First, I would like to clarify that I do not consider myself an Alaskan Bush Pilot. I have flown in Alaska, both summer and winter, for over 20 years. I have a fair amount of experience, and have had quite a few “experiences,” but I would not put myself in the category with the real Alaskan Bush Pilots. That said, I do understand some of the qualifications … knowing your airplane as well as you know your wife; knowing the airplane’s limitations to a fine line; knowing your ability to use the plane to within a few degrees of performance limitations; AND having the experience, the confidence, and ability to put human and machine together to extract the maximum capability out of both. A short description I heard once was from a fellow who observed of a mutual Bush Pilot friend that, “He doesn’t get in the airplane … he puts it on.” You become a part of it. Cut through all the foo-fer-raw and that pretty much sums it up.
There are quite a few “Bush Pilots” in Alaska and a lot more of the rest of us; just regular pilots with varying degrees of experience and ability. My flying began when we bought this place in the Alaskan Bush (should make me a “Bush Pilot” shouldn’t it?). With no roads to it, limited access, and no neighbors, becoming a pilot was just kind of a given. Returning to our home in Montana and pressed for time to make the move to Alaska I took a “crash course” of flying lessons, and received my pilot license in something over two months. I was very fortunate to find an instructor close to our home who, while being a super nice guy, had a ton of experience. He was a Bush Pilot with his own qualifications, and when he got in the airplane with me for a lesson he became ... something less than a nice guy. He would verbally whack me on the head if I didn’t, “make it fly…” He’d remind me, “it’s just an airplane, make it fly.”
He could fly that plane like a bird, and he pushed me to fly it well too. His shortcoming, I later found out, was communication. Flying into “controlled airspace” (Missoula Montana International), as required for training, I’m not sure who was more petrified, him or me, but it was my first and last “cross country” with him. All that aside, he did teach me to fly the plane and I can sometimes still hear him in the back seat, giving me instructions…
One of those times was shortly after arriving in Alaska … I remember the date well. It was late fall, my birthday, and a good friend of ours was here. We were down on the dock looking over the plane on floats, as I had to fly him out that afternoon, when my wife, Pam, hollered down and said, “Radio weatherman says it’s supposed to snow this afternoon…” Wow. I was not expecting that. I trotted up the hill a couple hundred yards where we have a good view of the country and weather around us. Sure enough, we could see weather coming in from the south and it looked like poor visibility in the direction we were headed. I would not have gone, but since our friend, being a very experienced pilot, was not too worried about the weather, with him as co-pilot, I figured I could gain a little experience. So, after a preflight check of the plane, off we flew.
The clouds under us were pretty thick, but “broken” with scattered holes as reported and it was not much of a problem getting out. We found a big hole north of the little town of Talkeetna, let down through it and flew on into the little lake outside of town and landed. The thing that bothered me was it was getting worse fairly fast. I ran our friend Elbert the couple miles into town, picked up our mail and a bottle of propane, went quickly back out to the lake, loaded up, and took off for home under a fairly low solid cloud ceiling.
I could see holes to the north so I flew that way looking for a way to get “up on top,” above the weather, and climb the two thousand foot elevation back to home. The other factor in all this was it was my birthday. Pam had fat moose steaks for dinner and my favorite cake awaiting my return. I had a case of what in flying lingo is called “get-home-itis,” though I didn’t realize it at the time. A few miles north I found a “good” hole in the clouds (I have since learned there is no such thing as a “good” hole … unless you’re trying to get down), and started spiraling up through it. About half way up … the lights went out. When it’s thick and you are eye level to the clouds, it is hard to judge how far away they are. I flew right into them. While it should have spooked me, it really did not, I knew I had clear air slightly above and below me. My eyes instantly went to the limited instruments on the panel before me as training had taught. I leveled the wings, nosed down just a bit and while I could see and feel nothing, I could hear the engine RPM’s cranking up, knew I was in a descending attitude and within a few seconds, broke out into the open below.
While the weather was getting worse, looking to the north and west, I could see there were open areas. Using that as my safety, my way out if needed, I made another major mistake. Instead of turning around and going back … I tightened up the circle, and climbed up through the clouds. Breaking out to what I thought would be “on top,” I found myself between two layers of clouds. They were solid above and looked pretty solid below as well, but I could see about where I needed to go. Home was just a short ten miles or so away, I could almost taste the cake, so I pushed on. As I flew, the two layers were coming together, it was getting tighter. The layer below, while still having a hole here and there, was getting thicker, and I was getting nervous.
As I finally got to where I thought “home” should be, looking down through the occasional small fleeting hole below me I saw nothing I recognized. I kept checking behind me to be sure my way back was still open. It was not looking good, as my alternate way out to the north was completely obscured in clouds, the two layers were coming together. That’s when I heard my old instructor in the back seat …”Ya got three places to go? Got three outs?” …”If ya don’t, ya got no business being there.” I had one out, one way back, and it was not looking good. I said “enough,” and banked the plane steep in a hard one eighty degree turn to see if I could work myself out.
Things were getting serious. About half way around I looked down, saw a little piece of a lake through a small hole in the clouds, and I remember well how I thought, “Boy, not good, I don’t even know what lake that is. This is a bad deal.” Then I noticed a small creek running out of the lake … the rounding curve of the shore line … “Wait a minute … “ I thought, “that’s OUR LAKE.” The hole was none too big, and I could see it moving quickly, passing over the piece of lake. I banked the plane steeply back toward the hole while nosing into a dive and headed for it. The engine RPM’s and speed were gaining as I dove. I shot through the hole not very high above the alpine tundra and noted I was doing about 130 mph. The lake was coming up fast (and never looked so good). I pulled the nose up, and started washing off airspeed to get it on the water as there was nothing but a wall of fog ahead.
I safely touched down on the lake and saw Pam walking down to the dock. As I killed the engine and coasted in, I saw her look at me. Without a word she said it all with just a raise of her pretty little eyebrows in a questioning look. As she caught the plane I jumped out and Pam promptly and quietly said, “You’re cutting it pretty close aren’t ya?” Three hundred feet in front of the plane and in all directions, except the hole I had just come through, was obscured in clouds and fog down to the roof of a mouse house. I looked at her, stuck my hand out open and level, and we watched it shake like I had been on a seven day bender. Enough said.
Pam out by plane
It was a cheap lesson really. We pretty much decided then and there that there is really NO place we have to be and nothing so important, that we have to be anywhere on any given day.
We’ve had many experiences since then, but this was kind of a trend setter and all in all it was not a bad thing. It kind of set our limits for when to fly and when to not. You gotta know your limits.
-Mike & Pam Nickols have lived at Caribou Lodge Alaska for over 20 years. The lodge is located about 15 air miles outside of Talkeetna. Visit their website at http://www.cariboulodgealaska.com to see more articles, photos and information about life at Caribou Lodge Alaska.