By the time the rescue party had reached the summit of Mount Rainier in April 1951, it was too late.
The eight “bone-weary, weather-battered rangers and mountaineers” had gone to rescue a man who was no longer there, The Seattle Times reported.
A day earlier, on April 12, John W. Hodgkin, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant, made headlines throughout the region by landing his ski-equipped lightweight airplane on a saddle near Rainier’s summit.
“He has a passion for landing at high spots,” an airmen buddy told The Times. “We tried to talk him out of it.”
Everything initially went well for Hodgkin. A fellow pilot, flying alongside for his stunt, reported that he got out of his plane atop the mountain to take photos.
But when he returned to the aircraft, it wouldn’t start.
“I watched him turn the propeller, but no smoke came out,” the other pilot told The Times.
Stranded near the top of the more than 14,000-feet-high peak, Hodgkin spent the night in below-zero temperatures. He had no idea a rescue party had been dispatched to save him.
About one hour before his rescuers arrived the next day, Hodgkin turned the plane downhill, hopped back in and glided it down the snow.
“It went down the slope, and just as it went over the edge, I caught an updraft and I was flying,” he told The Times later, blaming the plane’s problems on a bad batch of gas. Hodgkin glided the plane down to Lake Mowich, received some fresh gas and fixed a spark-plug issue, and took off for Spanaway, Pierce County, where his journey had begun.
It was there that he was greeted by Air Force leaders.
“The 42-year-old flyer, sun-burned, bearded and tired, stepped from the plane to be confronted by considerable Air Force ‘brass,’ including a colonel, a lieutenant colonel and other officers. Some of them had been waiting six hours for this moment, but any ‘dressing down’ which was in store for Hodgkin was reserved for a more private time.”
With the ongoing Korean War, Hodgkin escaped punishment from the Air Force though he’d technically gone AWOL, HistoryLink reports.
A few weeks after his adventure, Hodgkin was found guilty of unlawfully landing his plane in a national park during a U.S. Commissioner’s Court hearing at the Longmire Ranger Station, according to HistoryLink. He was fined $350 and given a six-month suspended jail sentence.
No one has replicated his illegal feat, according to HistoryLink.