Breaking the Surly Bonds of Earth

Posted September 27, 2020 at 3:19 pm by

FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

Arriv­ing in Inte­ri­or Alas­ka in 1974, I was 23 years old and had nev­er been in any kind of air­plane. (Well alright, full dis­clo­sure; as a kid, I was big on those hors­es and planes that ate a dime to buck around in front of a gro­cery store).

After days of mud alter­nat­ing with bil­low­ing dust, cruis­ing along at 45 mph on the unpaved Al Can High­way, we parked at McKay’s Hard­ware in Anchor­age stock­ing up on stoves, fish nets, ammu­ni­tion and count­less items to enable our dreams of liv­ing in the bush.

That day, unde­cid­ed about where to go, we by chance met Jim, who intro­duced him­self as a young pilot from Fort Yukon. He spread topo maps on the hood of my old pick­up and ener­get­i­cal­ly turned our col­lec­tive com­pass nee­dle true north to meet with our des­tiny in the Yukon Riv­er country.

A year lat­er, set­tled around Eagle, my broth­er and I were euphor­ic skim­ming low in Char­lie O’s Piper Tri Pac­er look­ing at cab­ins along the near­by Sev­en­ty Mile Riv­er. Soon after, he flew us to an airstrip where we began an ill-con­ceived, char­ac­ter-build­ing decent of that rock-infest­ed riv­er using a small plas­tic “two man” raft (maybe two diminu­tive Chi­nese fel­lows). Those mem­o­rable first flights in a small plane over vast wilder­ness, launched an unan­tic­i­pat­ed, but exhil­a­rat­ing refrain in my life.

With the 165-mile Tay­lor High­way closed through the long win­ter, the only way to depart Eagle was to fly for an hour and a half or so in a sin­gle engine plane. The mail sched­ule was only three days a week back then. Air North had the fed­er­al mail con­tract from Fair­banks at the time. Some locals called them “Scare North” with raised eye­brows. After a decade of liv­ing upriv­er we moved into the his­toric town of Eagle where I began a career with the reviled Nation­al Park Ser­vice help­ing to start up a new­ly mint­ed Nation­al Pre­serve the size of Yel­low­stone Park.

Fly­ing became much more rou­tine as the years unfold­ed. My broad respon­si­bil­i­ties neces­si­tat­ed a lot of time in both planes and heli­copters. Lat­er on, for the mind-cleans­ing exhil­a­ra­tion of it, I paid good mon­ey to para­chute out of a “per­fect­ly good air­plane” (as the joke goes), while in Ari­zona. As the decades flew by I came to under­stand that there real­ly are no “per­fect­ly good air­planes” and that excep­tion­al bush pilots were few.

This fall sea­son is a very busy, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly dan­ger­ous time of the year for fly­ing in Alas­ka. The dynam­ic of cold­er, wet­ter weath­er swirling across a huge, var­ied land­scape and people’s dreams of fall hunt­ing and fish­ing trips entire­ly depen­dent upon air­planes, can be a volatile mix. Throw in mon­ey, pilot brava­do, mechan­i­cal hob­gob­lins, geo­graph­ic dis­tance and “it won’t hap­pen to me” delu­sion and the poten­tial for trag­ic out­comes grows.

Per­haps as much as any­where, Alaska’s state phrase (if there was one) would be “Neces­si­ty is the Moth­er of Inven­tion in Get­ting Around”. Trans­porta­tion and enter­prise in bush Alas­ka have always been extra­or­di­nar­i­ly chal­leng­ing and fraught with dif­fi­cul­ty. The dawn of reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled flights in the 1950s con­nect­ed far flung com­mu­ni­ties and quick­ly lead to the demise of hun­dreds of stern­wheel­ers ply­ing major rivers, hero­ic car­ri­ers of mail by horse, dog team and boat and count­less affil­i­at­ed jobs. Avi­a­tion cre­at­ed an urban-cen­tered life­line to the larg­er world for hun­dreds of small, third world com­mu­ni­ties scat­tered across the watery land­scape of the sub­con­ti­nent of Alaska.

Ear­ly avi­a­tors in the north faced mas­sive chal­lenges. Few air­ports were improved as they are now, there was lit­tle weath­er fore­cast­ing except for what could deduced peer­ing out the win­dow, the tech­nol­o­gy of nav­i­ga­tion was ele­men­tal, and impor­tant­ly, there was lit­tle to no over­sight or cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of pilot skills and plane air wor­thi­ness. It was called ‘fly­ing by the seat of your pants’ for good rea­son. A butt strapped to a thin can­vas, met­al framed seat revealed a lot to a pilot about the plane’s atti­tude, turn rate and ele­va­tion gain or loss in lim­it­ed vis­i­bil­i­ty con­di­tions where oth­er sens­es can be distorted.

Each flight in the dif­fer­ing weath­er and land­scapes of the six dis­tinct phys­io­graph­ic regions across the state was often a pret­ty raw adven­ture, whether pas­sen­gers ful­ly real­ized it or not. Some­times it is best to remain bliss­ful­ly igno­rant of things far beyond your con­trol. Which in a plane is, well, every­thing. Beyond that, a suc­cess­ful ‘bush pilot’ has always been a spe­cial breed of avi­a­tor: doing a lot of the mechan­ics, deal­ing with extreme cold and great dis­tance, haul­ing weird car­go and being on the lead­ing edge of search­es for miss­ing Alaskans.

