With Trusting Eyes Behind Me

Flying the brittle cold North Slope

January 1, 1998

It is 8 a.m. in Barrow, Alaska. An Arctic morning swathed in darkness. On December 21, the winter solstice, we have maybe two hours of twilight. It is 27 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and my breath freezes to my eyelashes as I walk out to the airplane for my first flight of the day. I am going to the village of Wainwright, 86 miles southwest. Hoarfrost covers everything standing in the way of the wind, which is blowing very cold. Every antenna on the Cessna 207 bristles with whiteness, and the wings need to be swept clean of frost. The stars seem to emit coldness that stings what exposed skin I have. Even though I am dressed like a polar bear, the wind seems to pierce my face.

I am alone as I shuffle out to preflight my airplane. My snow pants swoosh together in rhythmic cadence, and my boots crunch on the hard-packed snow. My flashlight bobs as I walk in the silent darkness. I wonder what brought me back to this cold, desolate place. Why would anyone settle here in the first place? Are humans that desperate for space? My people, the Inupiat Eskimos, are certainly a hardy bunch; they have lived here for thousands of years.

The village starts to wake; lights glow brightly from windows. The village generator hums in the darkness, enabling workaday life to go on as if it weren't the winter moonlike landscape that it really is. Dogs let out for the morning bark greetings to each other; with the dogs' protection, polar bears won't trudge into the village. Cars startled into life grind their engine bones together to wake up. The airport comes alive with activity as the bush air taxis prepare for their daily mail and passenger runs. The airline forklift shuttles mail to the commuter carriers, exhaust smoke following it in obedient silence, pushed by the wind. The sight and sound echo in my mind. The airport beacon signals its hello to open tundra, oblivious to the blackness that answers in return. The runway lights beckon welcome to the moonlight that shines in my path. The engine cover crinkles in protest as I remove it from the cowling; the engine has been plugged into an electric heater all night. I scurry to get into the airplane before the engine gets too cold to start.

Inside, my breath adheres to the windows. I could write my name in the frost. I scrape it off so that I can see. The engine pops into life, however begrudgingly in this cold. The seat is hard from the coldness, the instruments fog up, and it takes as much as a minute before the oil pressure will come up after starting the engine. I know that it will take awhile to thaw my trusty steed despite the engine heater's best efforts. The red cockpit lights glow in contrast to the northern lights showering through the sky. The crackle of the night air enters my earphones as I tune the radios, the knobs cold to the touch. I am reluctant to break the tranquillity as I request the weather, and the engine runup is almost obscene in this sacred silence. I do not touch the throttle or the control wheel with my bare hands lest my fingers freeze.

After warming up the engine, I take off; I know that my exhaust billows in my wake, betraying my flight path. My eyes are on the gauges; once the runway lights slide under my nose, there is nothing but blackness to see. I have an airplane full of silent freight and mail. Soon enough I will have a little puff of heat down by the side of my knee; the rest of the airplane will remain cold. I feel as if I am on the inside of a ping-pong ball in the dark. Navigation needles silently direct my path. Faithfully I turn to them, knowing that in the old days pilots didn't have such luxury.

Occasionally, my flashlight searches the wing leading edges for ice buildup. The glow of the rotating beacon breaks the monotony of the night. There is nothing but blackness engulfing me and my airplane, and the air is smooth, belying the fact that I am actually traveling through the sky. I feel as though I am flying through the twilight zone. I don't expect to see any sign of human life for another half an hour. The glow of my red cockpit lights washes over the instruments. My breath mists in front of my face. All of my instruments are normal. I reach for my flight folder to mark my departure time. I am front row center stage for a show of northern lights. I dim my cockpit lights for the performance. I am in awe.

Thirty-five minutes into my flight I start looking for signs of human habitation. The only thing that I expect to see is a faint glow of Wainwright's lights in the far distance. Sometimes the ice fog blots out the lights until I am right over the village. In the blackness I click the microphone seven times, and a runway suddenly appears with ghostly fuzzy lights directing my landing path. On final approach for landing, the lights are bright; they flash past me in a whirl as I feel for the ground. The hard-packed snow squeals in protest as the tires come to a halt; it is so cold. My audience, the northern lights, applauds my landing with crackling curtains as I taxi onto the ramp. My temperature gauge reads 35 degrees below zero.

