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Thursday, June 14, 2012

THERE I WUZ! — EPISODE 1: THE SKY FELL


INTRODUCING:  "THERE I WUZ!"
—Cap'n Aux's personal, spine-tingling, 
bone-tickling cockpit travails!


**DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF MY GOOD FRIEND STEVE WILSON, A CAREER ALASKA BUSH PILOT.**
Steve Wilson fuels his trusty Luscomb for a little playtime.

Steve, you taught me so much about flying the bush, and about the simple joys in life.  You will be sorely missed.



EPISODE 1:  THE SKY FELL


The sky fell.  There’s no other way to describe it.  The sky just . . . fell. 
My fellow Alaska bush pilots had described it to me once.  At the time I had only half-believed them.  Surely they were spinning yarns, telling tall tales.  Ghost stories over Chinook beers at the Red Dog Saloon in downtown Juneau, to spook the gullible Alaska greenhorn.

A boy and his plane.  My AZ neighbors visit.

But There I wuz, ripe old age of 25, with a “whopping” 2,200 flight hours,* driving a single engine, 6-passenger Cessna 207 prop plane laden with Tlingit Indian locals, freight and fish through the perpetually soggy skies of Southeastern Alaska, when it happened.

Launch my career or die?  What the F*&%$ did I just get myself into?

Born, raised and flight trained in the “severe clear” sunny skies of Arizona, this wet world was as alien to me as Planet Pandora.  I might as well have been beamed there to fly dragons.
“Dude, get up here now!  They need pilots yesterday!” my buddy Kevin had exclaimed over the scratchy phone line only a few weeks earlier, calling from Planet Alaska.  “I’m flying for Wings of Alaska,** a great charter company out of Juneau.”
Steve touches down on a beach.



And then comes the wettest month on Juneau’s record.
Staring out the window into yet another sunny, 100-degree day in Phoenix, my brain could not begin to fathom the perils of his offer.   Having just lost my jobs and my “First Big Break” in a poker game,***  I was desperate for employment.  Moreover, I needed something exceptional to push me to the next rung on the aviation ladder.  Something to make a prospective employer go, “Wow!”  Something to bag me that Holy Grail of aviation, the Major Airline.
Fueler Gary and trusty sidekick Dozer.

“I’m there,” I replied, and hung up.  This, I had decided in a microsecond, was the “Wow” I was looking for.
Alaska bush pilot: the most hazardous job in aviation.   Scud running (flying visually, dodging low clouds, rain, fog and “cumulogranite”—mountains lurking inside clouds) to remote villages, fishing canneries and logging camps.
Between the utter lack of instrument nav systems and extreme mountainous terrain, there was no other way to get the job done.
I would either launch my career or die.
Hanging up the phone, the butterflies hit.  Launch my career or die?  What the F*&%$ did I just get myself into?
A very, VERY good day for flying up the Icy Strait.

As a greenhorn, you had to quickly learn the gig: fly along the pine tree-walled shoreline; navigate by matching coast, mountains and landmarks to the VFR Sectional chart in your lap; cross ocean channels at high enough altitude to glide to shore, in case of engine failure.   For that was your only hope:  land on one of the scant few, bolder-strewn beaches or sand bars.   Or crash into the carpet-thick forest, frigid ocean channel, or cumulogranite.
Racing a cruise ship up the Lynn Canal to Skagway.

Three miles visibility in rain and fog is a good day.
Your destination was always a short runway or dirt strip carved out of the forest or mountainside.  Buzz the field to chase away the bears, moose and other varmints, circle back and land.
Oh yeah, and did I mention weather?  In Alaska, it’s all about weather.  A 1-degree spread between temperature and dew point (the temp at which air turns to cloud) is a good day.  A 1,000-foot overcast with three miles visibility in rain and fog, spectacular.
Despite lucking out and experiencing such “spectacular” conditions for my first few weeks in AK, the low overcast and fog constantly provoked claustrophobia.  About “Pucker Factor 3,” according to Kevin—referring to how tight one’s sphincter got during the flight.  On a scale of 1-10, of course.

