Bush Flying…Alaska Style!

“Stranded airplane passengers ski to safety after being forced to land on Alaska glacier. After abandoning their three airplanes on the top of a glacier, the group of five trudged through the deep Alaskan snow to safety”

…This was the headline in a UK newspaper, back in April this year. Fortunately, these incidents are rare and even more rarely do they result in tragedy. This is because the intrepid professionals responsible for piloting these exhilerating airborne excursions into the Alaskan backcountry are exactly that…professional and responsible!

The Denali National Park is the epitome of mothernature’s wonders…in winter it is bleak, barren, other-worldly and yet, in summer Denali is resplendent with flora and replete with wildlife. The name Denali is itself a slight contraction of the word “Denalee”. This word is derived from the local Koyukon native people’s description of the mountain “The High One”.

Here’s a little known fact; The High One is taller from its actual base to its summit than Mt Everest, which is situated on the Nepal / Tibet border. I’m sure that Sherpa Tenzing would have something to say about that…but at least Mt. Everest reaches higher into the stratosphere. (for those readers unaware, Tenzing Norgay was Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing partner on the first-ever successful summiting of Mt. Everest in 1953).

Before we delve into the Alaska glacier flying and its myriad attractions we should dismiss the notion that this experience might be harmful to those involved. When asked the question “what’s the most dangerous part of your work day?…Paul Roderick, (Talkeetna Air owner) a seasoned Alaska glacier pilot replied “dodging the moose on the side of the road, in the pitch dark early morning, while driving to the airport

Moose encounters aside, Alaskan mountain flying and the glacier landings are the true definition of the term “seat-of-the-pants” flying, preferably while wearing the requisite ski or snowboard pants!

The Alaskan mountain pilot serves a lengthy apprenticeship under the experienced guidance of one of those pilots who’ve been “at it” for a long time. No amount of hours or number of ratings and licenses can substitute for the unique aptitude required to take on the rigours of the mountain environment. Tail-dragger (nose wheel under the tail, as opposed to under the nose) experience and single-engine operations are a plus, but are only the first rung on the ladder.

The biggest challenge for these seasoned pilots is the weather. A clear blue placid day in the mountains can quickly and unexpectedly turn into a “white-out” with severe stomach-churning turbulence. The opening paragraph of this article bears testament to the vagaries of mountain weather. This is because the mountains create their own microclimate and in turn, this creates weather patterns that can prove challenging at best and deadly at worst for the unwary and unprepared. Hence, morning weather briefings and constant review of weather conditions throughout the flying day are paramount and foremost in pilots’ minds when weaving through the mountain passes and valleys.

The name of the game for these airborne excursions into the mountains is a combination of “flightseeing” and mountaineering. The origins of the air tour companies that populate the Denali region lie in transporting climbers into the high elevations prior to the climbers starting their technical ascents. Before the ski-planes became available, climbers would spend any number of days trekking up the mountain passes on skis and snowshoes before even catching a glimpse of their intended climb. The weather was therefore also an important factor in the climbers’ success or failure. With a little help from the ski-planes and their pilots, (who are both working for, and owners of, the tour operators), these climbers can now summit two or three peaks per daytrip…that’s what we call “bang for the buck”!

Flightseeing companies such as Kantishna Air Taxi, (Greg LaHaie, owner and pilot) later evolved when the tour operators discovered that tourists would pay simply to fly among the peaks and occasionally make an exciting landing on a glacier or snowfield. These flights usually take about ninety minutes round trip with a thirty minute stopover for the obligatory photo-op and picnic. Kantishna has taken these trips one step further by establishing the only lodging inside Denali’s vast perimeter, Skyline Lodge, located deep in the heart of Denali itself.

Talkeetna’s Paul Roderick recalled a French group that hauled on board several garbage bags loaded with baguettes and rounds of cheese, wine and other picnic essentials. The French call that a “pique-nique”! (and the Alaskans call it a “peak-nic”)

None of this mountain exploring would be possible without the winged ‘beasts of burden’. The favorite aircraft of choice for these pilots and tour operators is usually a  Cessna 185, 206 or the venerable De Havilland Beaver and Otter. The engines are uprated to match the demands of high altitude flying. In fact, a lot of the Beaver and Otter operators have exchanged the original radial engines for the latest in turboprop technology. These engines are less maintenance intensive and more powerful, hence more cost effective and reliable.

Nevertheless, these aircraft require constant attention and TLC (Tender Loving Care). No pilot wants to discover that his horizontal tail is frozen or otherwise “stuck” while on a take-off run from a very short and snowy strip .

There is an old aphorism in the flying fraternity “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots”…Alaskan bush pilots are clearly the exception to that aphorism.

Philip Rushton

Philip Rushton is our publisher, he has spent over forty years in various capacities in the world of aviation. In addition to his publisher duties for BJA, Philip oversees a successful US-based consultancy company, Aviatrade Inc., with offices in the USA, Europe, and China.