There is a welcoming committee consisting of the village's trucks and cars awaiting my arrival. They hunker down in the cold, headlights on, exhausts billowing up and reflecting the ramp lights. I shut the engine off, and as it ticks down to a stop, the villagers drive up to my airplane, headlights shining on me as I crawl out into the cold. A truck has backed up to the cargo doors of my 207, and I hasten around in the snapping cold to open the doors with gloved hands. Greetings are frantically fast as I grip the frosted cargo net and slide it off the boxes and the mail. Dark shapes of people bustle around, boots squeaking as we off-load the mail hurriedly onto the truck. A glad cry exudes from the crowd, as the fog had been very dense and nobody expected any flights that day. Baggage materializes by the nose of the airplane, and I recognize it before I even see the passengers. I think that I've been in the arctic too long when I can distinguish one bag from the next. The airplane is unloaded and hands extend a greeting, gloveless, as is the custom around here, before everyone climbs into my airplane. Gloves snap back onto cold hands in a hurry.

Suddenly I realize what community service means. There is an old Eskimo couple going into Barrow for the week's shopping, eyes a-glimmer at the thought of the bright city lights and shining stores brimming with objects nobody could ever live without. They think of the fresh fruits and vegetables that they cannot get in the villages. I see also that they are thinking of their grandchildren's glittering eyes when they see the presents that they will have brought when they return. Another Eskimo lady whom I have known for years journeys into Barrow for her weekly chemotherapy. I have been taking her into Barrow every Friday for two months now. She is doing fine and improving; it is hopeful that she will win over the cancer. A man comes up to me importantly, expecting his company's paychecks. I wonder where in this village they could be spending it. Another man awaits his snow machine parts in a little box; he has been on foot for a month. He grins in anticipation of having transportation again. His snow machine has broken down 40 miles out on the tundra, and he had to walk back to the village, the northern lights showing his way. Another person brings road grader parts to get repaired so that they can properly clear the runway of drifting snow. His beard and mustache are caked with frost, but he doesn't seem to notice or care, his concern for the parts is so great.

I am numbed with cold as I load up the passengers and instruct them on the safety features of the airplane. A passenger tells me that my cheeks are turning white, meaning the onset of frostbite. I tighten my face cover and still feel the stinging bite of the frost. I turn back in my seat to face my passengers and to make sure that they are comfortable and buckled in. I see faces like my mother's; she was born here in Wainwright. We gossip and joke despite the freezing temperature. Cold steam emanates from everybody, the windows frost up again, and another arctic sojourn begins as I crank up the engine.

Flying up in the arctic North Slope, as it is called, is definitely a great challenge in such a harsh environment. I feel as if I have it made with all of the navigational aids and instruments that we use now. In the many hours I spend trudging through the sky I think back to the days of exploration and of the 1930s in Alaska when Wiley Post and Will Rogers came up to see the arctic. I sometimes feel that I was born too late for the golden days of aviation when each day was a discovery. Then, as now, aviation had been a principal source of transportation and communication among the villages. In those days, all over their fuselages dusty airplanes wore roughly scribbled out notes and salutations to people in other villages. I still carry envelopes containing love letters or checks to wives for shopping money. Passengers still carry letters and envelopes for people in other villages. Pregnant women were proud to say that their children were born between destinations, the airplanes flew so slow. People with broken bones or sickness were medevacked from remote sites. All that still goes on today, only with more sophisticated and, of course, faster equipment.

When aviation was young in Alaska, whole villages — young, old, working, and sick folk — would rush out to see the strange bird land and anxiously await the pilot and his cargo. He threw out candy to the children, and they scrambled over it like ravens on a feast. Furs were carried out and love notes carried in. By special request I still bring homemade birthday cakes that I have baked myself for friends and relatives in the villages.

The airplanes in the old days were held together rather dubiously with putty and baling wire required by numerous unplanned contacts with the ground. Now the modern engine is so reliable it is rare to have any real trouble while flying. The trust was great in the eyes of the Eskimos as they trundled onto these venerable birds for the next destination. I used to own and fly antique airplanes, and I saw what logistical nightmares it took to keep those airplanes running.

Fifty years later I still see the trust in the silent eyes shining in the darkness. I have seen the trust and could not believe it when I amazingly made it into a snow-blown village runway with a lot of luck and only a little visibility. I couldn't even see the trucks until they suddenly loomed out of the blowing snow on the ramp, lights dimly shining. And yet there were passengers who eyed me in mute certainty that I would get them to their destination as they hopped onto my airplane. Now an old, old Eskimo man comes up to me and tells me I have owl eyes. Young Eskimo men furtively glance in my direction when they step up with their baggage, not saying a word. A little girl, barely two years old, knows my name and wants to be a pilot when she grows up. Her mother smiles indulgently. Another woman brings me a bag full of whale muktuk (whale skin and fat, considered a delicacy) to take home. Somehow, they know that I will get them home. I realize then that the cold means nothing to me. The northern lights shine brightly for me on my way back to Barrow.

Ellen Paneok, of Anchorage, Alaska, is one of the women pilots featured in the "Women in Flight" Exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. With 11,500 flight hours over a period of 20 years, she is now working as an FAA inspector.