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Thursday, June 28, 2012


“I have spent over 2 solid years in the sky.  And after 2 divorces, 3 bankruptcies, 1 merger  and a furlough, I can even call myself a ‘Real Pilot’.”

Well, I went and done it, folks.  This month, I turned the Big 5-0!  In celebration (or lament), here’s an abbreviated update of my very first Cap'n Aux Blog post, “A PILOT LOOKS AT TWENTY” *. . . . 

 Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. 
—Hellen Keller
Fifty years.  Wow.  Over two fifths of that spent flying airplanes—and over 20 years of that for a major airline.  At 18,000 some-odd hours of flight time, that means I have spent over 2 solid years in the sky.
With 2 divorces, 3 airline bankruptcies, 1 merger  and 1 furlough under my belt, I can even call myself a “real pilot.”

DHC-8 wing silhouetted by the setting sun.

I love my job, but hate my career.
In this fickle industry, it’s no small miracle to get to the finish line with the same company.  If a pilot loses his job, either from furlough, firing or company bankruptcy, he starts at the bottom somewhere else—with starting pay.  While hired by one airline, I have no idea what the name on the door will be come retirement, or if there will even be a door left out of which to walk.  Indeed, as we speak, another merger appears to be looming on the horizon.

Will Fly for Food:
Staring down the barrel of a furlough.

But, day by day, I love going to work.  I get to fly cool airplanes, get to be The Man, wear those bitchin’ stripes, and sometimes even have a good time with a fun crew on  a layover in an exotic locale.
Still, by and large, it’s like any job.  You go to work, do your stuff, and count the minutes till you get to go home.  On average, I’m away from home four days a week.  Hotel rooms are more of a nuisance than an invitation to adventure...
My favorite vacation is not knowing in which country I’ll wake up the next day.

Visiting my buddy John in Colombia.
And yet, adventure calls.  And therein lies the greatest benny of the airline industry:  to see the world.
As a young pilot, I deliberately bounced all over the map while climbing the aviation ladder.  I’ve flown the Alaska bush out of Juneau, captained for a seaplane company in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and driven four-engine turboprops into Aspen and Steamboat Springs, CO.   During free time, I’d race out the door at every opportunity for some random world locale, armed with nothing more than a backpack and a vague idea of destination.  My favorite trip is not knowing in which country I’ll wake up the next day. 
My favorite world locales are:  Kyoto, Venice and Telluride . . . and any tiny fishing village with no phone, paved road or English.

Marksan and I join two airline employees for an epic adventure.

From atop a camel, I’ve seen the sunrise over the the Great Pyramids of Giza.  I’ve Eurailed through Europe and backpacked through Japan.  I’ve partied at Oktoberfest in Munich, Independence Day in Washington, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  I survived a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo in the Virgin Islands, and an earthquake in California.  I golfed St. Andrews, rock climbed the Australian Outback, ice climbed Switzerland, paraglided Japan, skied Canada, snowboarded the Swiss Alps, sailed the British Virgin Islands.  I’ve snorkeled Thailand, Tahiti and the Great Barrier Reef.  I’ve SCUBA dived shipwrecks in the Caribbean, with sharks and stingrays in the Caymans, and with giant turtles and humpback whales in Hawaii.  I've ridden mules in the Grand Canyon, elephants in Thailand, and outriggers in Tahiti.  I've kissed the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Blarney stone in Dublin, and a Swedish flight attendant in Frankfurt.  With 3 good buddies, I once spent a week in a tiny Venezuelan fishing village, hours from any phone, paved road or English speaker.
I didn't plan these things according to some elaborate "Bucket List;" they just happened.

I’ve witnessed a 360-degree rainbow, and a comet blazing amidst the ethereal shimmers of the Aurora Borealis.

Rounding out my 5 favorite world locales are:  Kyoto, Interlaken (Switzerland), Venice and Telluride—and any tiny fishing village with no phone, paved road or English.

Of course the cockpit of my machine has afforded equally grand sights and adventures.   I’ve seen the full moon rise over the Juneau Icefield, and witnessed a 360-degree rainbow in an Alaskan rain shower.  I’ve seen a comet blazing across a moonless night amidst the ethereal shimmers of the Aurora Borealis.  The Andromeda galaxy, the farthest object visible to the naked eye, is doubly so from the clear, thin air at 39,000 feet.  I’ve seen countless meteor showers, gorgeous sunsets and amazing sunrises.

Outriggin' Tahiti.

Lightning storms are incredibly awe-inspiring when viewed from above.  I’ve piloted over 250 “flightseeing” trips over the Grand Canyon, each one different and equally spectacular.  In the Virgin Islands I’ve spied eery, slate grey waterspouts—tornadoes on the sea—snaking across the water.  On countless Alaskan flights from treetop level, I’ve seen moose, bear, eagles, and endless pods of whales, from humpback to orca to beluga.  I once spotted a giant brown bear a few hundred feet below as he took an angry swat at me.*
Unfortunately I have scant photographic evidence of these spectacular sights, other than that which is indelibly etched in my mind’s eye.

Wings over Sedona.  (My first "landscape reflect by the wing" pic...but not my last ;)
I LOVE MY JOB!  And there’s so much more to do.  China, New Zealand, Jamaica, Eastern Europe, Africa . . . they are beckoning, whispering in my ear.  And if my little bucket list hasn’t yet challenged you to get out there and see the world, let me leave you with my favorite inspirational travel quote of all . . .

Pickin' at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“The world is a Disneyland made just for YOU-.”
Me :-)

*See my previous post, “The Sky Fell.”


Posting July 13th at 0000z (July 12th 1700MST)
Doc Aux's Magical, Cure-all Travel Tips!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interlude: Cap'n Aux's 3 seconds of Fame



This is crazy!  An astute blog reader spotted me in a National Geographic documentary waltzing through security at some random airport (LAX, perhaps?)  Another blog reader, Anthony G., found the vid as a download (since removed.)

(I must be showing off my Thai watch, LOL!)

I am on-screen at the 5:04 mark for all of 3 seconds, LOL!
Ironically, copyright protections keep me from posting a clip, but here's a couple more screen shots.

B-747-8: Airbus A-380's newest rival

It's from the Nat Geo "Mega Factories" series, this episode about the making of the Boeing 747-8.

What I find most fascinating about this is:
—Some random guy was randomly filmed for a random TV show;
—A random viewer/blog reader in another part of the world recognizes said random guy and contacts him.
—Random guy writes a blog about it!

Lesson:  This world is getting smaller—and more public—every day.  (Think, "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.")

1.) brush your teeth, 
2.) Wash behind your ears, and 
3.) SMILE! 8^D

'Cause you never know when you're going to be on Candid Camera!

Try Googling "National Geographic Mega Factories Boeing 747" if you're interested.  It's a fascinating show in its own right and I recommend all you aviation buffs check it out!


UP NEXT, POSTING THIS WEEK, 6/29 0000Zulu (6/28 1700 PHX): 


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

Thursday, June 14, 2012


—Cap'n Aux's personal, spine-tingling, 
bone-tickling cockpit travails!

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 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): 


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