Mike Kincaid: Frozen Ground Adventures or A Leap Into Movie Flying

49 Writers regular Mike Kincaid, who was a featured author in 2011. (See this post for an account of how he went “From Trooper to Author”). Mike was kind enough to share this article, first published in an aviation  magazine, with us in honor of the upcoming premiere of the long-awaited Alaska-set thriller, Frozen Ground, starring Nic Cage and John Cusack.

The photo Mike Kincaid provided during the Hollywood hiring process 

“ACTION!”  Flying low over the deck in a wheel plane can be intimidating—especially when the only landing area is a glacier riddled with crystal-blue, airplane-swallowing, bottomless crevasses.  Today’s flight is even more so, with a woman in the backseat screaming and clawing for her survival.

Backstory.   Thirty years ago, I was a young Trooper with the Wildlife Division of the Alaska Department of Public Safety in Glennallen, assigned to investigate damage to a remote cabin near Copper Center village. After landing the State Super Cub on a frozen lake, I found my first clue:  the tracks of another ski-plane. Strapping on snowshoes, I trudged through deep, powdery snow to the cabin tucked among the looming spruce trees, finding fresh wounds riddling the walls.  By the number of bullet holes and the shot pattern, it was probable the weapon was a small caliber semi-automatic rifle. Using my pocketknife, I dug lead from the holes and flew back to my post, completed my report, and logged the evidence.

The motive was undermined. The cabin’s owner was a respected elder of the local native village, perplexed who’d do this to her beloved retreat at this peaceful mountain lake. The destruction of remote cabins is rare, as an unwritten policy in Alaska preserves these shelters for emergency use. Most are left unlocked by the owners just for that reason, with the expectation that anyone taking shelter in a pinch replaces any foodstuffs and firewood used.

Unless you come across a talking moose, witnesses can be hard to find in the backcountry.  The best a trooper can do is ask around in nearby villages and from local trappers, hoping someone saw something. I did, and no one had.  The spent bullets were logged into the post evidence locker and I delivered the bad news to the dismayed complainant.

Many cases later, I transferred to the big city of Fairbanks, flying a Cessna 185 instead of a Super Cub. The cabin incident was pretty much forgotten until Anchorage trooper investigator Glenn Flothe called me about a serial-murder case. The suspect was an unlicensed pilot from Anchorage who kidnapped women, then flew them to remote areas where he raped them, then hunted and killed them as if they had no more equal value than the wildlife he savored poaching.  Flothe hoped the evidence I’d recovered was still available, as he believed the lake cabin could have been a site of one of the murders, but the bullets had been discarded after my transfer. Fortunately, Flothe’s diligence resulted in a confession from Robert Hansen of the murder of seventeen women (estimates are he actually killed over 30), making the need for a trip back to the cabin a low priority.

Hansen, the real Frozen Ground killer   

Introduction to the movie biz. It all started with an article in the Anchorage Daily News. The paper told of a movie called “The Frozen Ground” being filmed in Alaska about the crimes committed by Hansen, who used a Super Cub to carry out his mayhem. Writer/Director Scott Walker insisted on two main criteria:  keeping it as authentic as possible and not glorifying the horrible crimes of this man, who otherwise led a seemingly normal life in metropolitan Alaska. Instead, the screenplay is of a brave seventeen year old played by Vanessa Hudgens who, teamed with the State Trooper portrayed by Cage, brings the killer to justice.

The one and only movie I’d flown for before was such a stinker that it wasn’t worth mentioning; otherwise my aerial camera experience is mainly limited to piloting for seaplane-training videos and for law enforcement. Besides coming cheap, convincing the Hollywood folks I was right for the job included reviewing my professional flying experience, detailing my hours and ratings, my career as an Alaska Trooper, and my post-retirement career writing Bush-Alaska adventures. The clincher was the Lake Hood-based Super Cub my friends own, which is the same color scheme used in the crimes. With exceptional cooperation from the Anchorage Flight Standards District Office, we were able to get a permit to temporarily change the “N” number to closely match that used on the killer’s plane.

Ironically for me, I was offered the position as Stunt/Pilot for John Cusack, who plays the killer. They assured me I’d look just like the popular actor—as I piloted the Super Cub from at least a hundred yards away, traveling at a hundred miles per hour—if I shaved my mustache of thirty years and allowed the hair stylist to dye my gray hair brown. 

Mike, post-makeover, ready to double as the killer, Hansen. He was told he ended up looking more like Hansen than actor John Cusack.
John Cusack, after flying with Mike Kincaid
Act 1.  In military style, the company’s “Command
Center” invaded Anchorage’s Merrill Field, with a squadron of tractor-trailers,
buses, trucks, portable buildings for costumers and stylists, and a squad of
motorhomes for the actors. Producers, directors, artists, cameramen, lighting
and sound technicians, electricians, grips (now I know the grips rig and setup
all the equipment, including towing a Cub with a camera-laden dolly), stunt
people, and extras rushed around to get the first shot. Just as Nicolas Cage
dropped in with a perfect replica of a vintage Alaska Trooper Jet Ranger, I was
sent to the hair and costume crew, who did the best they could with the pallet
I offered.

