The most inherently dangerous of all flying techniques

I’m opposed to “scud running.” That’s the art (certainly it’s not a science!) of VFR contact flying in clearly IFR (IMC), or worse, weather. Most of us who fly the Alaska bush have become masters at it, whether or not we are opposed to it. If we hire other pilots to fly our equipment, we admonish them to studiously avoid scud running. And we absolutely forbid it for passenger flights. Still, once in a while a pilot will get caught by the weather.

If we try conscientiously to avoid scud running, we lose clients and customers, that’s all there is to that. If this pilot won’t scud run, then the next pilot will. Some pilots are better at it than others. I’m not sure whether that is on account of greater skill sets, more experience, better vision, or a different psychological character makeup. An overabundance of courage isn’t helpful, but a firm and solid confidence certainly is.   Overconfidence, on the other hand, is a killer. For whatever reason, many Alaska pilots, both the experienced bush pilots and the weekend wannabes, scud run. As a result, Alaska loses a few of its pilots along the way; make no mistake about that.

Scud running
It doesn’t get much more dangerous than this…

It’s unwise, it’s in contravention of standing FARs, and it is — without argument — the most inherently dangerous of all flying techniques. It puts crop dusting, aerobatics, and banner towing up in the bleachers. It’s far more dangerous than flying as a salmon spotter for the Alaska fishing industry. Except for herring spotting, that is, which is in a category of its own. Only an inordinately skilled madman or a certified lunatic considers flying for the herring fleet, in my experienced opinion.

The argument can be made that it’s much more dangerous than flying as a test pilot, since flight-testing is at least controlled and formalized. Scud running not only lacks outside control, it ignores almost every safe flying procedure known to pilots. There are only two hard rules to scud running: do not lose sight of the earth, and keep the airplane flying. Given all that, follow me through a dab of Alaska scud running. Not just a ten-mile emergency leg, but a serious, 215-statute mile, white-knuckle flight of two…

Painter Creek Lodge is one of Alaska’s truly premier sport fishing facilities. It caters to avid, world-class fly fishermen and -women as they chase the several species of Pacific salmon, truly huge rainbow trout, enormous sea-run Arctic Char, and the delicate Arctic Grayling.

When we finally closed the lodge for the winter at the end of the 1984 season, we had already run headlong into the month of October, really a little far down in the fall to be flapping around in the quickly freezing Alaska outback. We’d had both a very busy and a very successful season that year, and we had unwisely stretched our luck for a few extra days. Closing out and winterizing had taken a bit longer than we had expected, too. When we finally loaded up and lit out with the last of those things that would have to go back to Anchorage, we did so in the middle of a healthy snowstorm. Our total flight would cover more than 400 miles, a lot of it through weather that most general aviation pilots wouldn’t get out of bed for. It would also take us through long and narrow, 92-miles long Lake Clark Pass.

We were a flight of three that day. J.W. Smith, who was the lodge manager, and his wife, Carol, flew with me in my new turbocharged Cessna TU206G amphibian. Dan Steele, in charge of the lodge’s maintenance — and its lonely, deep-winter care taking — flew with Archie Hutchison in one of the lodge’s wheel-mounted Cessna 180s, N4958A. One of Alaska’s off-duty airline captains flew the other Cessna 180, N2204C.

A few years later, one of these two Cessnas would be lost when lodge co-owner Joe Maxey would try to scud run his way back to the lodge from the eastern slopes of the Alaska Range at its plunge into Shelikof Strait, which we referred to simply as the Pacific Side. Leading a flight of two, Joe would be trapped in the mountains by low clouds. Joe and two of his three passengers would lose their lives that day. Warned by Joe to turn back, the trailing pilot, Jeff Meinel, and his passengers would turn around and take the lower, much longer southern route around Aniachak Crater, a dormant volcano. They would all live to have a good dinner and to see another day. Joe Maxey and his passengers would not. But back to our own flight…

Painter Creek Lodge
To get from here back to civilization often requires imagination.

