmly turned the radio off. They didn’t know if there would be other eruptions, or if the Cessna could handle more buffeting or what would happen if the smothering debris cloud suddenly switched direction, but they were there, where few humans had ever been and lived to tell about it. It was too soon to land.
They realized how lucky they had been. Had the eruption gone straight up, it might have knocked them out of the air, adding to the death toll. Instead, the volcano blew out the north face of the mountain while Steve and John had been flying to the south of the peak. Steve turned to fly parallel to the debris cloud while John snapped away, quickly shooting frame after frame of historic pictures.
Steve is retired now, but still flies from time to time. I met him last Sunday while he was doing his stint as tour guide and operator of the Oregon City Municipal Elevator, which I’ll feature in a future blog. I was trying out a new camera and the overlook at the Elevator is the perfect place to see the city of Portland. Looking to the north, I could see the squat remains of Mt St Helens, its cone blown to smithereens, but I didn’t know the name of the other mountain to the east of it. That’s how we came to talk of that day in May. John earned $25,000 for one of his photographs. Steve was only paid $250 an hour, but he ended up with the experience of a lifetime, an eye witness to one of the most dramatic events in our lifetime.
In 2013, Steve was voted one of the Best People in Portland. You can find Steve here, about half way down the page under “Best Elevator Operator”. He’s a great storyteller, a warm and funny person. If you are lucky enough to visit the elevator while he’s on duty, be prepared to stay a while. You’ll be glad you did.
Mt. St. Helens sits about 50 miles north of where we were on Sunday. I zoomed in to show you what is left of the once pointed mountain.
Some data from Wikipedia, complete with links if you would like more before and after pictures:
Mount St. Helens is most notorious for its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m. PDT,the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. Fifty-seven people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles (24 km) of railways, and 185 miles (298 km) of highway were destroyed. A massive debris avalanche triggered by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale caused an eruption that reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 ft (2,950 m) to 8,365 ft (2,550 m), replacing it with a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide horseshoe-shaped crater. The debris avalanche was up to 0.7 cubic miles (2.9 km3) in volume. The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was created to preserve the volcano and allow for its aftermath to be scientifically studied.