Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lessons Learned Part 1

Alaska vs. The Outside

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.


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