A black bear runs for cover as I touch down in Kake.

“Pucker Factor 10.”  I now know exactly what that means.



And then comes the wettest month on Juneau’s record . . .
The Road to Kake . . .



. . . Pressing down the coast of Admiralty Island from JNU (Juneau) to AFE (Kake, a Tlingit village)*** at 800 feet agl, I am steadily forced lower and slower by the slate grey overcast and fuzzy fog .


Whitecaps appear on the water; the wind’s picked up.  Light turbulence kicks in.  My passengers and I bounce along as if driving down a dirt road.
Power back.  Slow from 115 knots to 90.  First notch of flaps out . . . 2nd notch.  Pitch over and ease lower.  750 feet . . . 700 . . .
Pucker Factor doubles to 6.

The sky fell.

Ocean spray; the wind’s really whipping.  Moderate turbulence.  We’re slammed against our seatbelts.  4-wheelin’ now.
Pucker Factor 8, Mr. Sulu.
Squinting through my Serengeti sunglasses, I can just make out the turn of the coastline a mere half mile ahead.  Barely time to glance at the Sectional chart.  At least by now I’ve memorized the route and terrain, which helps immensely.


But then it happens.  The sky falls.

But then it happens.  The sky falls.
The rain turns to fog, which turns to cloud, which turns to rain, which turns to . . . Like a water balloon bursting, the black bottom disgorges from the cloud base.
600 . . . 500 . . . I push the yoke forward and dive, desperate to stay clear.  My scant 1/2 mile visibility, myopic only seconds before, now seems a decadent luxury.
Dropping full flaps and slowing to 60 knots—the slowest I dare go—I yank and bank along the curving coastline.  Treetops whiz by.  No time for even a glance at the Sectional.  
450 . . . 400 . . . the black forces me lower.  I’m now level with  the pines, blazing by to my right.  A startled eagle takes flight from his nest—above me.  A brown bear swipes at me yards below, his angry yellow eyes forever searing into my memory.
ak alaska eagle flight flying juneau bush pilot
A startled eagle takes flight—from above me.

 The engine screams.  The landscape blurs.  The turbulence pummels.  My brain overloads with the maddening cacophony of sight, sense and sound.
“Pucker Factor 10:”  I now know just exactly what that means.
Sweat trickles down my side.  My eyes cloud over.  Gripping white on the yoke, my hands shake.  I begin to hyperventilate.


So this is it.  This is how I’m gonna go.  And take a few innocent, trusting locals with me.
Launch my career or die—how stupid could I be?  Stupid enough to kill myself and a few others, apparently.
My family will be devastated, I think.  Comfort each other with lines like, He died doing what he loved best.   My fellow pilots would be equally devastated.  But secretly think to themselves, I wouldn’t have been that stupid. Silently thank the gods it wasn’t them.  This time.
Cook Inlet, west of JNU.



“My family hunts down there.”


The voice jars me.  I shake my head, take a long moment to process its meaning.  I chance a glance at the Tlingit passenger sitting next to me.
"Huh?" I manage.
He smiles back at me.  “My family hunts down there,” he says brightly, pointing down at the absurdly rugged terrain racing by in a green blur.  “I got my first brown bear right . . . there!”
Is he frickin’ kidding me?  We’re about to die, and he's sightseeing?!
Startled back to reality, I let out a nervous, confused chuckle, and bank slightly to let him see his "Happy Hunting Grounds."
Rainbow falls on Eldred Island Lighthouse, Chilkat Channel.

That’s when revelation hits.  To this local, I realize, this is nothing.  To him, this isn’t a one-way flight to hell, it’s a jaunt down memory lane. To him, Alaska is home.
Inexplicably, fear and panic evaporate.  The shakes disappear.  My breath slows to Yoga-calm.    It’s like Obi Wan Kenobi has whispered in my ear, “Use The Force, Luke.  Let go!” And I do.
Elation washes over me as I realize:  it's not a maddening cacophony, it's a beautiful symphony!  And I see, hear, feel it all.
I am a Jedi.  Like my friend before me.
I deftly bank along sea and shore, earth and sky, dancing with Mother Nature to the symphony of water and air that She conducts.
Wings of Alaska Beaver on approach to JNU.
 
