Dog Days in Alaska

Flying with the bush pilots of the Iditarod

April 1, 2008

Photography by Cameron Lawson

Pilot Mike Petrie is picking his way down a narrow mountain pass, maneuvering his Cessna 180 about 500 feet above an ice-covered river bed. Rugged cliffs rise sharply off the wings—close enough to touch, it seems—and winds of up to 70 mph at 4,000 feet roil over the mountaintops and batter the airplane. Bright sunshine beams overhead, but visibility ahead has been reduced to little more than a mile by a heavy veil of blowing snow. Petrie can still navigate by GPS, but there’s no need. He’s flown this pass hundreds of times and knows every rock, every tree along the route. Tall and burly, with a menacing-looking goatee and a shaggy mane of hair, Petrie looks like a character straight out of the 1940s movie Bush Pilot. He turns to check on his passengers in back of the airplane. A frisky, blond and brown Alaskan husky looks up inquisitively. Petrie gives the dog a scratch behind the ear.

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Alaska’s annual competition from Anchorage to Nome on the Bering Sea, is a grueling 1,049-mile trek across the state’s interior, and represents the ultimate challenge for musher and dog team. Add to that: airplane and pilot.

Since its inception in 1973, the Iditarod has depended on a corps of volunteer bush pilots, the “Iditarod Air Force,” to move people and supplies along the trail. In 2006, this included flying in more than 75,000 pounds of dog food for the “athletes,” 800 bales of straw for bedding, 23,400 wooden stakes to mark the trail, 1,020 cases of cooking fuel, lumber and the carpenters to build temporary shelters at checkpoints. They ferry veterinarians, race officials, communications volunteers and checkpoint staff—just some of the more than 1,000 volunteers who make the race possible—and take out tons of trash.

Simply put: The Iditarod would not be possible without general aviation. The distances are too great, the checkpoints too remote and the quantities of people and material too voluminous to make it practical by any other means. When the late Joe Redington sat down to begin planning for the first race in 1973, he was joined by a couple of bush pilot buddies. As the Iditarod has grown in size and sophistication, so has its aerial support.

This effort reflects the state’s overall reliance on aviation. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are only 12,823 miles of public roads in Alaska, less than Vermont, a state with only two percent of Alaska’s land area. This leaves much of the state inaccessible except by boat (in the summer) or airplane. Accordingly, there are more pilots per capita in Alaska than in any other state, with one pilot per 76 residents—more than three times that of the next highest state (Montana, with one per 245 residents).

The 29 volunteer pilots of the Iditarod Air Force leave their jobs and families for up to a month. Despite the sacrifice of time and expense (the race pays only for the pilots’ fuel, food and board), most Iditarod pilots keep coming back—a majority for more than 10 years, and some for more than 20. They do it to be part of an event that has grown from a regional success to a world-class sport, the challenge of flying to rugged backcountry strips in conditions that they might otherwise not, or the camaraderie of being with a group of people who love flying and dogs. They also get to join the ultimate Alaskan festival. To Alaskans, the Iditarod is Mardi Gras, the Kentucky Derby, and the Super Bowl rolled into one. And for the volunteers, it’s a family reunion.

The Iditarod Air Force

To qualify for the Iditarod Air Force, pilots must have a minimum of 1,000 hours total flying time (the average is around 9,000 hours), a minimum of 500 hours flying time in Alaska, a minimum of 100 hours of winter flying time in the past two years and 100 hours flying on skis. The stiff requirements reflect the demands of the job. Bush flying is an art, even more so in winter.

Inside a suite at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage, the race headquarters, Iditarod Chief Pilot John Norris is hunched over a computer, scouring weather maps and forecasts. Keeping tabs on the weather is just one of Norris’ responsibilities.

An 18-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Norris is a middle-aged man with tight, curly hair, a broad face, and an easy smile. Over the previous few weeks, Norris and other pilots had begun moving supplies out along the trail and scouting landing strips. The strips tend to be the same each year, Norris says, but conditions change, “so before anyone lands, we have someone check the conditions,” he said. “Usually, it’s me.”

Flight operations are organized into four “hubs” along the trail—in Anchorage, at the start of the race; McGrath, in the interior of the state; Unalakleet, on the western coast; and Nome, at the finish.

As the race progresses, the air force leap frogs ahead of the racers to put people and supplies in place at the 27 checkpoints. Load coordinators based at each hub organize the staging of supplies and take requests to move people and equipment. Using a giant flow chart, they match mission with pilot, trying to improve efficiency by making sure the airplanes fly as few empty legs as possible. The majority of flights are planned in advance, but occasionally a plane is needed in a pinch to move something or someone, or perhaps to aid in the search for a lost racer.

At the moment, Norris is concerned about the weather. A pair of high pressure systems have planted themselves at opposite ends of the state, making for mostly clear skies, but as passing low pressure systems attempt to move through, the clashing air masses have produced fierce winds and severe turbulence, making flying practically impossible. Norris has already cancelled all Iditarod support flights for that day, and with the start of the race just two days away, Norris is worried he’ll be forced to cancel the next day’s missions, putting them even further behind.

