It was March 24, 1963 – one of those rare spring mornings when the heavy clouds retreated, revealing a dazzling blanket of snow on the forest floor. A perfect day for flying, Charles “Chuck” Hamilton thought, as his single-engine plane motored through the sky of the northern British Columbia. The burly Watson Lake bush pilot peered out his window, scanning the forest for game. At 33, with the eyes of a trained marksman, he could spot grazing animals from high in the air. But if there were sheep or moose to be hunted that day, he didn’t see them. He was distracted by three faint letters stamped out in a frozen pond: S.O.S.
Hamilton didn’t even consider that the call for help might belong to Ralph Flores and Helen Klaben. After all, it had been six weeks since the amateur pilot and his 21-year-old passenger had disappeared over the Yukon-B.C. border during a violent snowstorm. Klaben, a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who’d come to Alaska on a lark, had hitched a ride with the California electrician after he placed an ad looking for a passenger to split the gas from Anchorage to San Francisco. When they failed to arrive in Fort Nelson, B.C. on February 4, Mounties, the R.C.A.F. and private airmen formed a search party. They scoured thousands of hectares for the serial number N5886, written in bold script on the side of Flores’ plane. But snowstorms raked the region and temperatures dropped to -45 C. Just three days after the crash, the Whitehorse Daily Star ran the headline “Little hope for missing plane.” Chances of saving its passengers seemed dismal.
Amazingly, though, rescuers came close. They flew over the wreck nearly every day, but Flores’ plane was invisible under a screen of snow and branches. Flores, unhurt in the accident, waved frantically. Klaben, her arm broken and her foot crushed, cried into the radio, “May Day. May Day. This is Howard N5886. We are alive. We hear you west ... In the name of God, please come back!” The signal was too weak, though, and her call faded into the storm. Following weeks of fruitless flyovers, the searchers gave up.
SIX WEEKS LATER, the situation was severe. Day after day, the survivors had huddled at the crash site, tending a fire to melt precious drinking water and ward off the brutal cold. Flores was gaunt and Klaben’s health was dire. Without a morsel to eat, she was losing seven pounds a week, on average. Her shattered foot had turned black with gangrene and frostbite; a bone protruded through the infected wound. When she managed to stand, hunger pangs brought her back to her knees. It was clear to both of them: If she didn’t get help soon, she could die any day.
But it wasn’t just Klaben’s condition that prompted them to finally leave the wreck. After 47 days stranded in the freezing wilderness, they’d heard a mechanical hum – some sort of motor – echoing through the mountains. Finding its source was their best hope, Flores decided. They piled supplies onto a scrap of wreckage and began towing it toward the mysterious sound.
After five hours of stumbling through snowdrifts, they reached a small clearing in the forest and set up camp, piling branches to form a shelter. Then Flores announced his plans. He’d spotted a beaver pond earlier, just down the hill, where he could stamp out an S.O.S with snowshoes he’d fashioned from tree bark. “I’ve got to get down there and make that signal where it’s sure to be seen,” he said. From there, he added, he would take off on his own, tracking the strange noise. He grabbed Klaben’s small hand mirror, to signal any plane that might pass over, and set out.
Klaben wasn’t happy about being left alone. Sick, feeble and terrified of wild animals, she kept herself busy by reading. A day later, she was flipping through a book when the sound of a small aircraft rose in the distance. She’d heard a few planes since Flores had left, but this one was close and getting closer.
"I THINK IT'S [A TRAPPER] and his family,” Hamilton’s passenger, Jack George, yelled over the growling engine. Hamilton nodded. As co-owner of the B.C.-Yukon Air Service, he was frequently hailed by trappers camped out in the forest when they ran low on supplies. Most likely, one of them had authored the S.O.S. They’d also taken the time to stamp out a large arrow pointing up the mountain. He banked the plane and followed it.
Back at the camp, Klaben scrambled to her feet, grabbed an armload of green pine and tossed it on the flames. Black smoke belched into the sky. The plane was directly overhead now, flying right through the billowing soot. Waving her arms, she cried uncontrollably. They had seen her, she just knew it.
But the air was so thick, Hamilton could barely spot the fire at its base, let alone Klaben. He flew back down the mountain to escape the choking fumes, where he caught a flicker of light in the trees. Squinting, he saw a man with a mirror, flashing beams of sunlight at his plane.
Hamilton headed for the nearest place to land: a trappers’ cabin on Airplane Lake, about 10 kilometres away. The trappers were there; they’d been cutting firewood with a chainsaw – the source of the mysterious noise Klaben and Flores had heard. Hamilton told them it was an emergency: If they left now, they just might be able to offer the man with the mirror a warm bed for the night. They readied their barking dogs and Hamilton took off to check on the fire again. When he got there, the black smoke had cleared and Hamilton could make out a shabby tent and a piece of scrap metal lying on the snow. It had a number on it: N5886. Hamilton was stunned. After a million-dollar search had turned up empty, he had found Flores and Klaben by chance. He reached for his radio: “I think I found the lost people,” he said. Then, with the sky darkening, he hurried back to Watson Lake.
Hamilton didn’t sleep that night. Almost as soon as he’d hung up with dispatch, word of the discovery had spread across the world. His wife, Marion Hamilton, had started receiving calls before he’d even landed. Reporters continued to call long past bedtime. But even during the lulls, Hamilton lay awake with worry. While he suspected, correctly, that the trappers had found Flores and hustled him to the cabin, Klaben was still alone on the mountain. Maybe he could have reached her, but all he had in the plane was one sleeping bag. If something had gone wrong – if he’d gotten lost, if the plane got stuck in the snow – they would have both been in trouble. Better to return in the morning with backup, he told himself. Although he was convinced it was the right decision, he was plagued by hypotheticals. Turning to his wife, he asked, “What if she’s dead when I get there?”
HAMILTON BREATHED a sigh of relief when he hopped in his plane before dawn. The clear skies were matched by unseasonably warm weather, and with temperatures like that, there was a good chance Klaben had made it through the night. Hamilton took off from Watson Lake, and not long after, landed on a lake three kilometres downhill from Klaben’s encampment. At about 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he breezed up the mountainside toward where he’d seen her campfire the day before.
About an hour later, Klaben saw her “pixie faced” rescuer striding out of the forest. Because she was too fragile to walk, she held her arms up to him and smiled. “Come here, I’ll give you a big kiss,” she said. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she cried, “Thank God.”
Even with her infected foot, Klaben proposed she walk back to the plane. Hamilton gave her a sideways glance. She looked terrible, her skeletal frame disappearing under layer upon layer of sweaters and trousers. “If I can carry a moose out of the woods, I can carry you,” he said. But the trek was more difficult than he’d anticipated. With Klaben slung across his shoulders, he couldn’t keep his balance and fell forward every time his snowshoe caught a log. Following hours of stumbling, he finally loaded Klaben into his two-seater and took off for Watson Lake.
Later that night, the heavy clouds returned and the mercury dropped well below zero. Flores’ S.O.S had disappeared by the next morning. Staff at the Watson Lake medical centre said Klaben wouldn’t have survived another night in temperatures like that. It was as if the weather had cleared just for the rescue, and then closed off again.
Klaben returned to New York a few days later. She lost her toes, but regained her health. Flores flew home to California, but was reprimanded for failing to carry adequate survival equipment in his plane. About a year later, Hamilton and his family left Watson Lake for Victoria, where he lives today, 50 years later. In his basement he keeps a piece of scrap metal, emblazoned with the numbers N5886.
Correction: A previous version of this story suggested the crash site was in the Yukon. It was in fact in Northern British Columbia.