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“LDS Lives: Hearts of Courage” to air on BYU Television Jan. 12, 15, 19

Describes famous plane crash rescue in Alaska in 1943

"Hearts of Courage," a true account of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an unimaginable situation, is now a new BYU Television documentary, "LDS Lives: Joseph Tippets," to be broadcast on Jan. 12, 15 and 19.

The program is the account of the legendary Gillam plane crash in Alaska in 1943 and the two brave men who journeyed through the Alaskan territory to attempt a rescue for the remaining passengers, waiting in freezing weather.

Now an LDS Lives documentary, the tenacity and courage of Joseph Tippets and Percy Cutting is a story of real heroism against impossible odds. The miraculous events of those weeks — the ordeal of survival and the ultimate rescue — all are recreated and told with reverence.

It will air Monday Jan. 12, at 8 p.m.; Thursday, Jan. 15, at 9 a.m.; and Monday, Jan. 19, at 4 p.m., all MST, on BYU Television.

Dean Stephen Jones of Brigham Young University's College of Fine Arts and Communications heard and was impressed with the story, met with Joseph Tippets' son John and then forwarded the idea to the staff at BYU Broadcasting.

Coincidentally, producer Rob Sibley first read about the Gillam crash and Joseph Tippets in "LDS Adventure Stories" compiled by Preston Nibley.

“In November 2007, I had a meeting with John and he told me about his dad and his amazing survival in the Alaskan wilderness. As he talked, I thought, this story sounds really familiar. And then I remembered that I’d read about this exceptional man some years before. What makes some men extraordinary is their normal day-to-day persona that is pushed to the limits in extremes we can only imagine. They stand up to adversity; they face their challenges with a tenacity most of us never have to deal with. Few Latter-day Saints are tested to such a degree, literally putting their lives on the line to save others.”

Intrigued, Sibley found additional sources through discussions with Joseph and Alta’s four children, archival film footage, historical photos and a special KUED interview with Joseph Tippets made in the 1960s by Neal A. Maxwell, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The Story

The rescue took place 35 miles southeast of Ketchikan, Alaska, in the winter of 1943. Joseph Tippets and Percy Cutting stood yelling with their last ounce of energy to a passing Coast Guard vessel on routine patrol. Bedraggled, barely alive, the two had pushed through rough Alaskan territory in one of the worst winters ever recorded. It was February, almost a full month since the Gillam plane had crashed in the middle of nowhere. Two more men lay in a makeshift lean-to in the wilderness desperately hoping Tippets and Cutting would get them out alive.

Back in January, Joseph had sat in the Lockheed Electra with four other passengers thinking of his reunion with his wife Alta and their son John. He reminisced about the hurried flight he’d made to Utah from his home in Anchorage to be at the bedside of his dying mother. Gone over Christmas, Joe had left his expectant wife and made it to Utah.

As the plane taxied down the runway, Joe thought of his hurried days visiting with family in Ogden and Heber and his opportunity to report on the state of the Church in that far northern territory to several Church officials in Salt Lake City. He was the first Anchorage branch president to a small LDS congregation in the midst of World War II. Back home, Alta helped provide some sort of Christmas for many of the young servicemen, even though her prayers were for Joe’s safe return. The couple knew their meeting would be especially sweet and Joe wrote Alta to say, “Godspeed our quick reunion and I hope I beat this letter to you!”

Alaskan bush flying in 1943 was no place for a beginner pilot. Old-timers said there were three kinds of Alaska weather: clear and unlimited, ordinary and “Gillam weather.” Harold Gillam, an aviator experienced in flying through some of the foulest weather, shook his head and said, “The weather's never as bad as it looks.” But the Territory was having one of the worst winters in 100 years and already there was ice accumulating on the plane. It not only got colder, but Gillam would approach his destination in darkness.

Knowing all these factors, the pilot still felt confident as he pushed on through the clouds. The carburetor heat and de-icing systems were full on; the plane was on track and on time. The airplane was heavy with ice but within limits and still performing well.

Several hours into the flight, Gillam tuned in to what he thought was the Annette, Alaska, radio range. Suddenly the left engine lost power; with the added weight of ice, the right engine couldn’t maintain altitude. The last radio contact was, “One engine has conked out, expect trouble.”

At 1,800 feet the snow cleared briefly to reveal an open spot on a mountainside. The plane slammed into the ground but only after smashing through trees, shearing off the right wing and buckling the fuselage. The Lockheed slid into a deep gully, and a tree crashed down to further bury the crumpled plane. The six passengers survived but were now completely hidden from view.

The BYU Television documentary tells the story of their dramatic rescue.

Author John Tippets stated, “I recently listened again to a recording of a fireside given by Dad where he said one possible reason his life was spared by his Father in Heaven was so he could tell this story to others and increase their faith and confidence that prayers are answered. With the book Hearts of Courage, and now with this wonderful BYU Television production that purpose is continuing to be fulfilled."

For information about rebroadcast dates and times, visit www.byutv.org.

Writer: Brady Toone

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