In addition to the NOAA forecasts, Norris gathers information from a variety of sources, including spotters along the trail, other pilots, friends who live across the state, FAA weather cams and even passing airliners. After reviewing the maps, he hops in his car to get a second opinion at the flight service station at the adjacent Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. There, briefer David Hadley says the high winds and cold temperatures are expected to continue.

Pilots try to avoid flying if the cold is too extreme, say minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The stresses on the engine are too great. Every hour flown in extreme cold is the equivalent of 20 hours normal flying, Norris says.

A new day

The next day, contrary to Hadley’s prediction, the winds have died down, if only a little. Pilot Dale Olsen introduces himself prior to a flight to McGrath, about 200 miles by air and 350 miles up trail. Olsen, in the Alaskan tradition, takes his hand out of his glove to shake hands, no matter how cold it is.

Olsen, a second-year pilot for the Iditarod, flew for the Marines in Vietnam and is a retired pilot for United Airlines, having flown DC-10s and 747s on the airline’s Pacific routes. Lean and athletic, he has an erudite, almost professorial manner. Like most of the other pilots, he flies a Cessna 180. The Cessna 180 and 185, although a half-century old, make up the backbone of Iditarod flying. The planes are rugged and efficient, with plenty of power to get over the hills and enough load capacity to haul up to 1,100 pounds (1,600 pounds in the case of the 185).

From behind the hotel, on frozen Lake Hood (in summertime the busiest floatplane base in the world) Olsen performs his preflight. He pays particular attention to checking his fuel sumps, looking for the telltale glitter of ice flakes suspended in the fuel. At very cold temperatures, ice can form from condensation in fuel tanks. Or, when there is blowing snow or an ice fog (an arctic phenomenon in which the water droplets have frozen), tiny ice crystals can be sucked in through fuel tank vents or intakes. This ice has the potential to clog fuel lines, particularly in fuel-injected engines. Since ice in suspension is not removed by sumping, anti-icing additives, such as isopropyl alcohol, are added to the fuel.

After starting the engine, Olsen taxis into position for takeoff. With skis, Olsen explains, maneuvering on the ground can be tricky. There are no brakes, so you have to plan ahead. Turning the plane around, especially in heavy snow, is nearly impossible. “If you have a narrow space to turn around in,” Olsen says, “you can do a maneuver that more or less is a kind of controlled ground loop by gunning the engine. It’s an act of faith, but you can do it.” Landing on ice, he explains, about the only way to slow down is to shut the engine down. And engine run-ups, he says, have to be finessed: in most cases, while taxiing or during the take-off run.

Since Lake Hood Airport is situated adjacent to the runways of Anchorage International, Anchorage Tower controls its traffic. In all, four busy airports lie within a five-mile radius of each other, making Anchorage a complex piece of airspace to navigate. Olsen turns northward after taking off, flying at or below 900 feet until reaching the other side of Cook Inlet, then climbing to 1,400 feet or below until clear of the Class C airspace.

Once past Anchorage airspace, the land opens up into a broad, empty flatland leading up to the Alaskan Range toward Denali National Park, in the shadow of Mount McKinley. There are no roads, no power lines, no towns—only the occasional hunting or fishing lodge. Olsen follows the trail, flying about 1,000 feet over the terrain. In the summer, this land is an endless bog, accessible only by boat or floatplane. Winter opens the territory up, and the tracks of snowmobiles, or “snow machines” as Alaskans call them, create a web of intersecting lines, tracing cursive loops in the snow-covered ponds and open plains. By the time Olsen has reached the base of the pass, he has only climbed to 1,500 feet. The mountains ahead look huge, and they are; the fact that the tree line is only around 2,000 feet adds to their rugged profile.

In the canyon

The ride is smooth, despite winds of 30 knots. As Olsen starts up the pass, he clings to the windward edge of the canyon, leaving himself enough room to make a 180-degree turn should he need to, and hoping to benefit from any updraft when the wind blowing off the opposite rim sinks, then hits his side and pushes upward.

After crossing Rainy Pass, the highest point along the trail at 3,771 feet msl, Olsen drops into Rohn, a checkpoint on the trail. Situated at the convergence of three canyons, the tiny strip at Rohn is considered the gnarliest on the trail, notorious for its swirling winds, turbulence, and frequent white out conditions. Positioned right around the tree line, Rohn looks like a Mount Everest base camp. The strip has two windsocks, one at each end. More often than not, Olsen says, they are pointing in opposite directions.

After Rohn, it’s another 60 miles across a long, desolate plain of scrubby spruce, the “Farewell Burn,” the remnants of a huge forest fire 30 years ago. Olsen could tune in the McGrath VOR and fly straight there, but he prefers to navigate via pilotage. He knows where McGrath is.

Briefing in McGrath

McGrath is a hamlet of about 370 people tucked along the meandering Kuskokwim River near where it is joined by the Takotna River. The farthest point upriver that could be serviced by steamboats, the town was founded in 1907 during one of the state’s gold rushes. When the gold ran out, McGrath’s fortunes foundered. Today, it is a place to weigh in for supplies, at it serves as a launching point for backcountry fishing or hunting trips, and, of course, as a hub for the Iditarod.