I had been first to lift off our 4,000-ft. gravel strip and was leading the other two planes by about four minutes. Mine was the lead ship because, although the other two pilots were fully instrument rated and qualified, my Stationair 6 had the better navigation instruments and newer, much better, radios. We were flying VFR, without flight plans, of course. A lot of bush flights occur without benefit of flight plans, unless the flight originates and ends at one of Alaska’s larger towns, cities, or villages. Mostly, there’s no way in which to close out a VFR flight plan from somewhere out in the Alaska bush, since radio facilities out there are as scarce as black polar bears. Without radio contact with the outside world, there’s no way in which to file a flight plan in the first place.

By the time we were 50 miles north of Painter Creek, it had begun to snow in earnest, and visibility was down to less than a half-mile. Archie, the airline pilot, and I were maintaining radio contact on a discreet frequency along the way. I was able to tell them what sort of visibility to expect from moment to moment, and to select for them the best deviations to use in skirting the worst of the snow. To our left was flat muskeg and pothole country all the way to Bristol Bay, about 35 miles off our left wings. Not far off our right wingtips, though, lay the impressive Alaska Range. Some of those peaks reared up more than 11,000 feet above sea level, and the rise began sharply from the tundra. There were no foothills.

Archie was one of those cool heads. I’d have flown with him anywhere. I was sorry to recently learn that, somewhere along the line, he was killed while flying fire control and borate bombing runs in one of the western states. The other pilot, though an active airline captain, was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, what with all this lousy weather. One might observe that he was smarter than either of his two flying companions that day. I can’t really find fault with that, because I was flying the only plane certified for IFR flight.

He’d been flying the big iron—with all its sophisticated avionics, automated systems, and dependable first officers—for so long that he was no longer comfortable with basic, bare bones, single-engine bush flying. Nor was he comfortable with the serious challenge of don’t-make-any-mistakes contact flying in an almost whiteout snowstorm. Still, this was all pretty much everyday Alaska outback flying to Archie and me. Bad weather is the rule rather than the exception in Alaska. The nervous ATP’s voice was becoming noticeably fainter and a little more highly pitched, though. He clearly did not enjoy flying 120 mph at 20 to 50 feet above the peninsula tundra while plowing through the nearly blinding snow flurries.

When finally we had reached King Salmon—one hour after our takeoff from the lodge—and had tied down, we all hustled over to Arnie Ahmholdt’s King Salmon Inn for coffee and a quick lunch. We discussed in some depth the forecast weather ahead, throwing in our own best guesses as to whether or not 92-mile long Lake Clark Pass would be open to us. My own thought was that the ground between King Salmon and Iliamna—about 100 miles ahead—was pretty flat. The only real bump in the earth along this route was Big Mountain, at 2,200 ft. msl. I could arrange for us to fly around that one. Unless we managed to drift east into the real mountains of the Alaska Range, that is. We knew that Iliamna’s low frequency signal didn’t wander around much down here, and we all had working ADFs. We figured that we could easily find Iliamna without any problem. We should be able to stay on course with the ADF needles, presuming none of us fell asleep at the wheel.

Alaska sectional Ilimna

Archie said that he would just follow my amphibian, knowing that both my airplane and I were capable of making the trip regardless of the weather. Our ATP-rated pilot, however, had wisely decided to stay the night in King Salmon, telling us that he would drive his Cessna on up to Anchorage the following day. That arranged, Archie and I topped off, climbed aboard, belted down, and then taxied for the departure.

Archie was to fly just behind and off my left side so that he could follow my lights, beacons, and strobes. Though it was still daylight, the visibility had now become really terrible. We could still contact fly, since the earth below us was darker than the world around us, but not by much. Along with that was the fact that Archie’s ADF could have been just a little more dependable, so that staying on my tail was important to us both. My stack of new King Silver Crown avionics had performed flawlessly since its installation. I knew that I could pick up the Iliamna NDB (LF Non-Directional Beacon) on 239 KHz about 100 statute miles away, even from the traffic pattern at King Salmon. From the air over King Salmon, both my ADF and DME would be solidly locked on, so my wandering around in the snow wasn’t of much concern. If Archie lost me in the snow, however, that could become a real problem.