The hack­neyed say­ing that “there are old pilots and bold pilots but few old, bold pilots” prob­a­bly gen­er­al­ly applied back in the days of pio­neer avi­a­tion but hon­est-to-god Alas­ka bush pilots are by def­i­n­i­tion, bold. We came to know many low flight hour, small plane own­ers who used their planes like we employ a pick­up truck. They some­times lived in, and often flew over the bush alright, but for my mon­ey, that does not come close to earn­ing them the respect and infor­mal sobri­quet of Bush Pilot. The incred­i­ble tales of many infa­mous Alaskan pio­neer avi­a­tors who helped found the State stand unequaled, giv­en the lack of reli­able tech­nol­o­gy, and are lion­ized in numer­ous books. The explo­sion of climb­ing par­ties on Mt McKin­ley (lat­er renamed Denali) in the 1960s, neces­si­tat­ed fly­ing oper­a­tions focus­ing on glac­i­er land­ings and extrac­tions by ski-equipped planes, where some pilots became leg­ends near­ly as big as the moun­tain itself.

From a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, as a per­son with hun­dreds of small plane flights in Alas­ka as a pas­sen­ger; a skilled bush pilot has nec­es­sar­i­ly logged thou­sands of hours in high per­for­mance, short take off/landing (STOL) air­craft, reg­u­lar­ly lands on unim­proved airstrips and often on grav­el bars, beach­es, crevasse-lined glac­i­ers, tun­dra edges or ridge tops where few recre­ation­al pilots would ever dare. Some also oper­at­ed float equipped planes to land on lakes, sloughs and rivers. All switched to skis or ski-wheels in the Inte­ri­or when our off-air­port world was frozen.

The best pilots became one with their air­craft, cyborg-like, in demand­ing oper­a­tions again and again. We mourned their crack-ups and vio­lent deaths much too often over three and a half decades in a state with more planes per capi­ta than almost any­where in the world. The fol­low­ing vignettes are just a few examples.

Jim, whom we met in the Anchor­age park­ing lot in 1974, as well as his broth­er, both died in plane crash­es work­ing out of Fort Yukon years later.

A few years after Char­lie O took us on those first flights, he and his wife impact­ed the rocky slope on final approach into a sheep hunt­ing camp in the Brooks Range, leav­ing three young kids orphaned.

An air­plane mechan­ic and his hunt­ing part­ner crashed and burned on the tun­dra after a cat­a­stroph­ic fail­ure in los­ing a wing sur­face pan­el while fly­ing low scout­ing caribou.

A friend who had flown to our bush home­stead on the Yukon Riv­er with char­ter pilots many times in order to deliv­er home school­ing mate­ri­als, suf­fered an engine fail­ure just after take-off in his per­son­al plane and fatal­ly impact­ed the trees in his home­town of Tok.

A fel­low who bent up his air­plane twice try­ing to land on grav­el bars near cab­ins of friends on the Yukon Riv­er, became known local­ly as the “Walk­ing Pilot”. After the sec­ond mishap he some­how lost his shoes so had to walk bare­foot over miles of rough ground and on rocky shores, and up and over cliffs to get back to town, result­ing in his feet being painful­ly lac­er­at­ed and bruised.

Mark, a high­ly skilled local bush pilot and friend, flew my young daugh­ter and I into a very small grav­el bar at the tree­less head­wa­ters of the Sev­en­ty Mile Riv­er for a fall cari­bou hunt. How­ev­er, when he came back in for us he bounced and braked hard flip­ping the Super Cub onto its back, curl­ing the prop tips in the process. He spent the night tent­ed with us while his wife and mine wor­ried when he didn’t come home. The next day the Park Ser­vice heli­copter found us and flipped the plane back onto its gear. Even­tu­al­ly, he was able to fly back in with a help­ful Cub own­er, wire the bust­ed wind­shield togeth­er, bolt on a new prop, crank it up and fly it gin­ger­ly 50 miles home “on a wing and a prayer”.

A long-time bush pilot and remote Brooks Range lodge own­er of my acquain­tance, took off from his lake in his Cess­na on floats as he had count­less times, to stall and plunge to his death in the lake.

Ephraim took off uphill on the grass strip in Eagle head­ed out to his remote cab­in. Unable to gain enough alti­tude, he crashed into thick trees total­ing his small plane, but walked away unscathed.

A num­ber of acquain­tances who were char­ter or gov­ern­ment pilots or back­seat observers (as I was), died in Super Cub crash­es fly­ing low and slow in tight ter­rain, mar­gin­al weath­er, or both while sur­vey­ing moose or track­ing wolf packs dur­ing the winter.

