My first flight lessons might have been different than yours, but as with all pilots, those early experiences are still tattooed in my mind. I moved to Alaska in the late ’70s with no intention of staying more than a few weeks, but ended up living there for many years. I had made a stop on my way to Africa from Australia to visit family, then decided to stay and work for a while. A job took me to a wonderful fishing village in southwestern Alaska. Dillingham is famous for being the world’s largest salmon fishery, home to about 3,000 residents, with a great airport that serves a couple dozen regional villages.
I had always loved airplanes, but the idea of getting my license became very clear to me after a really bad takeoff in a chartered airplane from a small village strip. Our Cessna 206 cargo was overloaded with mail, myself and another passenger, and the young PIC elected not to use the full 1,800 feet of muddy airstrip to take off. Of course the tires bogged in and even I, with my limited experience (virtually none) in small airplanes, could see this wasn’t going to end well. We crashed at the end of the runway and flipped (yes, you really do “flip”) upside down. No one was injured, but after crawling out of the airplane, I noticed my knees shaking uncontrollably. Clearly even I could have done better than the senseless guy in the left seat. It was time to learn to fly.
Soon afterward, I found an instructor at the Dillingham airport who reluctantly agreed to take me on. He owned an Air Taxi and had a CFI rating but no other students. I think he either felt sorry for me or realized I had “the fire,” and he had little choice as a responsible pilot but to try to help and pass on a little knowledge. I’d rather think it was the latter.
And so my lessons began. My “flight school” didn’t have an office; hangars are a rarity in Alaska, especially in the bush. I was assigned a little, somewhat neglected, airplane sitting in a far corner of the airfield between two snow banks. My preflights easily took an hour or more. I was instructed to dress so I could “walk out” in the event of an emergency landing (a lesson I don’t always follow but remember to this day), so I showed up looking attractive in many layers—thermal boots, parka, long johns, jeans, gloves and hat. After digging my little frozen fingers out of my huge mittens, I was instructed to scrape the airplane windows and all horizontal surfaces clear of ice, usually with my driver’s license. Ice, I was told, could alter the flying characteristics of the airplane, and we might not make it off the ground. Not again, I thought, and I was very diligent about my preflights!
Learning to fly in Alaska presents students with many challenges: harsh and fast-moving weather, navigation over remote terrain by pilotage, bitter-cold preflights and relentless winds. These conditions teach good judgment and decision making that can be applied to flying in “the Outside.”
After an hour of scraping and cleaning surfaces of frost and snow and draining fuel, when I looked up it wasn’t at all surprising to see fog rolling in. The lesson would, of course, be cancelled, and the whole preflight exercise, one of frustration and futility. Of course, later on, I realized a preflight is never futile. It gives you another chance to get to know your airplane.
If we were lucky enough to get in the air, the instructor and I were truly on our own. Flight plans were normal procedure, but they were “hopeful,” I thought. It was doubtful if anyone would find us if we diverted from a narrowly defined route. Missing aviators aren’t easily found in such big territory. Sure, there were lots of suitable off-airport landing sites—frozen rivers and lakes, flat tundra. By law, we had to have some survival equipment on board, and we might have to survive a night out in the cold, but in those days, we had no EPIRB or other personal locating device. And no, we didn’t have cell phones.
This was a huge, beautiful country, and flying during a time without GPS or Loran forced pilots to know the territory better than the back of their hands. We navigated by rivers in particular, but also lakes, hills, mountain ranges and the shape of the land. Navigation was all about pilotage.
For s-turns across a road in a land where there were no roads, we flew each turn of a stream; for turns around a point, why not circle the solitary moose looking up at us with some curiosity?
There always was wind, and every landing was an exercise in crosswind technique. After finding a strip at a remote village, my instructor would tell me to do a touch-and-go, if I could figure out the wind before I got there. He told me that the first thing a good pilot does is look at the sky in the morning and know what the winds would be that day. When an emergency landing’s success could be gauged on whether you land into the wind or downwind, it’s always important to know the direction of the wind. And, the weather window in the Alaska Peninsula is quick and unforgiving, so keep your eye on it, because it changes quickly.
After landing back in Dillingham, my teacher would go back to his Air Taxi service, and I’d be left out in the bitter cold to tie down the airplane.
Was it worth it? You bet. The flying was grand. It was great. It was beautiful! Everything was crystalline and clear. Ice crystals sparkled and danced off every surface. The ceilings often were low, but the visibility was huge! Flying in Alaska gives you the feeling you’re the first person to ever be there—and after a fresh snowfall, it feels new and untouched.
