Airports and State Advocacy
Politicians and Planes
Flying the Polar Express
The crew had already turned back once. An oil leak had forced the Antonov AN-2 to stop at the eighty-fourth parallel and return to Prince Patrick Island without reaching the North Pole the previous year. But Donald Olson joined the crew again for another attempt in the spring of 1998.
Growing up about 120 nautical miles from the Arctic Circle, Olson knew all too well the risks of flying in such an unforgiving landscape. He had lost his father and two brothers in aviation accidents and as a result was committed to aviation safety. On the chance that the airplanes lost satellite reception in the vast, white expanse over the North Pole, he learned to read a sextant and studied previous explorers who had navigated the Arctic.
Olson was recruited for the expedition, a commemoration of the first transpolar flight by pilots George Hubert Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson in 1928, because of his heavy tailwheel experience—a necessity for taking off and landing the fuel-laden Russian biplane—and for his experience with off-airport operations in western Alaska. Olson had earned his Russian pilot certificate in the AN-2 six years earlier when he attended flight school in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he had been flying in Alaska since high school. If the aircraft’s 1,000-hp radial engine failed, Olson would land the airplane.
Fortunately, no such landing was necessary. The two Antonovs on the expedition flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks and on to Barrow at the northernmost edge of Alaska and Ellesmere Island in Canada before heading out over ice and fog to reach the North Pole.
"You just look out and there’s white all over from horizon to horizon," said Olson, who two years later was elected to the Alaska State Senate. Olson grew up in Golovin, a village of a little more than 100 people whose primary connection to the outside world was through his father’s air taxi. A single and multi-engine land and sea air transport pilot and a commercial helicopter, gyroplane, and glider pilot with more than 16,000 hours of flight time, Olson has mastered flying in the challenging setting of western Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.
Isolation makes self-sufficiency a necessity, and Olson has the many facets of aviation covered: In addition to his extensive flying experience, he is an airframe and powerplant mechanic with an inspection authorization, and he used to serve as an aviation medical examiner for pilots in the area.
From reindeer herding in his R22 and polar expeditions to practicing medicine in the remote hospitals of western Alaska and flying search-and-rescue missions, aviation has permeated all aspects of his life and taken him on adventures to distant places. But wherever his travels have taken him, Olson always returns home.
‘In my blood’
In the remote fishing community where Olson spent much of his childhood, residents relied on the air taxi for passenger service and mail. The village relied on aviation so much, Olson said, that bush pilots like his father were reverenced. Following in his father’s footsteps, he learned to fly while he was in high school and added a commercial certificate in his first year of college.
He went on to add ratings and four airline transport certificates because he wanted to fly bigger aircraft, and because flying in Alaska can be especially demanding. The punishing landscape and weather that make land transportation impossible in many areas can make the remaining forms of transportation—by water or air—hazardous.
The Alaskan bush has claimed several lives in Olson’s family. His brother died in an airplane crash in 1976, and in 1980 his father disappeared on a flight into a blizzard. Lost in the white wilderness, Olson’s father said goodbye to his family one by one via radio transmission. While volunteers from nearby villages searched for months, they did not find him.
After their father’s death, Olson’s brother took over the air service. In 1993, he, too, died in an aircraft accident. Olson was among those searching for his brother. After the search and rescue team found the wreckage and determined that Olson’s brother had died in the crash, the dangerously bitter cold prevented Olson and the others from staying to extract his brother’s body.
Tragedy did not deter him from continuing air services for his community. Olson formed his own air service to transport passengers and mail, and he formed another business in nearby Nome for even more challenging off-airport operations: Polar Express Airways. The primary use of his helicopter for Polar Express Airways is an activity that has been in Olson’s family much longer than aviation: reindeer herding.
Olson said his surname comes from a Norwegian ancestor who traveled to the Alaskan region a century ago and taught the native people to herd reindeer. He stayed and married a local lady, and the Olson family was established in the Seward Peninsula. "It’s been in my blood from those days," Olson said.
