POLSON – The passengers on the Chicago-to-L.A. flight felt something quite odd as their plane cruised along at 30,000-plus feet. Then the pilot’s voice came over the intercom.
They’d lost an engine, Larry Ashcraft told them, and they’d have to make a forced landing in Las Vegas.
What they didn’t know was that Ashcraft had deliberately pulled the throttle back too fast, causing what’s known as a compressor stall. It was enough to probably cause the people in the plane to glance at each other with quick looks of concern.
What they also didn’t know was that, earlier on the TWA frequency, Ashcraft and his co-pilot had been informed that two potential hijackers were believed to be on board the flight.
This was before the 9/11 attacks on America and increased airport security, but in an era when hijackings did occur. Ashcraft, the First Officer, told only one other member of his crew.
“She was a senior flight attendant, had a real cool head, and I had her start looking for anyone she thought seemed suspicious,” Ashcraft says.
She returned to the cockpit and said it might be two brothers sitting in the first row of first class.
Ashcraft turned the plane over to his co-pilot, unbuckled his seatbelt and headed into the cabin – something he did often when his planes reached cruising altitude, to chat with his passengers.
He spoke casually to the two men, and continued down the aisle, asking people how the flight was. In the last row of first class sat another TWA pilot. Ashcraft bent over and whispered to him what was happening, and told the other pilot to keep an eye on the two men.
“I’d asked for a description, and once we got it, we were pretty sure those were the two,” he says.
Soon after, he put the plane in the compressor stall, made up the story about losing an engine, and then began descending into McCarren International Airport.
As he taxied toward the terminal after touching down, Ashcraft said he could see armed law enforcement “behind every piece of equipment” and worried that the two men might notice it too.
They brought stairs out to the plane and the senior flight attendant told the brothers in the first row, “This is going to be a mess, you’ll want to get off first so you don’t get caught up in it.”
They did. The second they were out the door and on the stairs, the flight attendant stepped in front of the rest of the passengers and swung the door shut as the FBI took the brothers into custody.
“To this day, I’ll never know if they were going to hijack the plane,” Ashcraft says. “But they did find $30,000 worth of stolen airline tickets on them.”
Ashcraft, 73, tells the story from his retirement home in Polson. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration honored him with its Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
And what’s that for?
“Being old,” Ashcraft says with a laugh.
Actually, it’s “in recognition of your contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world through practicing and promoting safe aircraft flight operations for more than 50 consecutive years.”
Ashcraft thinks it’s pretty remarkable that only about 3,000 people have ever gotten the Master Pilot Award, and three of them live in Polson. Chuck Jarecki and Glen Timm are the other two.
Ashcraft – who learned to fly as a teenager in Helena and got his first job in aviation at Johnson Flying Service in Missoula – has logged more than 27,000 hours as a pilot.
That’s the equivalent of more than three years of his life spent in the sky, round-the-clock, every day, with airplanes strapped to him.
He’s flown everything from Cessnas to jumbo jets, and flew for TWA from 1966-2002.
His retirement certainly didn’t ground him. He operated Osprey Aero until 2012, taking people on scenic flights over the Bob Marshall Wilderness in his seaplane. He’s served as president of the Aviation Organization of Montana, president of the Montana Seaplane Pilots, president of the Montana Pilots Association’s Mission Valley Hangar, is a member of Recreation Aviation Foundation and is an advisor to Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s ALERT air ambulance.
If that’s not enough, he’s also served as president of the Flathead Lakers, president of the Lake County Pachyderm Club, chairman of the Polson Board of Adjustment, and sits on the city’s Golf Board.
“And I’m incoming president of Rotary,” he says, moments after wondering if he maybe shouldn’t start scaling back on his commitments.
When he was 15 years old, and in high school in Helena, the aeronautics school there allowed juniors and seniors to enroll in a program from 7 a.m. to noon that led to an aircraft mechanic’s license.
“I wasn’t smart enough to do that,” Ashcraft says, “but I did take a science class called ‘Pilot.’ You got 10 hours of instruction and ground school – it basically took you up to the point you could solo.”
Ashcraft earned his private pilot’s license, not that it did him much good then.
“I had no money to fly,” he says. “I’d go to the airport and stand around looking forlorn, hoping maybe somebody would give me a ride.”
Bill Wyman, the pilot for Montana Gov. Tim Babcock, took young Ashcraft under his wing.
Ashcraft, who joined the Army Reserves out of high school, enrolled at Western Montana College in Dillon for two quarters, where he played basketball, then transferred to the University of Montana.
“I still wasn’t flying, I still didn’t have any money,” he says. “So I started smoke-jumping. I did that for three years, and hung out with the pilots a lot. Some of them would give me some stick time.”
Meantime, Ashcraft, a marketing and advertising major at UM who “hated statistics,” got a job offer when we finished college.
“It was sitting at a desk in Newark, New Jersey, all day doing statistics,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is not going to work.’ ”
Jack Hughes, chief pilot for Johnson Flying Service, had told the smokejumper if he ever wanted a job flying to come see him. Ashcraft did.
