On the Fourth of July, a 16-passenger van, painted red, white, and blue, will take its final drive—off the side of a 300-foot cliff.
Like most towns in the U.S., Glacier View, Alaska, celebrates Independence Day with a boom. But the bangs don’t come from fireworks (the sun doesn’t set until around midnight this time of year, so explosives are hard to see), but from cars cartwheeling down a rocky cliff.
The festively-painted van isn’t the only vehicle set to triumphantly soar over the holiday weekend. There’s also a Polaris snow machine (non-Alaskans, or lower 48ers, might call it a snowmobile), a PT Cruiser, a Chevy truck, and a handful of other vehicles waiting to be sent skyward in a town with a population of 220.
Launching vehicles off the bluff near Matanuska Glacier has been a tradition since 2005. Prior festivals have included everything from small commuter cars to boats to even a stretch limousine. Each squealing as they tear off the launch, perform aerial feats, and then crumple as they roll down into the valley before a crowd of cheering, flag-wielding spectators.
Before 2005, the summer holiday was celebrated with a small parade and gathering for the local community. But when the Matanuska River swelled and swallowed up the parade route, long-time festival organizer Arnie Hrncir decided to do something different. His wife’s Volvo had recently had a run-in with a moose and was no longer safe for the road—so it was chosen to be the first airborne guinea pig. Hrncir wanted to see if it was worth planning an entire event around a car launch in this rural stretch of the 49th state.
“It was just so fun, we decided we needed to do it again and again,” Hrncir says. In the years that followed, the event grew from a small gathering to one of the largest July 4th events in Alaska.
Most years they’ve launched six vehicles, although in 2020, they had 11. Hrncir says they expect to have roughly a dozen this year. Some are donated by friends or sponsors, whereas others are picked up cheaply at auction (most of the vehicles will also get a patriotic paint job before their brief time in the spotlight). Hrncir said it’s likely that more cars will show up during the days leading up to the event and the final tally is always a bit of a surprise. It’s not the kind of event with printed programs or any real semblance of order—it’s a very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience, and that’s all part of the fun.
“The day just kind of takes care of itself,” Hrncir says. “We just focus on the ‘F’ words: freedom, family, food, and fun.”
The vehicles take off from one of two runways. One features a monorail, to keep the car on a track, whereas the other is freewheeling. A few years ago, the event saw its first mid-air car collision, likely the first and only time such a spectacle had happened in the state, Hrncir speculates. He says they’d tried to do it before, but it’s hard to guess exactly where and when the cars will launch when they’re released—especially because the operation is so rudimentary.
Most of the cars are sent skyward by jamming a simple piece of lumber against the gas pedal and using a ratchet strap to keep the wheel straight. Participants are fairly good at aiming the vehicles toward the ramp, but occasionally the cars go rogue and take a comparatively lackluster tumble off the side, or crash into a tree before reaching the edge.
One of Hrncir’s favorites is the stretch limo they sent sailing a few years ago—with a passenger (sort of). A few minutes before the Cadillac limousine was slated to hurtle off the mountain, a woman approached Hrncir. She asked if he’d honor the dying wish of someone she called “Brother Fred,” and put a vial of his ashes on the dashboard.
“That was absolutely insane,” Hrncir says. “She said that one of his last desires was to be launched into the sky on the Fourth of July.” Hrncir didn’t know the deceased, but he was happy to oblige; Brother Fred’s ashes got a front-row seat to the high-flying fun.
Many of the vehicles themselves get a standing ovation. A few years ago, a snow machine that did four flips before landing on its skis, zooming headlong into a boulder, and continuing to run upside down, got two: One when it initially launched, and another when, several minutes later, a crew member went to pull the spark plug out, quieting the vehicle forever.
The event also features a handful of food vendors (serving summer classics such as funnel cakes, pulled pork sandwiches, and frozen lemonade) and speakers blast country songs with patriotic lyrics. The spectator zone sits at the base of the cliff and is separated from the vehicle landing zone by a pond that serves as a buffer from wayward vehicles. As each automobile appears above and subsequently lands hard on the earth, the crowd goes wild—as far as they’re concerned, there’s no better way to spend the holiday. So far, there haven’t been any injuries in the event’s 16-year run.
In the days that follow, the community comes out to pick up the pieces of mangled metal to be recycled. And then they start looking for next year’s vehicles.
“It’s always crazy,” Hrncir says. “But it’s just such a fun day and I always look forward to it.”