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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

#Blogformation - My Most Memorable Flight

#avgeek #blog #aviation #airline

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

Blogging in Formation Week!

This month's theme: "My Most Memorable Flight"

 For my most memorable flight, I am reposting a story about the most hair-raising flight of my life . . . which turned out to be a watershed moment in my career.  A fictional account of this incident appears in my novel, The Last Bush Pilots, and serves as the crux of the story for DC Alva, a young cheechacko (greenhorn) 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.


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 cheechacko.
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  to Tlingit Indian villages and logging camps, laden with frozen freight, frozen fish and frozen locals, 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.
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 two jobs and my “First Big Break” in a poker game,*  I was desperate for employment.
And then comes the wettest month on Juneau’s record.
Moreover, I needed something exceptional to push me to the next rung on the aviation ladder.  Something to make a prospective employer say, “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 cheechacko, you had to quickly learn the gig: fly along the pine tree-walled shoreline; navigate by "pilotage"—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.
Three miles visibility in rain and fog is a good day.
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.

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

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

. . . Pressing down the coast of Admiralty Island at 800 feet agl from JNU (Juneau) to AFE (Kake, pronounced "cake", a Tlingit village,)* 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 in slo mo, 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 in this turbulence—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 how I'm gonna go.
And take a few innocent locals with me.
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 sky 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.
I am a Jedi.  Like my friend before me.
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 native 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, cheechacko, I think I’ll let you live.  For now.”
The 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.

— — — —
— — — — 

This Week's Other Blogging in Formation Posts:


*I'm now twice that age, with nearly 10x the flight hours.  So it doesn’t seem so much any more!
*See Wings of Alaska website
*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 the ATIS still reports, "Bears in vicinity of airport."


Posting June 16:
Special Father's Day VLOG & Essay
"Of Dreams, Dared and Dashed, and Death"


Posting June 26 @ 11:00 PHX:
"Around the World in 80 Jumpseats"
A Pilot's Eye View of the World from the Cockpit Jumpseat!



  1. What a story! I'm surprised CFIT accidents aren't a higher statistic for Alaska flying.

    As they say, that which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger!


    1. Thanks, Ron!

      I'd say they lose one to CFIT about 1x/month. That seems like a lot, till you do the math on how much flying actually goes on in AK.

      As I say in the Foreward of my "Bush Pilots" novel, it's still 9x safer than driving!

    2. Correction: 10x safer! ;-)

  2. And this is where fiction mirrors truth. I love this story and I too believe that the wise passenger was putting you at ease... Alaska is a place many leave their hearts. And the truly outstanding pilots can talk about that they've been there, done that. Nothing else compares.

    1. Yes, we all have had "life lessons in the sky," and when we share, we can learn from each other's experiences. I suspect you're right about my passenger, Karlene, but I'll never I said, really, it was Mother Nature who decided to spare me that day...

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. What a story! Having been in similar tight situations before, I believe fate has a hand most times.

    1. Haha, based on what you said and your handle, Warthog02, I'm guessing you've got some tall tales to tell from the pilot seat of a Warthog?! Boy I'd love to hear those--buy you a beer next time you're in PHX! ;-)

  4. Wow. Just wow.

    The only thing even close to this experience for me was a low ceiling in southern Michigan RIGHT after I got my private. It was MVFR at most, and I had my (luxurious) GPS flag on me on my way back to Oakland/Troy airport. I have never allowed myself to rely on GPS again. Always a backup.

    But I can't even imagine flying at 300' AGL just to survive - and I'll be honest - I hope I never have to experience it myself!

    Thanks for the vivid story, Cap'n Aux!

    1. Thanks, Andrew!

      We all face challenges at different levels of our experience. MVFR is nothing to thumb your nose at! I'm glad you learned not to rely on your GPS. That's one thing worrying me a bit these days--that new pilots are relying WAY too much on their high-tech nav gear to guide them. We must always remember to get back to basics! And, frankly, no plane is as high-tech as my Airbus. I've got to remind myself occasionally to "turn off the magic" and fly by stick and rudder once in awhile to stay frosty!

