WILLARD, Mo. - The last few years were rough on Ralph Flores. The boxer-turned-pilot had been a scrapper, a survivor, but he was sick now and he knew he was dying.
Still, his son Frank always knew how to put spark back in the old man's eyes. "The only thing you could ever do to pick up his spirits," Frank Flores says, "was to talk about airplanes."
So that's what they would do, right up to his father's death in 1997. And whenever they did, the talk invariably turned to one plane in particular: a Howard DGA-15P, a little five-seater with a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine. A wonderful aircraft, says Flores, a pilot for Trans World Airlines who knows a little something about planes.
But it was more than just a plane to Ralph Flores. It was the one that made him famous for a time, in 1963, when he crashed it into a snow-covered forest in the Canadian Yukon in the dead of winter, and then managed somehow to survive there without food for 49 days.
His traveling companion, Helen Klaben Kahn, wrote a book about the ordeal, "Hey, I'm Alive," that was made into a TV movie in 1975, starring Ed Asner as Flores and Sally Struthers as Mrs. Kahn, the young, would-be adventurer.
They had survived in temperatures that fell as low as 50 degrees below zero that winter, with Mrs. Kahn eating three cans of fruit cocktail and two cans of sardines they had brought with them. Flores, who had broken his jaw in the crash, survived on snow and a few squeezes of toothpaste from a tube.
When they were rescued on March 25, long after search parties had given up looking for them, it was hailed as a miracle.
Then they quietly got on with their lives, leaving behind the little single-engine plane in the frozen forest.
The lost plane
"You promised him you were going to find it," Flores' mother, Teresa, reminded her son one recent day at her home in Willard, where both sat poring over faded news clippings and talking about the adventure.
That's right, Flores recalls, and after he found it he and his father were going to rebuild it and fly it. But that was just two old pilots talking, until Ralph Flores died last year and his son started thinking more and more about it.
"Last spring," he says, "I finally decided I wanted to restore a plane just like my dad's."
The problem was, he couldn't find one.
After months of searching, a friend at the Federal Aviation Administration suggested he do what he and his father had talked about: Go to the Yukon, find the original, haul it back home and put it back together.
So last September, Flores found himself flying somewhere over Canada, maybe 1,000 or so miles out of Fairbanks, Alaska, with his brother Ralph and sister Lisa.
Even today, he says, the area is so remote that it took two days to find the crash site. After they did, they nearly got lost on foot in the forest.
The plane had plowed into two of them but, miraculously, hadn't burst into flames. And the site, Flores says, looked pretty much like it must have the day his father and Kahn left.
"The cans of sardines that Helen ate were still there," he recalls. "The can of oil he opened to make an SOS in the snow was still there. All the things they had used to survive were still there."
So he packed up the pieces and brought them back. Some, including a seat and a door panel, he is keeping at his mother's house in this little town just northwest of Springfield. The rest he put in storage in North Dakota.
Eventually, he'll have the engine overhauled, the wings rebuilt and the frame refurbished.
"The final assembly I'll do here," he says. "And then I'll fly it out of here."
He figures it will take a couple of years and about $150,000.
Then he'll fly to Fairbanks and retrace the route his father was taking from Alaska back home to San Francisco when he crashed. Ralph Flores was working for the government then, helping maintain a radar system that had been put in place to warn the United States if the Soviet Union ever launched a missile attack across the frozen north.
A survival story
Kahn was on an around-the-world adventure and she had taken a seat on Flores' plane, splitting expenses in exchange for a ride home.
Not far into Canada, they got lost in bad weather. They crashed after Flores ducked under the cloud cover to try to get his bearings.
"It was a miracle they even survived the crash," says Frank Flores, noting both were knocked unconscious. Besides a broken jaw, his father suffered broken ribs and nose and a slashed chin. Kahn emerged with a broken arm and would later lose several toes to frostbite.
But Flores, then 42 and a determined and deeply religious man, had been a boxer in his youth and he wouldn't quit fighting - for survival. He fashioned snowshoes out of twigs and walked for miles in search of help. He built a toboggan out of sticks and a lean-to for shelter, and they read his Bible every day.
Kahn, then 21, later said it was his obsession with survival that saved them.
As the days turned into weeks, her weight fell from 140 pounds to 100 and his dropped from 178 to 121 before a pilot, carrying a trapper into the wilderness, happened to glance over his shoulder and see the SOS below.
After the rescue, the two went their separate ways. Flores eventually found work as a TWA mechanic and moved to the Midwest. Kahn married and stayed in California.
But they never lost touch.
"I told her I'd take her back up there with me if she wants to go," Flores says. "She sounded like she's interested."