A noto­ri­ous State Fish and Game area biol­o­gist fly­ing with a high­ly expe­ri­enced pilot crashed while aeri­al­ly gun­ning wolves from a Super Cub in the 40 Mile Coun­try suf­fer­ing bro­ken bones and minus 40F tem­per­a­tures while hun­kered at the wreck for over two days await­ing res­cue. Back in the 1950s and 60s, while there was a boun­ty on wolves, spring­time brought der­by-like gath­er­ings of dozens of small planes and the inevitable shot­gun blasts into props, crash­es and issues with retriev­ing wolf ears or hides. Polar bear hunt­ing on the arc­tic ice off Alas­ka by air­plane was still legal at that time and you can imag­ine some of the con­se­quences involved in that undertaking.

Roger, a high­ly expe­ri­enced pilot with a cus­tomized Cess­na 185, had great noto­ri­ety for count­less flights year around in the east­ern Brooks Range and north­ern Inte­ri­or, enabling riv­er trips, hunters, and home­stead­ers until he and his plane went miss­ing. He was on his way over the moun­tain fast­ness of the Brooks Range, look­ing for an open pass to pick up some sum­mer riv­er clients in vast ter­rain he knew like the back of his hand, when severe icing caused him to crash and perish.

These few, most­ly sad, but real sto­ries are best con­sid­ered in the full scope of some of the daunt­ing chal­lenges involved in day in and day out bush flying.

Keep­ing an air­plane oper­at­ing in extreme­ly cold tem­per­a­tures neces­si­tat­ed a whole addi­tion­al range of tasks; drain­ing warm oil and keep­ing it warm to pour back in, wing cov­ers to pre­vent frost build-up, insu­lat­ed cowl cov­ers to trap engine heat, pre­vent­ing skis from freez­ing down, defrost­ing wind­shields, gin­ger­ly shut­ting doors to pre­vent plex­i­glass from shat­ter­ing and employ­ing an array of portable heaters capa­ble of pre­heat­ing the engine with­out electricity.

When air­drop­ping stuff, while the pilot flew as slow and low as they dared, things can go wrong. Some of the worst out­comes are impor­tant notes or goods nev­er found (despite folks on the ground see­ing the stuff come out of the plane), items impact­ing trees or rocks that destroy and scat­ter need­ed sup­plies, send­ing a hefty bag of some­thing like dog­food through a cab­in roof or get­ting a make-shift para­chute tan­gled on the plane’s tail. Of course, the best out­comes were bad­ly need­ed med­ical sup­plies, machine parts, mail or food get­ting to folks in the mid­dle of nowhere.

Pilots, even high­ly skilled bush pilots, are some­times involved in nefar­i­ous activ­i­ties like smug­gling, fly­ing booze into dry vil­lages, ille­gal hunt­ing and com­plex schemes to take tro­phy ani­mals out of sea­son or from pro­tect­ed areas for clients with deep pock­ets. There are many good reads describ­ing some of the most noto­ri­ous ban­dits and the dicey under­cov­er oper­a­tions to catch them. Many fine air­planes were con­fis­cat­ed by the feds (if they weren’t torched by the bust­ed own­ers) for gov­ern­ment use as a result. Some flew in to trap furbear­ers in areas claimed by trap­pers on the ground and were shot at or had wire stretched between trees, just off the ground to entan­gle or wreck intrud­ing airplanes

Some pilots of exten­sive expe­ri­ence test­ed the lim­its of their air­craft and per­son­al skills by strap­ping canoes, small boats, sheets of ply­wood, mat­tress­es or met­al roof­ing to struts or floats. Many a cab­in on remote lakeshores were built piece by piece, flight by flight, in this way. Some nim­rod pilots, with great inge­nu­ity and patience, dis­as­sem­bled small bull­doz­ers and oth­er machines, to fly them in parts to be reassem­bled at remote gold claims, lodges or cabins.

Land­ing in tight places on ridges or at ele­va­tion to encamp hunters is one thing but tak­ing off in shift­ing winds and clouds ful­ly loaded with meat and antlers, fol­lowed by the hunters and gear is a whole dif­fer­ent ball­game. Guy, who had hunt­ed Polar bears with his Cub and who claimed to have invent­ed tun­dra tires in LA, used to push all the edges on the Cana­di­an bor­der that cut across the Ogilvy Moun­tains just north of Eagle. He put in sheep hunters on the US side while land­ing on the Cana­di­an side or vice ver­sa, depend­ing on the wind. He com­mon­ly placed large rocks at the end of his take off zone in order to bounce into the air with max­i­mum loads to gain air­speed down the slope at full power.

With the explo­sive pop­u­lar­i­ty of region­al dog rac­ing came the need to trans­port entire dog teams, food and sleds in char­ter air­craft. Pilots were known to cut the pow­er to cre­ate a moment of weight­less­ness to stop fight­ing tan­gles of stressed out huskies before the advent bet­ter prac­tices and bags for each dog (that also con­strained strong odors and messy cleanup after such flights).

Then there are the sto­ries of the trans­port of dan­ger­ous pris­on­ers, drunks, women giv­ing birth, haz­ardous sub­stances, corpses (some­times frozen in odd shapes) and even ani­mals like wild cari­bou that have been drugged for cap­ture but regained con­scious­ness in the back of a plane while in flight…well, I think that you get the picture.

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Categories: Freezer Burned, People

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