I knew I'd been in Alaska too long when I stepped outside to preflight the Piper Navajo and thought to myself, "It's warm out here — it's only 5 below zero." But then, a lot had changed in the past 12 months. Back then I was a first officer on a Boeing 767 flying between my home in Seattle and Hawaii with Hawaiian Airlines. We'd weathered the effects of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and there was talk of more growth. Then the perfect storm hit the aviation industry with the combined effects of an economic downturn, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and in our particular case, management problems and a bankruptcy. I had almost a quarter of the pilot seniority list below me, and I thought I'd survive any possible furlough. I was close, but not close enough. As the airline furloughed pilots in groups of 10 or 20, the bottom of the list moved closer and closer. At one point I was listed as the bottom pilot still active. But the furloughs continued, and with 30 days' notice came the letter I'd been dreading. How do you tell your wife and 2-year-old son that you'll soon be unemployed?
Much has been written about the troubles facing the airline industry, and even though I'd tried to keep up on what was happening to my chosen profession, it is impossible to completely prepare for the gut punch when the worst happens to your career. It wasn't an immediately dire situation for my family and me, what with furlough pay, unemployment insurance, and savings. But we couldn't survive on that forever and it quickly became apparent that a fast recall wasn't going to happen. I knew that I'd have to look for other work. Of course, so were the thousands of other displaced pilots from airlines big and small. Competition was fierce and jobs that went begging for any applicants a couple of years earlier were now swamped with multi-thousand-hour airline transport pilots. Employers could be picky, and they set high standards for the people they would even consider for a job.
The first rule in finding a job in aviation is to know the right people. Many people may not feel that it is fair, but a personal recommendation often can carry a lot of weight with prospective employers. I had been searching, applying, and e-mailing every day for four months when I saw an ad for pilots for a small commuter airline in Fairbanks, Alaska. By chance I knew one of the pilots working for that company and gave her a call. She was surprised that I would be interested in the job since it was so far from home, and (to her) such a big step down from flying 767s. But she said she'd be more than happy to give me a strong recommendation to the chief pilot. After four long months of waiting, the wheels of progress suddenly went into overdrive and, on a Thursday evening in October, I got a call asking if I'd be interested in starting class that Monday. A lot of questions had to be answered quickly. Alaska? I was used to flying in the tropics. Navajos? Other than flying a Cessna 172 a few hours per year, this was smaller than anything I'd flown in a long time. The pay wasn't bad, but there was no jump-seat agreement with a larger airline. Once in Alaska I'd have no easy way of getting back to see my wife and son in Seattle. Still, economic necessity carries a lot of weight. So amid tears and hugs, and with an expensive last-minute airline ticket, I said goodbye and flew north.
Five of us started ground school that Monday, and it was like many of the ground schools I'd had in my career to date. Aircraft systems, company procedures, and local quirks were covered in depth. One change for me was to actually fly the airplane in training. Previous airlines I'd worked for had done all the flight training in advanced flight simulators. But in the end, like every other airline I know of, there are two things that let you finish the training and fly the job you were hired for — attitude and ability. And as with all the other pilot groups I'd been hired with, there were some who lacked one or the other — or both. After the ground school, the flight training, and the checkrides, there were only two of us left.
Now the fun part — flying in Alaska. This airline uses Piper Navajo Chieftains. Powered by two piston engines, they are eight-passenger aircraft that were originally designed as corporate shuttles. However, the commuter airlines in Alaska and elsewhere found them to be tough, practical, heavy-load lifters, and relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain. They are not, however, useful for what many in the lower 48 consider bush flying — landing on gravel bars in rivers or on glaciers. We fly as a Part 135 commuter airline, which means we have a regular schedule, fixed fares, and even a frequent-flier program. We fly from Fairbanks to villages around the northern half of Alaska, and most of our passengers are residents of those villages going to and from the big town of Fairbanks where they can go shopping, visit family, or just take a break from village life. It is true that there are only two paved runways in our system — Fairbanks and Galena. However, most of the villages depend solely on aircraft to move everything from food to fuel to people into town, and they all have airstrips big enough to handle our airplanes, and most can (and do) have airplanes as big as Douglas DC-6s fly in to deliver life's necessities. Most of the runways are 3,000 to 4,000 feet long, 50 to 75 feet wide, gravel surfaced, and include runway and threshold lighting. Out of the 20-plus destinations we serve, eight include some sort of instrument approach.