We lit out as a flight of two and settled in on a magnetic heading of 121 degrees to fly direct to Iliamna. We would be flying with a 22 degree easterly variation. That was of no concern because of our ADFs, of course, but by comparison, the magnetic variation in most of Florida is only about 1 degree.

It was now snowing even harder, with visibility down to less than one-quarter mile, and Archie was having a bad time trying to keep my lights in sight. My white Stationair didn’t leave much of a target for him in the heavy white snow, in spite of the big Wipline amphibious floats hanging down below me. Since the blinding flash of white wingtip and tail strobes of the Stationair brighten distractingly in the snow, appearing to Archie as coming from everywhere at once, I turned them off, keeping the navigation lights and red rotating beacon on. This turned out to be the best arrangement, and we flew north for about ten minutes this way. Then Archie began to lose those lights, too.

Snow on trees
It’s pretty to look at, but it’s ugly for pilots in formation flight.

Archie and I had flown together long enough that we were very comfortable with each other in the air, and we were in a smooth and stable air mass at the time. Neither of us thought that close flying would pose much of a problem. Neither of us had had military flight training, though, and real formation flying escaped us both. I told him to slide in tight on my left rear quarter, promising to let him know in advance if I was going go make even the slightest turn. Visibility was so poor that, if Archie had looked at his own instruments for only one second at the same time I started a shallow turn, he would lose sight of me altogether. Archie moved in to a distance of about 10 yards, a spot with which he was comfortable. We weren’t really concerned about a collision, but we were concerned about separation and the resulting likelihood that we might end up flying in close proximity and, for all practical purposes, completely blind.

Eighteen minutes out of King Salmon, I advised Archie that I was going to begin a 15-degree right bank for a turn from 021 to 045, setting us up to fly east past Big Mountain, standing about 2,200 feet high and at that time directly ahead of us. Our route had been roughly following the Victor 427 airway, an instrument flight route. Yes, Alaska still has a bucketful of Low Altitude Federal Airways — Victor Airways. As the published minimum en route altitude for this route was 7,000 feet msl, we certainly weren’t going to interfere with commercial air traffic.

Soon after Archie had acknowledged receipt of my intentions, I let him know that I was beginning the shallow eight-second right turn. He followed me through it with no trouble, and we settled down to pass the mountain as it slid past, unseen off our left wings.

Once past Big Mountain, we picked up a new course to the ILI NDB, now less than 15 minutes ahead and on the opposite side of Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s largest freshwater lake. Iliamna is a gorgeous, cold, and crystal clear body of very deep water covering around 2,000 square miles

Lake Iliamna
Crossing Lake Iliamna, and finally the snow stops.

Midway across the lake, the snow began to let up. By the time we had crossed the Iliamna NDB, ceilings were above 3,000 feet, the snow had stopped, and the visibility was out to more than 15 miles. It was turning into a pretty nice day, though still cool and overcast. The Flight Service Station at Iliamna gave us a reasonable weather report from Anchorage, still almost two hours ahead, and forecast Lake Clark Pass to be somewhere between marginal and open.

Marginal would be just fine, since both Archie and I had flown this pass so many times we could almost sleep through all 90 miles of it. By the time we had reached the midway point of long Lake Clark itself, ceilings were up to 3,500 and it looked like smooth sailing for the rest of the trip. The pass really gets hairy only at the north end (which pilots and the Flight Service Stations all refer to as the “east” end, and I guess maybe it is). This is where the pass necks down rather tightly between rock faces and requires a 90-degree right turn at the toe of an impressive glacier. Then there’s a quick left 90, then another right 45 or so, and you’re finally out of the pass. Beyond that, it’s almost all flatland flying. Lake Clark is not one of Alaska’s more difficult passes unless the weather is really scabby.

