In the winter of 1985, we decided to bring our Pitts to Alaska. Some might question the sanity of flying any airplane to Alaska in winter, much less one so small it weighs the same as a Harley Fat Boy, but then, some people are always up for an adventure. It seemed like a good idea to fly all winter to keep up my G tolerance and, well, it would just be fun to have it nearby.
I called a friend in Texas who had said if we ever needed an airplane delivered to Alaska, we must call him first. He picked up the airplane in Tucson and got as far as North Dakota when he called and said, “There’s an inch of snow on the ground!” Needless to say, we thought this hilarious, but then, I wasn’t in any rush to fly it up, either. I wasn’t bothered by a little snow, but I knew how bone-chilling cold it would be. I suggested he bring the airplane back to Tucson, but he called a mutual friend, airshow pilot and hardy North Dakotan Delmar Benjamin, who agreed to take it from there.
With a 19-gallon fuel tank, a parka and a shotgun, Delmar headed the nose of the Pitts toward the Alaska Highway. Deep winter hadn’t set in, but the days were getting shorter. The Alaska Highway is a long, cold and lonely road, especially in winter, but at least off-airport landings aren’t an issue because it’s virtually a thousand-mile-long runway. Venture off-highway into the wilderness, however, and you might never be seen again. Required survival gear in Alaska’s winter includes an axe or a hatchet, a first-aid kit, snowshoes, one small gillnet and an assortment of tackles, signaling devices, a sleeping bag and a wool blanket, food for two weeks, and one pistol, revolver, shotgun or rifle and ammunition for same. I can safely say now that the statute of limitations has run out, I don’t think Delmar was equipped with every single item.
After the Nationals, I had flown to Avra Valley and put N8078 in our hangar. I picked up a stone, put it in my pocket and took a last look at the late September sun before boarding an airplane for Alaska. Sometimes we feel let down after we get what we want, but in 1985, after a summer of flying contests and making the U.S. Aerobatic Team, I felt like things were just beginning. I was excited. I had the 1986 World Aerobatic Championships to look forward to, and my self-confidence was improving through flying and aerobatics. It was a long time coming.
I shifted back to life at home. We lived on the side of a mountain overlooking Turnagain Arm, an area where few people lived and where a better view doesn’t exist. In earlier days, I loved staying up on the mountain while Bob drove his old Willys Jeep to his office in downtown Anchorage 45 minutes away. After years of a peripatetic existence, I was doing what I had dreamed about—raising chickens, baking bread, reading and writing. But I soon got restless and found my way to the airport to work on my ratings. In the summer, we flew our Cessna 185 on floats to remote areas to sightsee and camp.
Like everyone else at Merrill Field near downtown Anchorage, we kept our airplanes tied down outside, keeping a broom nearby in case the snow got deep so we could sweep off the wings and protect the wing spars. Cold weather isn’t that bad for airplanes—sun and heat are worse—but the Pitts was a different type of beast, not intended to sit outside (although there was at least one other Pitts S-1C owned by friend Lee Watne kept outside and tied down). We were lucky to find a small unheated T-hangar. We bought a big kerosene heater and had it rigged so we could call ahead by using a code put into the phone that would turn it on remotely. What we didn’t know at the time was that the hangar was built on a landfill, and because of permafrost, garbage doesn’t compost well, hence the ground was emitting large amounts of methane gas into the air, directly under our hangar! Later on, they lit a perpetual flame outside of our hangar for this reason. We winterized the Pitts by installing a Tanis engine heater, switching to multigrade engine oil, and took the battery out and covered it with a heating pad to keep it alive between flights, and because of that, I had to be careful not to let the prop stop, as it could in a tailslide, because I wouldn’t be able to activate the starter.
“Some days when I taxied the Pitts, I turned into a little red crab skidding across a sheet of glass…”
When I wanted to fly, which was often according to my logbook, I would call ahead with a warm cup of coffee and preheat the hangar, which thankfully didn’t explode due to the leaking methane. I’d finish my coffee, put on my overall-type snowsuit, parka and unwieldy, but warm Sorel boots and drive to the airport. After the preflight, I unplugged the airplane and pushed it out of the hangar. I hauled the battery out next to the airplane, used a 12V APU plug to start the engine, then tossed it on the ground, shut the bubble canopy and called the Tower for taxi clearance.
