The old, bold pilots of Alaska

We’ve all heard it, and most of us have said it: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” I’m here to tell you that such purported wisdom isn’t very wise at all. Not long ago, Alaska was filled with old, bold bush pilots. In fact, if you weren’t just a little on the bold side, you had no business at all in trying to fly Alaska’s great outback.

There were no flying schools that taught glacier landings, beach and sandbar landings, gravel bar landings, or mountain top or ridge landings. If, in your student days, you mentioned that you wanted to learn how to be a real bush pilot, many schools and instructors would simply back away from you. Their insurance didn’t cover such insane behavior.

Alaska
As a bush pilot, you’re usually all alone.

Who do you suppose taught Merrill “Mudhole” Smith, who became owner of Cordova Airlines, to fly the Alaska bush? And who do you suppose taught Bob Reeve, later formulating and leading Reeve Aleutian Airline, to fly his homemade skis on and off the mud flats and water at Valdez? During WWII, he once flew a 7,000-pound overload in order to facilitate the building of remote airstrips for the U.S. Army Air Corps. The old CAA chased Bob all over Alaska for stunts like that, but never caught him at it. Like all the pioneer Alaska bush pilots, they possessed true grit, not to steal that title from the heroic John Wayne.

Older Alaska pilots, and I include myself in that batch of ne’er-do-wells, enjoyed a minimum of flight instruction, to begin with. We weren’t encumbered with radios, electric starters, VOR navigation, nor, in fact any voice interaction with control tower personnel. None of that stuff was available to us. Many of us came from the backgrounds of air mail flying and barnstorming. Hand propping our airplanes was just a part of flying, and if you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hand prop your own airplane, you just weren’t going to go flying. I doubt that many young pilots today have ever hand propped their little airplanes, and, in fact, would very likely be scared to death at the prospect. That alone tells me that most are not very bold. I blame the CFIs for that.

What would these younger pilots do if forced down on a remote river gravel bar and, because of an electrical problem, no longer had a working starter? Moreover, there are a number of things to get behind you before you ever lay a hand on a dead prop. Do most of them even know what those things are? For a bush pilot, such things are as easy to do as is slipping into your favorite old jacket. On the other hand, trying to hand prop an engine without the full knowledge of the act can be held as a potentially death-dealing exercise.

Many of the situations that bush pilots confront are unique, of course. How to make your first beach landing, for instance. There is no source, other than experience, that will tell you which sand is – and, more important, which sand is not – suitable for a landing in the airplane you’re flying. You’ll just have to figure that out with a balance of good judgment and experience. You’ll have to trust your own judgment, and then either abort the attempt or go ahead and land. If your judgment has been good, you’re in the gold. If not, how are you going to get out of the pickle in which you now find yourself? You should consider that a tricycle-geared airplane is not a good idea, under most circumstances, if a bush landing of any sort is anticipated. Given all that, I have to suggest that a bolder pilot is better equipped to handle such truly simple procedures and to make such critical decisions.

I’ve made my fair share of zero-zero takeoffs, from both land and from water. I mean takeoffs when the pilot can’t see more than ten feet ahead of his accelerating airplane. In a light aircraft, with its normally limited array of instruments, that takes a bit of a bold approach. Think you could handle that without feeling too white-knuckled about it? I admit that it’s not for everyone.

By my tenth hour of flight instruction, I had already become quite aware of seat-of-the-pants feelings. If you’re a young pilot today, I’m not sure that you’ll ever acquire that ability. I know that your flying world today is filled with Vx and Vy numbers. They won’t do you much good in the bush environment. If you fly the bush, you will have memorized two numbers from your airspeed indicator, and these two numbers will be all you’ll ever need. Consider that your first view of your landing area may be only five or six seconds before touchdown, whether on floats, wheels, or skis. You’re already in the seat-of-the-pants world, and you’ll have no time to recall, and set up for, those V-numbers. You’ve already done all the setup you will have time to do.

As for takeoffs, did you know that a Cessna 180 will take off and climb out with the stall button showing a steady red and the stall buzzer making its annoyingly loud racket in your ears? And with the airspeed indicator sticking its little tongue out at you while clearly stuck on 0-knots? I don’t advocate that sort of flying, but it is possible. In a few occasions I can recall, that situation was required. I certainly do not recommend that sort of flying. It truly is not for the timid. And if your engine should miss a beat, you may well end up a statistic.

bush plane on gravel
Will the airplane make it off that gravel strip? There aren’t many textbooks to consult.

Are you confident enough to perform a step turn in 40-knot winds with your Cessna 206 floatplane? If your ticket carries an SES addition, I’ll bet you’ve never tried that and are very likely surprised even to learn that it’s possible. In the bush, it’s not unusual, since neither the plane’s rudder nor the water rudders are very effective in those winds. Around King Salmon, Alaska, the winds can expected to be around 35 knots almost every day.

I recall once having made a Zone Clearance departure from the city of Kenai, Alaska. At that time, it was snowing heavily. My flight would take me directly to, and into, the Chugach Mountains, a part of the Chugach Mountain Range.