Archie and I chatted our way through the pass and were soon on the ground at Anchorage’s Merrill Field, where his Cessna 180 would spend the winter undergoing some much needed attention. Regardless of how careful we had tried to be, flying the gravel bars and cinder beds around Painter Creek had been hard on the equipment. Since my amphibian wasn’t much of an airplane for either of these surfaces, it hadn’t taken the same beating that the Cessna 180s had been subjected to. Still, it would also get a thorough going over. My wife and I would soon be flying it through the Canadian winter on the way to Palm Beach, Florida.

11 Comments

  • Mort, your pilot stories from Alaska are great … and are all the explanation needed for why so many Alaskans crack up and the insurance rates are so high up there.

    As for me, I don’t envy Alaskan pilots in the least … unfriendly terrain, rotten weather most of the year, and few options to get around except to practice extreme “get-there-itis” seems a recipe for making flying not fun.

  • I suppose a lot of us were a bit goofy, but we really did enjoy it . . . On the other hand, we were flying for business reasons, and I don’t think any of us were affected by get-home-itis, which is a purely personal failing.

    • Mort – whether it is for business or pleasure, “get-there-itis” is exactly the same thing. It’s about putting mission accomplishment (getting somewhere in particular by time and date certain) above managing flight safety risk … which is what you described in your post here. Whether the pilot is at the controls of a B787, a Cessna 180 in the Alaskan bush on behalf of a client, or is a private pilot on purely personal travel, it’s all the same.

      It’s understandable why an Alaskan bush pilot feels the need to get there more due to economic consideration than other considerations – i.e., to stay in business. But the mission mindset is what makes it “get-there-itis”.

  • Duane – sorry you see it that way. All of us who flew the bush were hunters and fishermen (or women). Alaska Statutes demanded that we carry with us food for all souls for seven days, plus sleeping bags, and firearms, ammunition,and fishing stuff, among other things. None of us was much bothered by an overnight – – – or even a week – – – in the bush. Most of us, especially the “old timers”, learned to fly in that environment. Scud running was pretty much a way of life, but we knew the country INTIMATELY. Still, we knew quite well when the weather ahead was just too much. My pilot logs are rife with RONs, and none of us was much embarrassed by camping out for a time. Schedules? “Weather permitting” was the rule, and everyone, including all our passengers, understood that. Truly, most of us didn’t have the get-home-itis affliction. Surely some did, they were as scarce as hens’ teeth.

  • Just curious Mort, what “Archie Hutchison” did you fly with. Archie was my father and we lived in Anchorage for a time before moving to the Wasilla/ Palmer area. Can’t imagine two Archie Hutchison’ who lived in Alaska around that time. My father did die in an airplane accident some years ago. If he’s one in the same, would love to trade some stories and say hello. My email ghutchison36@gmail.com
    Greg Hutchison

  • Yes, it’s the same Archie Hutchison. You surely remember that he flew for Painter Creek Lodge during the summer of 1984. We became good friends while there . . .

    I’m sending you an email. Meanwhile, let me say I’m so sorry that the world lost a good man, and that you lost your father.

  • I love reading your stories. I believe I read one where you patched a hole in your pontoons with …. boiled caribou fat and cloth … ? or something like that? I’ll have to read it again. Great stuff, thank you.

  • Hey, Justin – – – that patch was made from some rubber material cut from the top of an old pair of hip boots, and secured with a couple handles from spare sauce pans and bolts stolen from a pair of steel bunk beds. Not handsome, but it worked.

    Once patched a horizontal stabilizer with wet newspapers; and rebuilt a Stinson vertical stabilizer with 5-gallon avgas cans. We just figured that whatever it needed was what it got.

  • Hello Mort,
    From an old friend in Alaska named Flash. Never forget a ride in one of your bush planes to pick up moose. Hope you are well. I work in a building I think you designed on Lake Hood. Now DOT

    Flash

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