  5. You are becoming a good tale teller.Loved it.

    1. Thank you, Iz!

      Always so happy to hear from my favorite Pakistani blogger at!


  6. Scary - but - awesome in it's own way! I guess minimums have their own meaning flying in AK! The question about Bush Pilots does come to mind - and - now I have figured out which part is the autobiographical part too :)

    1. Haha, true, Mark!
      One of the themes in my book is, there are man-made rules...and there are rules made by Mother Nature. The bush pilot has to learn darn fast what the "true" rules are in order to survive!

  7. What an incredible story! Thanks for sharing it on the blog.

    I've been to Alaska one time and fell in love with the scenery when I flew on a floatplane out of Juneau. Would love to try flying in the bush up there someday! Sounds extremely challenging and rewarding.


    1. Hey, Swayne, of!

      Yes, I think a "flightseeing" tour over the Juneau Icefield, like I describe in my book, should be on everybody's bucket list. The most spectacular scenery on earth! I'm so glad you got a taste of it!

      Maybe some day we'll be reading about your bush pilot adventures!

  8. Here's a comment from Brent, who was having tech troubles trying to comment:

    I recall this story from your novel and I wondered how much of it was
    a true account - it certainly felt like it. Now I know.

    Great post and for anyone that hasn't read Eric's book, you need to
    "git 'r dun!"

    Lol, thanks, Brent! Everybody's always asking me that Q about what is "fact" and "fiction" in The Last Bush Pilots! ;-)

  9. Beautifully written Eric. Talk about being completely intoxicated by a story. I needed that today. I am going up for only the second time in the last three months. We spend most of our time at 300-500 AGL, but it is clear and a million today so hopefully no scary moments.

    How could someone not be inspired reading a story like this.

    1. Thank you so much, Dave!

      It's been years since I spent any time at 300-500 agl, so I'm a bit jealous, lol!

      Feel free to share the link, post and pics on any and all aviation (& other) forums/sites! Thanks!

  10. I suppose this the best trip to experience the water, untamed life, scene, camraderie, and individuals of Alaska!nride in a kayak, get up close and particular with an excellent ice sheet, outing outside, ride on a
    brilliant glass encased pontoon over the fjords with a neighborhood naturalist calling attention to hawks, seals, whales, and waterfalls.

  11. RIP Mr Wilson, your flight with him would be special when he still alive.

  12. I was living in Hoonah on the Chichagof island in 90. Took a trip to the big city of Juneau and on the return a young fellow beat me to the plane to ride shotgun, but I took it like a man and crawled into the back. On the westward flight we leveled out at 2000 ft even. It was a spotlesly clear day and I was looking down to spot whales. About half way home something got my attention at about 2:Oclock in front of us also at 2000 ft. I turned and looked but saw nothing, so I went back to whale watching. And then it was there again. This time I continued to stare untill a spot started taking shape. It turned into the shape of a single engine piper. This piper was not flying across our pattern, which would have gotten our attention much quicker but was actually headed straight for us so he appeared to simply grow very subtly. When I recognized I was about to become fish food I reached forward and popped the pilot on the shoulder and pointed. In that astoundingly fast moment the pilot firewalled the yoke and down we shot. If not for seat belts we would all have been pressed to the ceiling. That brown piper never twitched a control. He never knew we were even there. So we leveled out and continued on to Hoonah. Upon landing, the pilot came around and patted me profusely, thanking me several times. The next day the Wings of Alaska agent knocked on my door to present me with a free ticket to Juneau.

  13. out the turn of the coastline a mere half mile ahead.

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  14. took it like a man and crawled into the back.

  15. Woah that was a one of a hell experience. I would love to be there in Alaska someday.

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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!