In the springtime, when the Seward Peninsula has close to 24-hour sunlight, reindeer herders go out in search of the herds. Because owners do not keep the animals fenced, a herd’s domain may be from river to mountain range; but the owners need to corral them in the spring to castrate bulls to make steers, mark fawns to indicate their owner, and harvest the reindeer’s horns, a process that does not kill the animals.
While reindeer herding has been a profession in the region for many years, an increased demand for reindeer horn product in Korea in the 1970s made it possible to employ helicopters in herding. Olson said he has traveled through Canada, the Aleutian Islands, and other areas herding reindeer. He even has a small herd of his own, the result of a rescue mission he undertook with a group of herders in 1992.
A herd of reindeer on Hagemeister Island, a wildlife refuge in Bristol Bay, had grown out of hand and was depleting the island’s native lichen; many of the reindeer had starved to death on the island. The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service sent a team of marksmen to the island to kill roughly 1,000 reindeer, but Olson organized and financed a rescue, saving about 125 just in time for Christmas.
"They said, ‘We’ll give you a couple weeks to get them off of there if you want to,’" Olson said. He assembled a team of four reindeer herders, constructed a temporary corral, and rounded up the animals for transport.
Olson described the scene: A DC-3 settling down on the slope of the beach because aircraft were not permitted to land on the rest of the island, the herders loading 40 reindeer at a time onto the aircraft, and the takeoffs to airlift the animals to safety. "It was kind of one of those things that you see in the Indiana Jones movies," he said. The reindeer rescue was surely not the only moment from Olson’s life that could have been a scene from the silver screen.
Honoring a promise
When Olson was a child in grade school, the village schoolteacher moved away, leaving the rural outpost without a school. His parents valued education so much that they found an open space in an orphanage for him to finish out the school year. It was the first of many times that Olson would leave home in pursuit of education.
Olson struck out again for high school, at a boarding school about 150 miles away. He flew to and from the school on the weekends with his father. By his senior year, he had his pilot certificate and took his younger brother along for the journey in a Taylorcraft each weekend.
While some might see education as a ticket out, Olson’s father made sure that ticket was always round-trip. Olson left home again for college and medical school, and he said his father made him promise to come back and raise the standard of living among his own people. He returned to Alaska after medical school and practiced in remote hospitals and rural clinics throughout western Alaska. He filled in when facilities had doctor shortages and traveled from place to place—how else?—by air.
Olson’s drive to attain education and serve his community continued with his decision to run for office. The idea took years to germinate. Fellow reindeer herder and former Alaska state legislator Larry Davis encouraged Olson to think about studying law and pursuing a career in public office while the two were herding reindeer together.
"Year after year, we’d spend hours and hours," he said. "… He’s there telling me, you need to think about running for office. When you do it for 20 years, you start to listen to the guy."
Olson thought about his various frustrations with the government and laws that were being made, and he decided to do something about it. With encouragement from his friends, he decided to run for office. To prepare for the venture, he went off to law school in Colorado, later studying international and maritime law at Cambridge University in England.
"I didn’t go to law school to become a lawyer," he said. "I saw what lawyers did, but I didn’t want to do that. I loved delivering babies and sewing people up and doing surgery." Instead, he said he studied law to be able to make laws, and to understand the legal jargon that often accompanies legislation. He ran for the Alaska Senate and has been in office since 2001.
Olson said he often weighs in on health care reform and aviation-related issues in the Senate because of his medical and aeronautical expertise. He is particularly supportive of the Alaska Capstone project, an effort to improve aviation safety by implementing new technologies such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), because of the tragic deaths of his brothers and father. Olson also pushed for a bill that created a low-interest loan program to help Alaskan aircraft owners install ADS-B equipment. "If there’s anything to do with aviation safety, I’m all over it," he said.
For his own flying, Olson makes a point to keep training to keep his skills sharp for the challenges of flying in Alaska. "I was always aware that I needed to keep my proficiency up," he said. "… If I make a mistake as a doctor, someone could very well die. If I make a mistake as a pilot, I could very well die, as well as my passengers."
October 22, 2009