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Mount St. Helens memories: Fairchild Air Force Base

Editor’s note: Readers submitted the following stories about the Fairchild air show interrupted by the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.

Had war broke out?

My husband and I were at the Fairchild Air Force Base open house. He was a pilot and loved being surrounded by the magnificent planes and their personnel at Fairchild.

Almost without a warning the new Blackbird was moved into its hangar along with many other planes. The announcement came on that the air show was cancelled and everyone should leave immediately.

My husband’s first thought was that a war was imminent. Our thoughts were our children. Eldest was son Jon at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; his sister Jan stayed in Coeur d’Alene and had a tennis match at McEuen Field courts.

On our way back to Coeur d’Alene, we heard the radio announcement that Mount St. Helens erupted. That seemed a long ways away.

I thought when I arrived home that I would collect a little ash and spread a white sheet on the picnic table. I then sat on the front stoop anxiously awaiting my daughter’s return. As I sat in my white slacks, some dark dust appeared on my pants and I would brush it off. That kept on and in a short while, I couldn’t keep up with the ash.

The next morning, wearing paper masks, we ventured outside. My neighbor was shoveling it. As these were the days before environmental protection, he was shoveling down the sewer.

It was days before our anxious son could reach us as all phone lines were jammed. We could be thankful we did not live in the Ritzville area but left Fairchild heading east to Coeur d’Alene.

I still have some ash. As a joke, I used to send some to my “ash-less” friends.

Kate Wendell, Coeur d’Alene

Blackbird flew south

I was 10 and I remember that day like yesterday. Our local Air Force base was having an air show and there was supposed to be a flying demonstration from the SR-71 Blackbird. And as we were leaving because the ash was coming, I saw it heading south. It was dark as night by about 3:30 and we were stuck in traffic trying to leave the show.

Alan Buechler

Collected gallons of ash

My husband and I moved to Spokane early in 1980 to get away from the smog and crowds in San Diego. As avid hikers and campers we yearned for the clean, fresh air of the Inland Northwest. Next thing we knew we were wearing masks and cleaning up ash that got into everything.

When the mountain blew we were at the air show at Fairchild AFB. We figured something was up when they started closing the hangars and moving the planes indoors. I still have several gallons of pristine ash that I collected with open glass jars on our apartment balcony.

The day after the eruption my husband, Ted, who worked at the old Community Press Newspaper in Airway Heights, came home with some shocking news. When I said “How was your day, dear?” he replied “I flew over Mount St. Helens today!” The newspaper offered him a seat on their small plane flight to take pictures of the volcano.

Later I sent tiny bags of ash I collected to friends and family all over the country so they could share the experience. My mom’s doctor put her sample under a microscope for her to look at.

Getting around town was a challenge because the ash clogged up vehicle engines. For months afterward the ash was visible on the ground, sidewalks, driveways and buildings in Spokane.

The local press coverage of the event was outstanding and we were able to follow the ash as it traveled around the world in the atmosphere. Although it was a pain at the time, and news was sad from the mountain area, we are glad we didn’t miss one of Mother Nature’s most interesting shows.

Joyce Watson, retired Spokane teacher and musician

General orders base cleared

We were listening to a general speak prior to the opening of Aerospace Day at Fairchild AFB, the day after the Lilac Parade, when suddenly the general stopped and announced we needed to leave the base – just when thousands of other people were headed to Fairchild for the daylong show. There was a mass exodus of people and aircraft before the ash came down.

Ron Hardin

Evacuated without explanation

My girlfriend (now wife) and I were at the Fairchild open house that day. All of a sudden they asked everyone over loud speakers to exit the base, and began putting all the aircraft in hangars.

The sky began growing dark, and with no explanation of what was happening, we hurried to the car thinking we got nuked or something. It wasn’t until we were on the way home we heard on the radio that the mountain had blown.

About halfway home the ash started falling. I had to turn on the lights and wipers to see enough to make it back to town.

Randy Peterschick

The barbecue must go on

The day dawned sunny and warm. It was the annual open house at Fairchild Air Force Base. My husband to be was in the Air Force, so we planned to see the air show then have a barbecue with some friends who lived on the base.

A group of us were touring some of the aircraft when an announcement was made that all base personnel were to help move the planes to the hangers because there was a plume of ash from an exploding volcano heading our way.

The men went to help with the planes and we women and children went to the house where we were going to barbecue. After the ash started to fall and the men gathered with us, we knew we could not go outside for any length of time. We lived just a mile outside the back gate of the base, so we moved the barbecue to our house. We have a walk-out basement, so we set up the barbecue inside by the open basement door and barbecued there. Not even volcano ash was going to stop our barbecue.

For years after the eruption every time I dug in the yard I could see a layer of ash about a half-inch thick.

Sharleen Hill

Mistook ash for storm clouds

I was still in high school that year. I was in bed at 8:32 and felt the shake but didn’t chalk it up to anything.

My friend Gary Shaw and I decided to go to the air show at Fairchild that Sunday. We looked at a lot of planes and stopped to look at the SR71 spy plane they had on display. At that time over the loud speakers they announced that the show was closing due to Mount St. Helens ash heading our way. We hadn’t heard much about it so it was kind of a surprise. In the distance you could see a huge black cloud coming our way from the southwest. We still thought it was just a rain storm.

On the way back home we stopped at KFC to eat and the ash hit. It got pitch black in the middle of the day and started to rain pea-size chunks on us. After that we just went home and watched the ash showers.

After it was done ashing on us the next few days, I ended up helping one of my friends at the old Northtown Mall parking lots clean up all night long with fire hoses, shovels and tractors. That actually was a lot of fun. We cleaned, got paid and watched the tractor driver rip our fire hoses apart with the blade as he plowed by.

Chris Phillips, Class of 1981, Mead High School

Ashed out

We weren’t living here then, but we were a military family living in Germany and who had received orders for transfer to Fairchild AFB.

We knew about the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and a few days afterward I went to lunch at the base officers club. The military radio station was playing over the loudspeaker. A bit of news that caught my attention was that the Spokane baseball game had been “ashed out.”

Jane Trease

A toast to the emergency crews

At that time [of the eruption] I was in the 141st Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, working full time as a boom operator in the 116 ARS. After securing my own property, family and farm animals I was notified to that we were activated for state active duty. We aircrew were bused to Moses Lake in our flight suits and tasked with helping the locals to deal with the disaster.

Our job was to shovel out the tennis courts, swimming pools, school roofs, etc. After one fine day of shoveling, still in sweaty flight suits, my buddy and I decided to have a cool drink in the local establishment. The bartender served our drinks and then asked for money. My buddy then said in a loud voice, “We are here digging you out and you are asking us to pay you?”

Shortly after, all the customers in suits and ties had filled the bar in front of us with drinks. It pays sometimes to speak up.

Chief Master Sgt. Gary Polser, retired

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