Winter flying in Alaska requires a lot of special attention and extra work. It gets cold in the interior of Alaska. Really cold. The average morning has been between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Piston-engine aircraft don't like the cold at all. Oil congeals, gyros complain (loudly), tires get hard, brakes freeze up, and so on. Did I mention it gets really cold? The coldest I've seen is minus 52 F. Fortunately people who have been doing this longer than I have, have worked out most of the kinks. As soon as the engines are shut down after a flight, large insulated nylon blankets are fastened around the nacelles. Electric heating pads in the engines are plugged in, along with a space heater in the cockpit. That doesn't really keep the cabin warm, but enough heated air reaches the instruments to keep the gyros happy. With luck, the engines won't cool down completely from about September until April. To really warm things up before flight, a gas-powered hot-air heater/blower is fired up and three hoses discharge large volumes of air into each of the engines and the cabin.
A typical day starts by checking the schedule board to see where I'll be flying that day. The names of the villages are often as intriguing as the villages themselves — Nulato, Shungnak, Chalkyitsik, Allakaket. Then I go outside and preflight the airplane, fuel it, and check on how the cargo guys are loading the airplane. Often I'll carry as much mail and cargo as passengers. The seats slide in and out on rails, so almost any combination of people and stuff can be carried.
A common part of the preflight is removing the snow and frost. I've found it's actually easier if it has snowed overnight, as the snow easily sweeps off. Frost, on the other hand, requires a lot of elbow grease to remove. If the conditions are really bad, a spray of deicing fluid just before starting the engines helps keep the airplane clean until after takeoff. It has been a real challenge for me just learning to do all this with thick gloves, face mask, big clunky boots, and a large parka getting in the way. In general, doing anything outside takes a lot of extra care and time.
Back inside, a check of the weather and the weight and balance are completed, then the passengers are called and off we go. If instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) exist for the flight, a prearranged, canned flight plan is called up. Most of our flights are between one and two hours long — enough time to relax and watch the scenery, but not so long as to be boring. When the weather goes bad, it goes really bad. Icing, snow, turbulence, icy runways, vicious winds — and that can all be on the same flight. Then that flight may end with a nighttime VOR approach to an airstrip where the only lights visible are the runway lights — no town visible, no streetlights, and only the black-hole approach with the outline of the runway and the VASI (visual approach slope indicator) lights visible. I have flown more actual instrument time and flown more approaches to minimums in the past three months than in the previous five years.
And that is for the airports that have instrument approaches. More than half of our destinations are VFR only. In the training for this job we went over the legal minimums for flying VFR in Part 135 operations, and we really put those minimums to the test. Familiarity with a particular route helps because, when the sun has set and only a little twilight is left, flying around hills and mountains in VFR-minimum visibility in uncontrolled airspace (which is one to three miles' minimum visibility depending on aircraft altitude and ceiling height) at 170 knots is a real attention grabber. I may have studied the sectional chart, and know for a fact that I'm at a safe altitude, but watching the trees and lakes appear in the dim snow and haze just seconds before they roll under my wings keeps the tension level high and places the highest demands on my flying skills. The pilot-in-command decision-making process often comes in deciding when enough is enough, and it's time to turn around. Then there is the snow. Snow falling through the air. Snow on the runways. Snow on the airport ramps. Everywhere white — the theme for everything I see here during the winter.
Family and friends have talked to me with concern about the safety of flying in Alaska. It is true that the accident rate is worse up here than in the lower 48. On our very first day of training, however, the owner of the company came in to introduce himself, and he told us that the absolute number-one thing he expected from us was safety. I was very glad to hear that, and it didn't take long flying the line to understand what he meant. There are countless opportunities to do something dangerous and stupid flying in the Arctic, but if we acted like the professional pilots that we were, then the risk was minimized to about that of flying anywhere else. And we soon learned which pilots from other operations chose to ignore safety in the name of profits. A few became well known as cowboys and in private we would talk among ourselves, saying things such as, "That guy is going to kill someone someday." By far the most common mistake we saw others make was the infamous "VFR flight continued into IMC." Those pilots felt they had flown the route many times before and knew where they were going. So what if you couldn't really see too far ahead?