Each day begins with a flight briefing for the pilots. Flying his Cessna 180 to McGrath to join the other pilots, Norris gives a breakdown of the mission assignments for the day, along with the weather (high winds, turbulence, marginal VFR in places because of blowing snow), and an update of the conditions at the various landing areas, pointing out hazards such as snow drifts, exposed stumps or ice dams.

“I’ll never say when a pilot has to fly,” Norris says. “But I can tell him when he can’t.” He reserves the right to ground flights, either for the pilots’ safety, or the safety of their passengers. After all, as Norris and most of the pilots are acutely aware, the viability of the race depends on the integrity of the air force pilots. As a consequence, in the 35 years the race has been run, there has never been a fatal accident involving the air force.

Dedicated radio frequencies and satellite phones allow the pilots to be in nearly constant communication with the hubs, and with each other. Pilots also carry small GPS transceivers so that their progress can be tracked over the Internet.

Destination Takotna

Jim Kintz stubs out his cigarette, pulls on a military surplus coat with a fur-lined arctic hood, and in a fog of exhaled smoke and breath, heads out to his Cessna 180. His destination is the village of Takotna, an eight-minute flight up the river of the same name. Kintz, 72, is a 15-year Iditarod pilot. He grew up in Gillette, Wyoming. In 1952, he and a couple of high school buddies pooled their money and for $500 bought a 65-horsepower Aeronca. Kintz has lived in Alaska for 50 years, and although he never made a career out of flying, he’d ferry aircraft, fly summers for backcountry hunting lodges; whatever it takes to keep flying.

On takeoff, Kintz pulls the carburetor heat. Cold air is dense. At 30 degrees F below and standard pressure, the density altitude at McGrath—altitude 337 feet above sea level—is 6,139 feet below sea level, so the only way to get the mixture rich enough to get the engine running safely and efficiently for takeoff is to draw in warmer air.

Takotna, a village with a population that varies from about 80 in the winter to 140 in the summer, lies on a bend above the river. The landing is on the river itself. On downwind, Kintz eases the airplane to a couple hundred feet over the treetops, then puts in full flaps. He turns and follows the river bend, gently banking the plane to the edge of the landing area, marked by pine boughs, then slides the airplane onto the snow.

Going bush

Becoming a bush pilot takes time and practice. “Learning to fly in the bush is a process of making the same mistakes over and over until you get it right,” says Wes Erb, a wisecracking North Carolina native who made Alaska his home after a stint in the Air Force as a navigator on AWACS planes flying out of Anchorage.

A third-year pilot for the Iditarod, he now flies MD-11s for FedEx. The trick, he says, is making sure the mistakes you make are small ones, because there are many mistakes you only get to make once. Erb says most of his troubles came while trying to maneuver the plane on the ground after landing. He recalls many hours digging his airplane out of snow banks.

Erb uses a GPS exclusively to fly the backcountry, if for no other reason than the fuel savings. He rarely flies IFR, “unless someone pays me to do it.” His Cessna 180 doesn’t even have a VOR receiver in it. “I like to keep the enemy in front of me,” he says about the weather. Flying IFR in Alaska is too difficult. Because of the terrain and the distance between navaids, Erb says, you have to climb to 10,000 feet just to talk to someone, and in many cases the minimum en route altitudes for IFR flight are high enough to require supplemental oxygen. Besides, “I can’t think of nothing scarier than having an engine quit on you and having to descend through the soup into God knows what.”

During the race, pilots are often asked to fly dogs dropped from teams because of illness, injury, or exhaustion (teams can start with up to 16 dogs). The dogs, which are leashed to the inside of the airplane, are generally well behaved. If they do act up, the pilot can push the nose of the airplane over, making the animals momentarily weightless—which usually quiets them down. As many as 16 dogs have been squeezed into one airplane.

The wind has died down, and behind it low clouds and marginal VFR conditions have pushed in, with mountain obscuration and scattered snow showers—perfect flying conditions, jokes Erb. Taking off from Eagle Island, a checkpoint on the Yukon River, Erb turns eastward, back to McGrath. On either side, mountains disappear into a whiteout, and Erb uses a combination of GPS and dead reckoning to navigate. Once over the Takotna River, he descends to just over the trees and does a series of turns, and looks for wolves reported in the vicinity the day before.

Erb says he really wants to get his father from North Carolina up to Alaska to fly with him. His dad has seen pictures, but as a longtime IFR pilot he is incredulous. “He thinks I’m cavalier about flying,” Erb says. “I know I seem to be, but I just want to get him up here to show him that, yeah, it’s different, but it’s still a discipline.”

Like many of the other Iditarod pilots, Erb never flies his airplane out of state. Why bother? Here you can go anywhere, land anywhere, and have the most spectacular views in the world.

Tom LeCompte is a writer and journalist living in Massachusetts. He has more than 850 flight hours.