And, all of a sudden, She relents.
At 300 feet above the ground, the sky stops.  Reverses course.  Turns from black to grey to white to . . . blue.
Climbing with the base, I see all the way across Frederick Sound to Kake.
With a knowing smile, She has lifted the veil, and for the first time, with new eyes—with bush pilot eyes—I gaze upon my beautiful mistress named Alaska.
And I know I am in madly, deeply, hopelessly, in love.

Turning final to Kake--after buzzing the bears away.


To this day, I wonder whether my passenger had made his statement out of complete innocence.  After all, Alaska was as much a part of him as the black braids of his hair.
Or did he sense my panic and do his best to save me . . . to save us?  I can certainly, unequivocally, say that he did.
Either way, I know it was Mother Nature herself who decided, “You know, greenhorn, I think I’ll let you live.  For now.”
Juneau Icefield.



When I left Alaska after that brief summer to fly Twin Otters in the Virgin Islands, I left a big chunk of my heart behind.
And took with me a healthy new respect for Mother Nature.*****

To this day, my buddy Kevin still plies
the Southeast Alaskan skies.

-------------------------



Cappy is now twice that age, with nearly 10x that flight time.  So it doesn’t seem so much any more!
**See Wings of Alaska website :)
*** See my post, “The Poker Game that Launched My Career.”
***** Kake, AK (AFE) is now a thriving paved runway, with lights and everything—oh, the luxury!



Kake strip: now a thriving, paved, lighted runway.  But still has "Bears in vicinity of airport."

**** To live in Alaska as a bush pilot is to LIVE.  So, all you aspiring aviator types, I leave you with this one bit of career advice:  Go North, young pilot.  Go North!
-------------------------

POSTING 6/29 0000Zulu (6/28 1700 PHX): 

A PILOT LOOKS AT 50



 “I have spent over 2 solid years in the sky."

28 comments:

  1. This is great. Us ground bound want to live vicariously and you give us the chance.

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    1. It's a labor of love, Anon. I love conveying the stories. C'mon back as often as you like!

      Delete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Flying career is risky indeed but some one has to do it :).
    Every one has to die one day, so why fear and not flying!!!!!!!!
    Loved this post.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to visit from your own popular blog, izdiher! I enjoy yours too. I read several on my iPad and will be commenting on the threads shortly!

      Everybody else, check it out!

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    2. I am gonna cry real bad , seriously : D


      THANK YOU SO MUCHHHHHHHHH, my friend.

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  4. This is what I'm talking about, Cap'n. I was completely immersed in your story. What a "Pucker 10" that was. Lol! I can't imagine. The beauty of Alaska sounds amazing. You are fortunate that mother nature was forgiving & wanted you to stick around for more adventures that you could share. :) Buzzing the landing strip to run the critters off sounds quite fun. Ha!

    Your friend Steve would have loved to see this & have a good laugh :)

    Thanks for sharing...Bon :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Bon! Writing these stories helps me to relive the moment, and I learn so much more about the meaning of it all. So glad I can take you (all) along with me on the journey...stay tuned!!

      Buzzing the strip, and the awe of seeing so many flora, such as moose, bald eagles and beluga whales, from the air remains quite a fond memory for me!

      And, YES, thank you MOMMY NATURE for sparing this poor pilot's life that day!!

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  5. Fantastic! Best post ever.

    Ryan

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    1. Oh, wow, Ryan, THANKS! I shall endeavor to deliver MORE!!!

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  6. Replies
    1. You can't shut me up that easily, John, LOL!

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  7. What an incredible story, Cap'n! Thank you for taking the time to share these moments with us. I find it so interesting how, in the moment you thought was the "end", that passenger's comment came outta nowhere and "saved" you. There are angels walking the earth...

    Quite an adventurous way to live...make sure you celebrate your 50 with style. 50 years well lived.

    Take care,

    GG

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    1. Thank you, Giulia!

