Northern Contrasts

An Alaskan air taxi can fly you in an old de Havilland Beaver and a new Pilatus PC–12—on the same day

October 1, 2000

Tim LaPorte, the owner of Iliamna Air Taxi, had just overflown the gravel strip at Dummy Creek. You won't find this airport on any sectional chart, because it's a gravel bar nestled in the elbow of Alaska's Mulchatna River. Tied down in the back of the de Havilland DHC–2 Beaver are two 50-gallon drums of Jet-A. LaPorte pumps down the flaps and goes through the landing checklist ( gas—forward tank, undercarriage—welded, mixture and prop—full forward, and flaps—landing) as he makes a 180-degree turn to final.

On final LaPorte comes in low over the river, touches down, and carves the Beaver around the dogleg halfway down the length of the strip. An Alaskan greaser. The 900-foot strip is rapidly being overgrown by saplings that are reaching for the sun during the short Alaska summer. He breaks off a few, providing extra wing clearance, and heads back to Iliamna for another load. The Beaver rumbles and vibrates along at about 100 knots.

A few hours later LaPorte is hightailing Iliamna Air Taxi's Pilatus PC–12 toward Anchorage at 20,000 feet and 260 KTAS during a medevac flight. The diversity of IAT's operations couldn't have been illustrated better than by those two flights.

Iliamna Airport

The airport at Iliamna, Alaska, has two intersecting gravel runways—17/35 is 4,800 feet by 150 feet, and 7/25 is 5,080 feet by 100 feet. There are two instrument approaches—a GPS RNAV and an NDB. To the south of the airport lies Lake Iliamna, a freshwater lake that is 75 miles long and 25 miles wide at its widest point. One of the pilots told me that there were freshwater seals in the lake—I think he thought I was a cheechako (newcomer), but I'd spent the summer of 1990 working for IAT as a mechanic.

Located 190 nautical miles west-southwest of Anchorage, Iliamna is the hub airport for this region—from it the airplanes of Iliamna Air Taxi fly out in all directions, providing the region with needed air services. To understand the challenges of flying in the Iliamna region, look at the Seward, Kodiak, and McGrath sectional charts. Within a half-hour's flight from Iliamna are 10,000-foot volcanoes, as well as hundreds of lakes and rivers with names like the Koktuli, Nushagak, Stuyahok, and Kvichak. All the water makes float flying a way of life.

The people in the tiny villages clustered around the lake—villages with names like Kokhanok, Igiugig, Pedro Bay, Pope Vannoy, Koliganek, Nondalton, and Newhalen—depend on Iliamna Air Taxi to transport the necessities of their Alaskan lifestyle: food, fish, dry goods, four-wheelers, snowmobiles, and mail. IAT does a lot of this pickup-truck flying, but its most important cargo is people. Avid outdoorsmen flock to this region to fish and hunt. During the long winters the hotly contested basketball games between rival schools wouldn't be possible without air travel. Airplanes permit locals to easily travel between villages to visit relatives and to shop in Anchorage—from where, it seems, all goods originate.

Medevac flights also are part of bush life. While villages have health aides to stabilize injured or infirm patients, the closest sophisticated medical facility is in Anchorage. Since acquiring a Pilatus PC–12, IAT has been able to shorten flight times for Anchorage trips, and improve its launch dependability because of the PC–12's pressurization system and all-weather capabilities.

Iliamna Air Taxi

Tim LaPorte and his wife, Nancy, bought IAT in 1977 and still run it, Nancy overseeing the office and Tim guiding the operations. This team and their employees do much more than provide air taxi services—they also act as the communication center for the region, because many of the local lodges don't have phone service; freight forwarders, since the airport at Iliamna is a hub for the cargo Douglas DC–6s of Northern Air Cargo; and ticket agents for ERA Airlines, the regional scheduled airline that brings many tourists and locals into Iliamna aboard its Allison turboprop-powered Convair 580s.

This is a day in their life—Friday, July 14, 2000. The sun rose today at 4:52; it'll set tonight at 11:20—18 hours and 28 minutes of daylight. Before lunch the IAT crew will have delivered 300 gallons of jet fuel to a remote bush strip for a federal Bureau of Land Management helicopter; unloaded people, mail, and baggage off of the ERA Convair; and checked in and boarded return passengers, their baggage, and additional mail and cargo.

A few of the 40 passengers who arrived on the Convair will hike down to the west end of the airport, where there are camping grounds with access to the Newhalen River. The majority will be transported to the lodges that surround the lake—IAT's three Beaver floatplanes rumble back and forth from nearby Pike Lake to lakeside lodges delivering eager fishermen, for the red salmon are running and there are fish to be caught.