My point isn’t to complain about the hardships I was faced with (I really didn’t mind preflighting, it kept me warm), but to pass on some of the lessons I learned in those early days.
I flew in Alaska, finishing my ratings, for five years before I flew in the Lower 48. I went on to fly with other instructors, some of whom not only were wonderful at teaching how to fly, but also had good judgment and intelligence in flying. I was extremely fortunate to have been taught the basics early on:
|Keeping the ball centered increases your safety margin|
• Keep the ball in the center. This is huge! Probably the biggest lesson I learned was when I took off out of a short bush strip and my CFI pointed out the ball wasn’t centered. He showed me how centering it would increase our climb rate, safety margin and clearance over the trees. The light bulb went on. Today I find it a gigantic disappointment that CFIs aren’t always teaching their students this! Try it—take off, climb with the ball out of center and watch the VSI. Now, try it with the ball centered. See the difference. Keeping the ball centered leads to safe airmanship in all regimes. Stall/spin base-final-turn accidents could largely be avoided if the ball were centered. The warbird in-the-pattern accidents—same thing. Every one of those accidents is probably the result of not being in coordinated flight. Some airplanes are more forgiving than others in the slower regimes.
• Learn to slip. I asked a famous old-time bush pilot to fly with me. We flew out to a small dirt strip, and he told me to land on a certain spot. I kept missing it, but somehow he could nail it every time. Then he taught me his secret—how to slip to a spot. Every pilot needs to learn this skill. If you ever think you might need to make an emergency landing and want to know you can put your airplane exactly where you want it, then find someone to teach you.
Returning to her plane after a walk at Cape Constantine, Patty encountered bear tracks
• Know thy wind. Always know which direction the wind is coming from. If you have a forced landing, landing into the wind as opposed to downwind can and will make the difference whether you’ll survive it. Do the math. No windsock? No AWOS? You still have lots of cues to look for. Any body of water will tell you the wind direction by the thin ribbon of clear water on the upwind side. Any smokestacks, chimneys? Wherever you fly has its unique weather patterns.
• Preflight! Don’t take shortcuts. Keep your airplane clean of frost and ice, but also bugs, grease and dirt. I enjoy washing and waxing my airplane. It gives me a chance to inspect every screw and rivet, the brake lining and attach point. If I don’t have time to preflight at an air-show, my crew chief uses a two-page checklist to preflight my airplane. To preflight is NONNEGOTIABLE.
• Be prepared. Would you survive a night out in the cold if you had to make a forced landing, or a water ditching in sheepskin-lined boots? Do you have basic tools? How about a Swiss Army knife? What if you land on a lake, and the skis or wheels freeze to the ice?! Okay, everyone I know will tell you I fly in Tevas and shorts most of the time, but when I fly in Alaska in the winter or summer, I’m prepared to hike out.
• Be smart. Always leave yourself an out! Don’t be afraid to turn around. Look for light spots in the horizon and turn to them if you end up in bad weather with low visibility. Can you turn around in the pass you’re about to fly through? Look for danger signs. There are road maps out there. If an area is known to be dangerous, there’s a good reason for it. There’s an often-used pass in Alaska that’s littered with shiny wreckage of airplanes. Flying through it is a grim reminder of what will happen if you don’t turn around before you get to the narrowest part. We’re not always reminded quite so graphically, but local knowledge and legend will clue you in.
• Use your airplane. It’s a personal tool. I just drove a motor home from Florida to California, and while it was an adventure, I found myself wanting to pull back on the steering wheel and fly. It’s also a business tool. In Alaska, flying is a necessity, where it’s accepted and respected. If only the rest of the country understood how important it is!
Now that I’ve flown for 30 years, I’m even more of a believer in the Law of Primacy. You know—one of the laws of education that says a student retains information they learn for the first time. The law also says that unlearning bad habits is always more difficult than learning the correct ones in the beginning.
Instructors, are you teaching your students good, basic airmanship skills that will keep them and their passengers safe throughout their careers? And students, get the best instruction you can find. If you’re not happy with what you’re learning and if your instructor isn’t teaching you the basics, find someone else.
I had a good start in Alaska, and while I found myself frustrated early on with the lack of aerobatic training available, I realize now that my earliest flying experiences were a great foundation for aerobatics which, after all, is just good airmanship taken a step further.
Alaska is Alaska; everywhere else is “Outside” or, if one of the other United States, then the “Lower 48.” In Dillingham, I had no idea how pilots did it “Outside.” After five years, my next challenge was to find out how they did it in the Lower 48.
Patty Wagstaff is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic team and a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion. She flies for the California Department of Forestry during the summer months.