Wings Over Wild

December 25th, 2015 by

Wings Over Wild

Visiting Native fish camp on Kobuk River

Visiting Native fish camp on Kobuk River

Some people say that the Alaska state bird is actually a Piper Aircraft Super Cub.  There is a good likelihood that anyone who has lived in Alaska for more than a couple of years has been up in a small airplane.   The term, “air taxi”, literally means a flying taxicab used to transport people and goods throughout the Alaska bush.  There are many communities and homesteads all through Alaska that could not exist without the bush plane.  The men and women who fly these light aircraft are often the stuff of legend renowned for their skill and daring at landing on river gravel bars and mountain ridges, operating in conditions that would cause most reasonably sane pilots to cancel any flight plans and often sticking their necks out to rush a sick or critically injured villager to medical assistance and then going off to search for someone reported overdue or missing in the vastness of the Alaska wilds.

I recall a village student in one of my classes asking me if I was a bush pilot. It caused me to hesitate.  90% of my flying was definitely in remote backcountry areas of Alaska.  I knew great bush pilots, Paul Shanahan, Peter Merry, Tony Bernhart, and others.  I could not hold a candle to their skills and accomplishments.  To me they were the true “bush pilots”.

I took my first flying lesson on May 20, 1967, in a small two-place Cessna 150 operating off a rural grass airfield in southern Wisconsin. Three days later my instructor directed me to land and taxi the plane to the side of the runway.  He stepped out of the aircraft and told me to do my first solo flight.  On July 7, I passed the test for a private pilot’s license and bought a Cessna 170 B almost before the ink on my license was dry.  Barbara and I sold our property to raise the money to pay for the plane.

After a brief visit to our families in West Virginia, 0n August 5, we loaded the Cessna with our lead dog, Twilight, and basic camping supplies and took off with the nose of the plane pointed in the direction of Alaska.  It was a stormy flight requiring us to hug the ground for several days while impatiently waiting for breaks.  On August 15, we finally landed at the Koyukuk River village of Huslia.

Our airplane opened a new world to us. We were able to tremendously extend our range of explorations of vast wilderness areas, particularly the central Brooks Range, and become acquainted with the rich tapestry of cultures thinly scattered across the great land.

We owned three aircraft over the years, two of which were Citabrias, sometimes referred to as a poor man’s Super Cub. I also flew government aircraft for the National Park Service.  These ranged from Super Cubs to Cessna 206’s and an ancient radial engine Beaver.  All had their unique flight characteristics.  Based on the season they were equipped with floats, wheels and skis.  The loads carried included dog teams and sleds, canoes, snowmachines and a wide variety of equipment and supplies for park field operations.  Some items had to be lashed to the exterior of the plane.  Passengers included village Natives, park rangers, government officials, wildlife biologists, cultural researchers, politicians and law enforcement officers.  Search and rescue operations and transporting sick and injured persons to medical facilities were fairly common.

After 22 years of flying a variety of aircraft around Alaska I hung up my wings.   Operating off makeshift landing sites in the full range of Alaska’s weather tends to take its toll.  I personally knew some twenty individuals who died in aircraft accidents.  I walked away from three “events” that could have been terminal.  Toward the end of my career I was spending less time behind the controls of an airplane, so I knew I was losing the fine edge essential for flying the backcountry of Alaska.  Bush flying is rife with potential for accidents that can severely ruin one’s day.  I decided I wanted to collect on my retirement benefits.