On the ramp, Ken Mickey, the newest IAT pilot, is loading one of the company's Cessna 207s with mail and cargo. Every load is piled into a bin, weighed, and hauled to an airplane to be loaded. The 207s, airborne pickup trucks, fly 4,825 pounds of mail and cargo to Nondalton, Kokhanok, and Port Alsworth, while the company's Beech A36 Bonanza takes a load to Pedro Bay. The sport fishing season gives the IAT team a chance to warm up for the real work of the season—fall hunting. The IAT pilots and mechanics help load and unload the Convair, sort passengers and cargo, and get everyone and everything on its way.

Blake LaRue, an experienced and skilled Beaver pilot, flies a maintenance test hop after a cylinder change on one of the float-equipped Beavers. The cylinder had to be changed on a remote lake; fortunately, the pilot set the airplane down so quickly after the cylinder failed that the engine didn't suffer any additional damage.

The office crew

Nancy LaPorte is a study in efficiency. She and her staff—sister Jane; brother-in-law Gary; and the Wassillie twins, Eric and Ray—are able to sort out all the communications from the two phone lines, the VHF marine radio used for lodge communications, and the aircraft radios monitoring company flights while courteously answering the same questions over and over. "Yes, you're going to need to bring rain gear—the weather is always unpredictable here. No, the pilots can fly you right to the best fishing spots. Yes, the pilots will help you locate a caribou to hunt. No, you have to bring all the meat from the game you shoot back out with you—you can't leave it there." Somehow this staff pulls all this off with aplomb, at the same time checking in airline passengers, weighing their bags, preparing manifests, and dispatching company flights with mail, cargo, and passengers to the intended destinations.

Egg-sucking leeches

"Tim, you gotta get those guys on the phone for me—they really screwed up this time," came the voice from one of the lodges. "What's the matter, Jim?" answered Tim LaPorte over the VHF radio. "Ya know that package George dropped off yesterday with the fishermen? I wanted purple egg-sucking leeches, and those guys sent me 12 dozen blue egg-sucking leeches!" LaPorte laughs as he dials the phone number of the supply house and gets things straightened out. Later it turns out that the red salmon don't seem to care whether the lures are blue or purple, but the incident provides a few minutes of high hilarity for the office staff and crew as this drama is announced over the radio. Fishing is serious business in Alaska.

Salmon fishing halted

Suddenly, anger and frustration dominate the talk around the counters and flight waiting room of IAT. For the first time in history, the state Department of Fish and Game has announced a closure of sport fishing for sockeye (red) salmon on the Lake Iliamna and Kvichak River drainages. For lodge owners who specialize in fishing these drainages and depend on IAT to bring in their clients, this is an economic nightmare—they have few options except to allow guests to cancel. Their season is over. Lodges with their own airplanes can lessen the economic damage by flying their guests out to lakes and rivers that aren't affected by the closures.

Fish and Game announced on July 11 that because an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million fish entered the Kvichak River—4 million fish below the minimum escapement goal of 6 million—the fishery would be closed at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, July 15. Using a formula of its own devising, Fish and Game determined that 2000 is a peak year for returning red salmon and has decided that 6 million fish have to escape from the salt water where they mature and enter through the Kvichak River, the freshwater rivers in which they spawn. According to LaPorte, the escapement goal for the Kvichak in 1999 was 1 million fish; by the end of the season in 1999 more than 3 million fish had entered the river. Fishermen and lodge owners want to know why the escapement goals for the same river are so different in subsequent years. Based on statistics from previous years, the lodge owners are estimating that the sport fishing catch will account for approximately 3,000 to 5,000 fish, and there's talk that Fish and Game has overreacted and is favoring the commercial fishermen—who catch the salmon before they enter the rivers—over the sport fishermen. Trying to fairly parse out the salmon between the commercial and sport fisherman has caused more than one state biologist's hair to turn grey.

IAT estimates that it lost 70 round-trip flights to Anchorage because of the closure. Legislators representing the affected business owners are promising to enact legislation that will prevent similar occurrences in the future. In the midst of all the action and debate, Hannah, a young local girl, and her father arrive from Anchorage bearing fresh doughnuts for the crew at IAT. A little token for all the hard work.

At 12:30, Jay Kitchens, the FAA maintenance inspector assigned to IAT, arrives in his Stinson 103 for an inspection of the company's aircraft maintenance records. Joel Newton, IAT's director of maintenance, guides Kitchens through the records for a few hours. Soon after Kitchens' arrival, the local boiler inspector shows up to have a look at the company's boiler. LaPorte, who seems to expect various inspectors to show up in Iliamna during the hectic red salmon run, takes it all in good grace.