“I didn’t really know you could make a living flying,” says Ashcraft, who returned to Helena, got his instructor’s rating, and came back to Missoula.
“I want you checked out on everything,” Hughes told Ashcraft, who stood looking at Johnson’s fleet of Ford Trimotors, Stearmans, Travel Airs, C46s and Cessna 180s.
“It was like being in a toy shop,” Ashcraft says. “I think about those Johnson pilots who took me under their wing, and how important they were to me. These were guys who basically wore airplanes. I got time in everything.”
They also encouraged Ashcraft to apply with the airlines; they were hiring.
“I just wanted to hunt, fish and fly for Johnson Flying Service,” Ashcraft says. Northwest Airlines offered him a job; Ashcraft turned it down.
“The other pilots got on me,” he says, and when TWA offered him a job in 1966, Ashcraft accepted.
He was 23.
“I scored high enough on the tests to skip flight engineer,” Ashcraft says, and he moved to New York and became a co-pilot on Lockheed Constellations – the last prop planes TWA would use.
From there, he became a First Officer and moved up – to 707s, 727s, DC-9s, 747s, MD80s, 757s and 767s. There was also a move to Los Angeles, then, in 1973, to Lake Tahoe – “I missed the mountains,” he says – and finally, to Montana in 1978, where he bought a cherry orchard on Flathead Lake.
Ashcraft commuted to New York for his job, where he served as a “check airman” for the last 16 years of his 36-year career with TWA. A check airman is a pilot who checks out other pilots when they begin flying an aircraft new to them, including flights with passengers.
Early on in his career, he flew flights to Vietnam, when the U.S. military used commercial airlines to transport troops and cargo.
He flew international flights for much of his career. The old Hong Kong airport was one of the most challenging to land at – Ashcraft calls it “exciting” – because you approached the city from the water, descending straight toward a “wall” of mountains, and curved back through the city’s skyscrapers to land.
“You were right next to apartment buildings,” he says, and bad weather often added to the obstacles. LaGuardia in New York could also be tricky because of strong winds and fairly short runways, he says, but adds that airports with such reputations are often pretty safe because pilots are especially tuned in because of the challenges.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Ashcraft flew a TWA flight from Paris back to the U.S. The next morning, he went to take his FAA physical.
“I was sitting around waiting, watching the TV, and all of a sudden they’re showing the Twin Towers,” he says. It was before anyone knew what had happened. There was the hole in one of them, some smoke wafting out, and like many, Ashcraft wondered if a small plane had struck the building.
As the horror unfolded and a second passenger jet crashed into the second tower, the sick feeling in Ashcraft’s stomach was of a different sort than most Americans had.
“I lost so many friends that day,” he says. No TWA planes were involved, but Ashcraft knew several of the crew members on the four airplanes involved in 9/11.
It took him back to July 17, 1996, when TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, 12 minutes after departing New York.
Ashcraft knew not only most of the crew on that plane, but other pilots who were “dead-heading” to other flights, and yet another whose wife was working as a flight attendant. He was tagging along so they could spend a few days in Paris together.
The government blamed it on an explosion of flammable fuel and air vapors in a fuel tank, the explosion’s cause unknown, but to this day Ashcraft – and others – believes the 747 was shot down.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone in aviation who believes it was anything else,” he says. A good friend, another pilot, was on the plane just behind TWA Flight 800 as they taxied out for takeoff.
“Let 841 go,” the Flight 800 pilot radioed the tower. “He’s carrying human organs.”
“And so they let him go first,” Ashcraft says. Flight 800 followed, and 12 minutes later, 230 people were dead.
The two days of disasters are the worst memories, but most of the rest are grand.
None can really top his brief time with Johnson Flying Service, Ashcraft admits, back when he was the youngster behind the controls but his own smokejumping days gave him a pretty good feel for how to fly planes when he was dropping jumpers over fires.
These days, Ashcraft pilots a Cessna 182, having sold his seaplane when he quit doing charter flights over the Bob. He and wife Dorothy, who he married 12 years ago, have seven children and seven grandchildren between them, and he looks forward to teaching any of those grandkids with an interest how to fly.
And he’s still accumulating flying stories. Before he sold the seaplane, Ashcraft took Dorothy on a camping trip near the Arctic Circle in it.
It took two long days of flying to reach the quite large but equally isolated Great Slave Lake, and even though they appeared to be the only humans within a million miles or so in the sky, Ashcraft of course got on the radio, identified his plane, and announced his intention to land in a sheltered bay in a blind call.
So he was shocked not only when someone replied, but replied with this:
“Larry, is that you?” came a voice over his radio.
It was a pilot from St. Ignatius, Bob Kembel, camping at the other end of the 291-mile-long lake.
They rendezvoused. Probably swapped some flying stories around the campfire.
After 58 years in the cockpit, Larry Ashcraft has one or two.