“Roll cameras!” On the Assistant Director’s command,
John Cusack grabbed the beautiful actress Gia Mantegna, pulled her across the
tarmac, and tossed her into the back of the Super Cub like a bag of groceries.
It was impressive how both actors were so deeply into character, but the
surprise was on the emotional Gia when the next scene required her to take a
flight in the Cub, handcuffed as she was being kidnapped. After the previous
six takes of rough handling, the petite Gia was a little worse for wear and now
she was about to get a very non-standard intro to general aviation.

“Go-around! Throw Gia into the seat!” Even though I
had to pilot with a backpack-sized camera mounted in the front seat filming
Gia, the first touch and go went smoothly. But, with the director’s new
direction, I slammed the throttle forward, climbing abruptly to startle the
actress. Mission accomplished, as demonstrated by Gia’s expression of what
should be an interesting scene. When I ran into the actress later that evening
at the hotel, she beamed about enjoying the short Cub ride—what a sport!

Act 2.   Gia’s
stunt/double, Meggin Penkal, had only one more flight in the small airplane than
Gia, but she gladly climbed in for the Merrill Field departure along the mountains,
a camera-equipped Eurocopter “A-Star”—operated by the highly-experienced movie
pilot John Tamburro and his crew—in very tight formation.  After ridge-flying with the very close
camera-ship, Meggin and I descended into the Knik River Valley, where many of
the victims had met their fate. We flew low-level over the river then up the
Knik, then through the gorge to Inner Lake George. Dipping over the incredible
cobalt-blue glacier, laden with the most deadly crevasses imaginable, the
camera zoomed in on Meggin “screaming and clawing” while I concentrated on
piloting. With no headset (John Cusack didn’t wear one in the first scene, so
nor could I) and corrective prop glasses replacing the much-preferred sunglasses,
the flight was challenging, but beautiful. After more low-level formation
flying, we landed on a sandbar to scope out where Meggin would be performing
some difficult stunts in the coming days of filming.

Act 3.  Up to now, the production company lucked out
with a mild Alaskan fall. That changed in late October, when filming moved to
Knik River. Cold, hard rain, driven by sixty mile per hour gusts, made the
sixteen hour day of shooting miserable. My stepson felt lucky to don an
official Alaska State Trooper uniform as an extra, looking very impressive—for
about five minutes. Then, like the rest of the crew, his aim was to keep from
getting hypothermia. I “lucked out” when Nicolas Cage wisely elected to pass on
flying in the turbulence and low ceilings. Quickly learning that’s what
stunt/doubles do, I grabbed a trooper jacket, shirt, and glasses to match the Con-Air star’s wardrobe, climbing into
the Long Ranger for two exciting passes through the canyon, with the A-Star’s
gimbal-mounted camera recording our jostling.

Besides putting my flight instruction ticket to use when
introducing John Cusack to piloting (he has the potential to be a “good stick”),
other days filled with what the director called “organic flying” — maneuvers including
simulated entry into the clouds, turbulence flying (not simulated), one-wheel
landings, sliding around in the snow, “sloppy air work” (I’m good at that) and
low-level operations while being chased by the helicopter.  All in all, fun stuff.

The magic of Hollywood.
Ski-flying was scripted in the movie, but when the snow didn’t appear in late
October, the script was modified to stay on the small tundra tires.
Then the snow fell, and fell, draping
the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in white. The stunt flying continued, but the
weather change created a major dilemma—how to tie in a landing/taxi scene with
one shot of Cusack when there was no snow. Since the busy actor was already on
another project, producer Remington Chase did what he’s known for—making the
impossible possible. With residents of South Hollywood airport in Wasilla helping
(the name of the strip is mere coincidence), an industrious crew, a helicopter
for a snow-blower, and ground-thawing equipment, a sizeable patch of tundra and
forest were converted from hard winter back to fall-like, and the missing
footage was captured in high definition beauty of 4-K digital.

Summing it up.  Piloting for The Frozen Ground gave me an appreciation of the dedication and
hard work the crew and actors put into a major motion picture. The experts say
real work starts now, as the editors now  have to  take hundreds of hours of footage—I think they
shot at least twelve hours just of the Cub—and turn them into a normal-length
movie. From my limited perspective, as well as from veteran actors and crew, this
should be a great film. Pilots will enjoy the flying and all will appreciate
incredible dialogue and acting between the characters.

During a break in the filming, the manager of the
State Trooper Museum in Anchorage invited me to view a painting by one of
Hansen’s jail-mates. It was a bit disconcerting to see the artwork, as it
matches my recollection of the cabin from my cabin-shooting investigation in
1981.Perhaps a sojourn to the quiet lake someday in a floatplane would bring
this adventure full circle.

Mike Kincaid was a city boy from the Lower 48 who accidently spent a 26-year vacation in Alaska, residing in Denali Park, Girdwood, King Salmon, Copper Center, Fairbanks, Bethel, Palmer and somewhere near Talkeetna. He survived an exciting career with the Alaska Department of Public Safety as a Trooper/Pilot with the majority of his time in the Bush. He now lives in Idaho.

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