The clearance read: “Cleared below 500 feet to five miles east. No clearance will be granted for a return.” Do you find that a bit sobering? Visibility was around a half mile, and who could even tell where the ceiling was? For sure, the weather didn’t allow 1,000 feet and three miles. It was an emergency flight, so I felt it necessary to set aside those VFR restrictions. In point of fact, I’ve made many, many Zone Clearance departures over years as an Alaska bush pilot. None, of course, led to disaster.

I once made a three and one-half hour floatplane flight in a loaded Cessna 206, holding an altitude of only 60 feet below a solid overcast. But I have to think that many of today’s younger pilots lack the self-confidence to handle those departures, or those flight conditions, without a tight grip on the stick or wheel, accompanied with a set of clearly white knuckles. In fact, I once flew a Super Cub for more than one hour at a height of no more than ten feet! Another emergency flight, that was.

There is a line between confidence and overconfidence, however very dim that line seems at times. The old, bold pilots know the difference and are most careful to not step over that line. Overloads? Almost every day has its share of overloaded airplanes in flight. Almost all end safely. Those few that end in tragedy are most frequently the fault of weekend pilots who suddenly become bush pilots during Alaska’s fall hunting seasons.

Throw stones if you will at these bolder pilots, but they certainly had learned how to handle their little airplanes in the air. And if their ships should hit the sand, they continue to fly their machines with skill and knowledgeable determination.

So, yes, there are indeed old and bold pilots. Alaska still has a handful of them.

8 Comments

  • Nice article. Seldom do we hear the perspective of a pilot who NEEDS to use his small ga airplane for real stuff everyday and makes it work. This article reminds me of the 1972 Don Jonz article “Ice Without Fear” describing strategies of flying safely in forecast icing conditions. Unfortunately, Mr. Jonz disappeared shortly after writing the article while flying passengers in a Cessna 310 undermining the honest and practical guidance his article provided. Thanks for a good read.

  • Thanks, Ethan. I expect to get a handful of negative responses to that article. A positive response is greatly encouraging.

  • If you have an operational need to perform the high risk maneuvers described in this article, then by all means acquire the training and do so. Alaska is unique in that it combines unforgiving terrain and treacherous weather with an environment that all but requires aviation for the necessities of daily living. In other words, the inherent risks of flying in a region like Alaska are often exceeded by the risks of NOT flying, placing a great deal of pressure on pilots to fly in high risk situations. Risks come with consequences, namely the higher likelihood for an accident, which is why the GA accident rate is higher in Alaska than anywhere else in America, nearly double the next highest region (Northwest) and more than triple the lowest (Eastern).

    Here in the lower 48 there is almost no time/place where flying a GA aircraft is a must, especially when the flying includes the kind of risks required for flying in Alaska. While water-assisted landings to sandbars are de rigueur in Alaska, if you live here in the lower 48 and find yourself water skiing using the mains just for kicks you might rethink your risk management strategies.

    I appreciate Mr. Mason’s status as somewhat of a pioneer in that much of what he knows about in a high-risk environment was self taught. That said, with people him around to pass along his knowledge there’s no reason for ANY pilot to try to self-teach these maneuvers today. If you want to learn to do this stuff get training.

  • Being just a tiny bit familiar with flying, even having experienced Alaska (including one PA-18 flight there that did not end well a long way from anywhere), I doubt not one of those “old, bold pilots” would not credit a goodly amount of luck along with their ability, experience, instincts, creativity, and pure guts for their longevity.

    So, as news accounts frequently attest to the aftermath, if you know an “old, bold pilot”, shake his hand… it could be your last opportunity.

    Let me quickly add my personal admiration for those who took (and those who still do) to the skies in all kinds of difficult conditions to do what was/is necessary. I must also note that Alaska is not the only place around the world to provide extreme challenges for those who ply their trade via “wings and a prayer”.

    (Let me also commend those FAA personnel in Alaska who recognize that those responsible for writing the rules don’t always understand the unique situations that the Alaskan environment requires. Enough said.)

  • I don’t see many tail draggers in Alaska being used. But I do see a lot of nose gear aircraft being used. My favorites are the Cessna C-208 Caravan, Quest Kodiak, Zenith CH-750 SD, Katmai Kenai, and King Katmai. Just saying!

  • Thank you very much for this article. I’ve actually been wanting to find out more about careers in aviation less boring than airlines; this was so enlightening! I really enjoyed reading this!

  • I have flown my light bush aircraft (an Aviat Husky A1-B) in backcountry conditions, in the lower 48 as well as Canada and Alaska, and I have a Commercial ticket, with plenty of tailwheel experience, but do not consider myself a “bush pilot,” despite getting very competent instruction prior to flying in “bush” conditions. I have also done quite a bit of reading about the topic (some from very experienced pilots who are no longer with us, due to unfortunate mishaps). I have seen quite a few tailwheel aircraft in use throughout the places in which I fly, including Alaska, and I always observe how other people use their aircraft. I prefer to learn from other pilots’ mistakes rather than my own…but having said that, life in general, especially flying, tends to be a series of calculated risks.

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