Anchorage stays cold and frozen most of the winter because the sun doesn’t poke its head much above the horizon, but a warm snap in winter isn’t always welcome because the roads and taxiways begin to melt and turn into glare ice. Some days when I taxied the Pitts, I turned into a little red crab skidding across a sheet of glass, and I had no option but to put the airplane back to bed. But on colder, dryer days, I flew toward the Chugach Mountains, Anchorage’s dramatic backdrop, to fly aerobatics near the canyons and glaciers where the beautiful scenery is always magnificent and awesome.
We had a rule not to fly below 0 degrees F. The airplane loved the dense air, and indeed, a lot of bush pilots fly in the interior of Alaska in much colder temperatures, but I was on my own (hence the requirement for survival gear), and it would be hard to survive an off-airport landing if you had to walk out. I don’t recall that we had an ELT in the Pitts, but we might have; and there were no EPIRBs or SPOT devices then, nor did we have cell phones in the mid-1980s. Before I moved to Alaska, I never knew anyone who had died. Now I knew a bush pilot who disappeared while ferrying a Super Cub from the Lower 48. They found him a year later—a mile from a major road. The Cessna 180 I had gotten my seaplane rating in disappeared with four souls onboard somewhere in the bush, and friends of mine were lost in a Navajo returning from a fishing trip never to be found. In 1972, Alaska Congressman Nick Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs were lost in a Cessna 310, and 44 years later, have not yet been found. That accident prompted the law mandating ELTs in all U.S. civil aircraft.
I had called the Tower to explain why I preferred the longer and wider runway instead of the shorter, narrower one, and generally they took care to do this. The Pitts touches down relatively fast and is completely blind in front in the landing attitude. In winter, the ground is gray, the sky is often gray and the edges of the runway gray with snow, so it’s easy to lose depth perception. After touchdown, the pilot has to be very mindful when applying brakes because of the fun little icy spots on the runway.
One day, though, they cleared me to land on the shorter runway. I called in, “Cleared to land 33,” but when I touched down, I immediately felt like I was in a tunnel. The plowed snowbanks were piled so high on either side of the runway that I had very little peripheral depth perception, so no real idea how close I was to the sides or even the end of the runway. Somehow I kept it going straight, but I remember thinking that if I ran off the runway, at least I was in a crashworthy biplane! Amazingly, I got the airplane stopped without skidding off the runway when I applied brakes. From then on, I always insisted on the longer runway for landing. Flying was definitely teaching me to be more assertive, which, like self-confidence, was something I needed to learn. Besides, I’m not sure I could handle the feeling of rejection if I were to lose control of an airplane.
Everyone wants to fly in Alaska, and when they do, they usually come in the summer, not understanding the reality of a long dark northern winter. I’m not one of those Nordic types who loves jumping into an icy lake, and as much as I hated shivering, the suffering was worth it because I loved the feeling of being self-reliant and on the edge of the frontier. Sometimes we have to go far to be rewarded by the most extreme beauty. In Alaska, you can walk where no one has ever been; the land is raw, wild and always feels new and untouched. On severe-clear days, the sky is almost painfully blue; the air is so thick, a passing airliner overhead makes a squeaking sound, the snow glitters, and at night, the Northern Lights come out to play.
We kept the Pitts in Alaska for a time. I flew a few local airshows, and Bob and I had a lot of fun with it. I was a pit bull. I surprised myself with how much tenacity I had. I was willing to do whatever it took, including dressing like the Pillsbury Doughboy and pouring myself into a 700-pound airplane and skidding sideways across an icy ramp, to take advantage of this awesome opportunity to fly aerobatics. I guess when you’re doing something you love, that gives you a sense of fulfillment, the discipline comes easy. Really, it’s like cheating, but don’t tell anyone I said that.