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.
Impressive mountains were quite near on both sides, and I noticed that there were at least two separate layers of stratus above me. I could see that the lower level shrouded the glacier ahead, obscuring most of it. I could also see that, if I continued beneath the lowest level, I would soon fly into the face of that glacier right at its moraine. Did I mention that I had only 30 hours under a seat belt at that time?
The weather couldn’t have been better, though it would be a bit breezy in the mountains. I’d be supplying our proposed sheep camp with an air drop from a float-equipped, 65-hp Aeronca Champ. My flight log at the time showed that I had less than a meager 82 hours as a pilot. Confident I was; experienced I certainly was not.
Visibility in the heavy snowfall was down to less than a half mile and getting worse. After having passed Tyonek, which was above me, and I couldn’t see it, I scooted by the Nikolai Creek strip, elevation 30 feet MSL, but it too had disappeared in the low cloud cover. And that cloud cover was now pressing me ever lower.
The flight was supposed to be pretty much a routine trip, though not really a happy one. I was relocating my turbocharged 1984 Cessna TU206G amphibian from West Palm Beach, Florida, to St. Cloud, Minnesota. Economics had demanded that I sell the marvelous ship, and I was delivering it to the buyer.
I’m going to fly along with you as you take your Cessna 206 Stationair II for a flight to pick up a client out in the flat country beyond the Alaska Range. Your client lives in a log cabin along the Kuskokwim River, downstream from the village of Aniak. You’ve made sure to have the necessary flight charts with you.
After having flown the Alaska bush country for more than 35 years, and racking up more than 18,000 hours of such foolishness, the mountains and almost consistently terrible weather had inured me to most flights that stateside pilots would find truly white knuckle experiences. Of my many, many bush flights over the years, this one was perhaps the most sobering.
George gave me my first hour of dual instruction that day. Flying over a world covered in the flat white of a fresh snow, I was lost from the moment the wheels left the ground until the engine was shut down an hour later. I knew right then that I was never destined to fly. How in the hell did anyone up there know where he was? I was truly discouraged and downhearted.
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.
When the Cessna went up ever so slowly, pausing when the cowling slipped into the snow cover, I still thought we’d be all right. Instead of settling back to earth, though, the tail paused for an eternity—and then went slowly over to put us upside down on this very remote bush strip. Our world was upside down and we were now really in for it…
It was on a Friday the Thirteenth, in April of 1956, that I soloed out at Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, Alaska. I had waited for several months for this date, as I had, for some misguided reason, always thought of Friday the Thirteenth as a lucky day for me. I’d had eight and one-half hours of dual instruction up to that point, and my instructor thought that I was ready.
The days are short, and quickly getting shorter, in Alaska’s September, and it was nearly dark as I readied my Super Cub for the return flight. I took from the guide’s avgas cache only what was necessary to make the safe flight back to Merrill Field that night. I carried no reserve fuel. I didn’t like to do that, but sometimes we found it necessary in bush operations.
A loud BANG, followed by a serious rocking of his rig, told the driver that something was now amiss. His truck had lurched to the right, just in time for the driver to witness the landing airplane slam into the left side of his truck. Aw, horse feathers!
Sliding quietly past the last of the Quonset buildings, and with 40-degrees of Cessna’s barn door Fowler flaps hanging out, I was pretty well committed at that point. I was ready for the touchdown, probably three or four feet above the grass runway, when the whole world exploded directly in front of the heavy Cessna.
I had decided early on during the morning of January 1, New Year’s Day, to take a short flight and look over the Russian River Rendezvous lodge property at Lower Russian Lake down on the Kenai Peninsula. Just another still and tranquil New Year’s Day in the Alaska outback…
After landing at Anchorage, I tied my faithful little ship down and silently thanked the guys at the Cessna plant for their stable and dependable Stationair. And, yes—it had been a lousy way to spend Christmas Eve…
Here’s another in our series of Air Facts questions for aviation community members. Mort is a longtime Alaska bush pilot, now retired and living in Florida. Mort is the real deal when it comes to bush pilots and we knew he would have some fascinating insights.
Legendary Alaskan bush pilot Mort Mason has had plenty of nervous moments in his career. In this article, he shares the story of a mountain landing gone awry, and how even an experienced pilot can learn something new from every flight.