The FAA is spread thin, and has a hard time being in a place to catch the violators. But sure enough, within a couple months of being in Alaska, one of the worst violators from another company (who had caused near incidents with me and others in my company) tried to get into a village VFR during a snowstorm, and had to fly lower and lower to see what he was doing. He ended up crashing his Navajo onto the frozen Yukon River. Fortunately he was the only one on board, and although injured, he was rescued and lived to fly again (FAA willing). The final report won't be out for a long time, but among ourselves we discussed the fact that you're probably flying too low when you make a turn and your wing tip catches the ground. Like anywhere else in aviation, safety is what the pilot in command makes of it.
Then, just like with any other airline job, there is the paperwork. And here I actually have much more to do than when I was flying 767s. I do my own weight and balance, route planning, filling out of manifests, and collecting of fares for intervillage passengers. At the Part 121 carriers, all this is done for you. But in exchange, I now have the freedom to pick my own route if the weather is good, using GPS to guide me right to my destination, no matter how far away. Going VFR? Pick an altitude. Low if I want to see the scenery, high if it is windy and I want to stay out of the bumps. I also have become keenly aware of the sun. In the heart of winter there is less than four hours of daylight in Fairbanks, plus a couple of hours of twilight on both ends. Some of our destinations lie north of the Arctic Circle and the sun may not rise at all during a few weeks in December. All they have is a few hours of dawn, followed by dusk.
But those are the hard parts. Most of our flying is much less stressful, and actually a lot of fun. So what is it really like flying in Alaska? The cliché is spectacular, and in this case the cliché is correct. There are wide-open river flats where the tallest things for 50 miles are the trees. And huge snow-covered mountain ranges marching off to the horizon, most of the peaks unnamed. What really stick in my mind are the images, sights, and sounds from various flights. I have made trips well north of the Arctic Circle into the Brooks Mountain range to an airport way down in a 5,000-foot-deep valley, far north of the treeline, where during the heart of winter the light is a dim twilight even at noon. Flying down through a mountain range in windy conditions can keep my hands full with the turbulence, but the blowing snow sheeting over the crags and slopes of the range is an amazing sight. Then working down through the peaks I'll enter the valley where Anaktuvuk Pass is, a large U-shape valley that looks more lunar than earthly. No trees here, only snow and rocks. And at the center of the valley is a tiny human outpost nearly lost in the overwhelming grandeur of the mountains.
The quiet of the Arctic has also impressed me. Sometimes I'll make the last flight of the day to Fort Yukon. After I unload the passengers, load the new baggage and passengers, and close the main door, I'll pause outside for just a second before climbing onto the wing and into the pilot door. It is early evening, and completely dark. I can hear the snowmobiles that brought the passengers to the airport fading into the distance, then silence. A deep, dark, velvet silence. Looking up into the bitterly cold air I see the amazing contrast between the absolute black sky and diamond stars. Often a silent green-and-red aurora dances overhead. I can pause there for only a moment, because my passengers are waiting. But those few seconds are treasured.
I have been most impressed by the people of the Arctic. Most of our passengers are natives from the villages — Athabaskan Indian, Eskimo, and others. Quiet, reserved, dignified, with a warm heart and a very sly sense of humor, they live in a vicious land but show a determination and resolve that many of us should emulate. If we have a problem with an airplane that keeps us in a village for a while, we're welcomed into their homes with grace and warmth and made to feel like family. This was a truly unexpected benefit of my experience here.
In the end, what is the worth of my new job? Hard to say. I have to spend extended periods away from my family, living that part of my life mostly over the phone. (Thank goodness for free long-distance cell phones.) I live in an apartment that recalls some of the lesser points of college life. But I am doing what I love to do and get to go places very few in this world will ever get to see. I have become scalpel sharp at instrument flying, short-field landings, and winter flying — something I certainly wasn't doing that much of when flying 767s to Hawaii. I get to fly longer and more often than I ever have before. My life and career took a very sudden and unexpected turn, but aviation has a way of doing that to you. I think I could do without some of the drama, but I do cherish the experience.
After this was written, David Sperry, AOPA 107058, of Renton, Washington, accepted a position as a first officer for America West Airlines. He flew for Warbelow's Air Ventures in Alaska for one year.