The Newhalen River is lined with fishermen hoping to stock up on reds before the closure. This year a big brown bear sow with her two cubs is nonchalantly scavenging the salmon the fishermen have landed. It appears that it takes about 70 fishermen to feed one sow and her two growing cubs; this may bear out Fish and Game's claim of a small red run. In the past it's been jokingly said that Ray Charles could catch his limit in an hour on the Newhalen during the red run.

Pilots and airplanes

The LaPortes keep the crew lounge stocked with easy-to-microwave food, fresh fruit, and muffins for the pilots, mechanics, and office staff. Since there's a "let's all pitch in and get the work done" attitude at IAT, a lot of eating is wedged in around a constantly varying schedule. Most of the pilots are hired for the summer; a salary, housing, some training, and loggable Alaska time are the draws on the practical side of the ledger; flying in Alaska is the draw on the emotional side. The local pilots—LaPorte, Chief Pilot George Hornburger, and Jason Doellefeld work year-round.

Getting pilots and mechanics who want to move to Iliamna and stay over the winter is one of the company's constant struggles. "Beaver" Billy Ray, Blake LaRue, Del Bakke, and Ken Mickey are the seasonal pilots. LaPorte has been working on Bakke, trying to convince him to stay over through the winter.

The year-round maintenance ramrod is Joel Newton. He's assisted this summer by mechanics Rick Carthen and Bunny Smith, both high-time pilots. These pilots and mechanics fly and maintain three DHC–2 Beavers on floats and one on wheels, two Cessna 207s, a Beechcraft B58 Baron and an A36 Bonanza, a Piper PA–31-350 Navajo, and the pride of the fleet, the Pilatus PC–12.

The Pilatus

LaPorte loves his PC–12. The Pilatus now has 330 hours on the clock since new. He says that it is the first PC–12 in Alaska. After 23 years of buzzing around in airplanes equipped with reciprocating engines, taking the left seat in the turboprop-powered PC–12 is a revelation. The Baron and Navajo have expanded the capabilities of IAT, but the PC–12's powerful performance has shrunk Alaska to such a degree that LaPorte is trying to expand the airplane's role on the flight schedule.

Afternoon

During lunch, one of Northern Air Cargo's DC–6s lands, taxis in, and swings open the aft cargo door so that the IAT staff can forklift off six pallets of cargo, and load five. During the loading one of Cliff Everts' Curtiss C–46s lands to dump a load of avgas in the tanks at Moody's Petroleum Products. Radial engines sing their song all day long.

Hornburger, who earlier had picked up a load of folks at Igiugig in the PC–12 and taken them to Anchorage, phones to say that the group of German tourists that he was supposed to pick up had been told of the fishery closure by a local fish smoking and packing business—and that they had rented a van and driven down the Seward Highway to fish on the Kenai River, abandoning IAT and their lodge bookings. LaPorte tells Hornburger to pick up any cargo and hightail it back, because there's another PC–12 flight scheduled for 4 p.m.

Hornburger lands, unloads, turns his hat around, and spends a couple of hours digging a foundation for what LaPorte calls his "circus tent." Twenty-three years of spending untold labor and money protecting his growing fleet of increasingly valuable airplanes during the snowy winters have prompted the LaPortes to invest in a fabric-covered, steel-frame tent for their airplanes. It's guaranteed to withstand Alaskan winters. Hornburger digs a few hours and then departs again in the PC–12.

The future of IAT

The LaPortes have been in Iliamna building their business and taking care of the people of the region for more than two decades. They provide this care with their airplanes, their natural talents, and their faith. There have been struggles—within three months after the business was purchased, two of the three planes that comprised the IAT fleet had been damaged; one was totaled. No one was hurt in either accident, but it was not an auspicious beginning. Last winter IAT suffered its first fatalities when a company Cessna 206 plunged into the ground during a routine flight from Iliamna to Koliganek. The pilot, an expert bush pilot, and five passengers were killed instantly.

The acquisition of the Pilatus has invigorated LaPorte—he's excited about the business, and is looking forward to the future. He and Nancy have built a solid, stable company. The people of the region have benefited from their perseverance. Although they probably won't ever need it again, if you look closely up in the rafters of the IAT hangar, you can see the fuselage of the Luscombe in which they flew to Iliamna more than 25 years ago. LaPorte is keeping it for the time he decides to leave town. But the airframe doesn't currently have an engine, so the LaPortes' departure won't be anytime soon.


More information about Iliamna Air Taxi can be obtained by writing Iliamna Air Taxi Inc., Post Office Box 109, Iliamna, Alaska 99606, or calling 907/571-1248. Links to additional information about flying in Alaska may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links0010.shtml). E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.