      "Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic, but I've had a good life all the way!"

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  8. A great piece of writing Eric - "thanks for sharing" does it nowhere near enough justice but unfortunately I do not share your eloquence!

    But I do thank you for your time and effort in sharing and I hope the next 50 years bring plenty of magic and not too much tragic..

    All the very best

    Dave from the UK

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    1. Dave W, thank you so much--that's a perfectly WONDERFUL reply! It's the enthusiasm from peeps like you that keep me writing!!!!!

      And double thanks for the birthday wish...let's hope for lotsa magic, lol!!!

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  9. THANK YOU MISS TWA

    http://misstwa.blogspot.com/

    FOR MY VERY OWN "BIRTHDAY ROAST BLOG"!!!!!

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  10. Rated G for Great Family Enterinfotainment! Cool Yob!

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  11. Oh, and by the way, happy birthday old guy!

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  12. Rated G for Great Family Enterinfotainment! Cool Yob!

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    1. Thanks, Mr. PHX from Cap'n PHX, LOL!!

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  13. Hey there Cappy.....You ain't a kidding.....living life to the fullest....and then lucky enough to live through it.....!!
    Sometimes some of the best lessons learned...or the ones' right on the edge...A natural 'Instinct'..........I think you and your fellow 'Bush' pilots....the hunger for adventure....to know the difference between...the "Fear"....that will kill yo ass......and the respectful 'Fear'...of .....Mother Nature......you playing by her rules now...!!!
    and ya look back and wonder "What the F&*#$ did I get myself into" ??...good, bad, or ugly!!??...maybe losing that poker game was the best thing...funny we never see it as it happens......but was exactly what course...or 'flightplane'...that was layed out for you??!!...I'm not sure I believe in "FATE"...
    and Livies 'lived' aren't supposed to be all tidy..........!!
    Never Missplace the past...or, worse...forget the past....the line between the two......very thin....??!!
    and Lovely to pay "tribute" to your friend, Steve by telling 'Your' story.....!!

    Lord those pictures are Spectaclar...!!
    OH MOMMA Nature made you earn the 'Right'....to take those of her in all her...Glory!!!
    and the views you now have out of your "Office".....we all Thank you for..!!!

    alright...Ahhhh....
    So this "Pucker Factor"....you mentioned, WELL ......how nice of you to grace my "Vivid" imagination.....with the 1-10 Scale........Eshhhhhh:))))
    did I hear right.....did you mention the "BELUGA WHALE".......
    where have I heard that before....???? I must be having a "Post" "Post".....FLASHBACK...Mmm

    And you are so Welcome, Cappy....Yea.....I did "Roast" ya...pretty good..huh??!!!
    and I loved every degrading thing I said....:)))).....OMG...
    "Victimhood" suits you.........LOL.....

    Seriously...turning the big '50'...only comes once in a liftime....unlike flunking out of "Kindergarten".....3 times, HUH?????..
    and always...change out the battery on your "Life Alert" button when you do the smoke detectors......Shame on Me!!!
    Kidding..of course.....;/

    Looking forward to another Vblog post....!!!!
    Damn........you sure are 'Stretching' out your 15 minutes of 'fame'....;))))

    I sure am rambling....
    MissTWA

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    1. PS--I WON the poker game, but LOST the job!!

      & Pacemaker battery has a "Lifetime" warrant...eh, whatever that means!!!

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  14. OMG, MissTWA, your comment is longer than my story, LOL!!

    Thanks so much for the thorough reply...I'll take it as a compliment that you enjoyed the piece! Yes, as I write these I seem to glean deep meaning in them and I'm glad y'all connect with that!

    LOL let's hope the 15' ain't even STARTED yet!! ;-)

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  15. Hey Cappie!
    By the way, I need your email address. When I click on your profile for your email, I get kicked out (my computer problem - not yours)

    Ryan (ryanthepilot) - oharrenav8r@yahoo.com

    ReplyDelete

Sorry, folks, due to more spamming, Word Verification is back on. If you have trouble posting, please email your comments to me and I will post it for you!

capnaux@gmail.com