By the Seats of Their Pants
October is a gigantic seasonal turning point in Alaska. All summer long, millions of tourists fritter away their kids’ college funds flying up here to see the magnificent grandeur of the state we all take for granted. But as soon as they’re gone, the most coveted prize at every charity auction, radio giveaway and sales promotion becomes what every Real Alaskan wants most—an airplane ticket to somewhere else!
A regular Alaska boast claims that we are the flying-est state in the Union with more per-capita aircraft and pilots than any other location in the world. As usual, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean we are any smarter or more competent than we are in any other area.
A few years back, the boys in the band were taking a road trip to the village of Tyonek. We showed up at the flight service early on a drizzly overcast morning to load our equipment into the Cessnas, and one of the young ladies sidled up to the handsome pilot. She asked, “Why are you wearing shades on a dreary morning like this?”
As he lifted the Ray-Bans above his bloodshot eyes, his answer was direct and to the point: “Would you fly with a guy whose eyes looked like this?”
When all the gear was loaded, the caravan of single-engine 180s headed across Cook Inlet for a fairly typical Alaska bush pilot flight. Our flyboy buzzed the Susitna duck flats so low he had to pull back on the stick to climb over the dead driftwood logs lying on the mud.
But the words you never want to hear in a Cessna filled with musical equipment are, “Y’ever felt what it’s like to be weightless?”
The plane soared, dove and rolled. The gravity defying Fender Dual Showman amp floated past our heads in the cockpit. A guitar performed maneuvers never dreamed of by Pete Townshend. We only knew one thing—if we landed safely we were going to have to change both flight service companies and our underpants.
Right next door to Tyonek is the Beluga power plant that supplies most of Anchorage’s electricity. Years ago Bodfish’s dad, Smitty, was one of the contractors on a big upgrade of that facility, and they had to fly a bale of plywood across the inlet from Anchorage.
As luck would have it, the morning of that flight was windy and the plywood bundle kept rocking back and forth under the helicopter. This was a potentially dangerous situation, so it was up to Smitty to come up with a solution that satisfied all the safety requirements.
So Smitty climbed on top of the plywood bale and used his body as a buffer between the cargo and the belly of the helicopter to steady the load. They took off and flew to Beluga.
His son-in-law had flown helicopters in Vietnam. That night’s dinner conversation was something like:
“What the hell were you thinking, you crazy @#E$$%%^&? Don’t you know that the one part most likely to fail on any helicopter is the cargo hook?” the son-in-law said.
“Oh, you @##$%*& kids don’t know anything about how things get done in Alaska,” Smitty replied.
The important thing here is to get the proper perspective on the situation. The only reason you can heat a Pop-Tart in your toaster in Anchorage is that Smitty was a complete idiot. To this day, I personally thank him every time I turn on my life-size Elvis bust lamp.
Everybody loves flying in Alaska. My buddy, Dr. Roscoe, flew to Gambell last week. I happened to mention this to my drummer pal Davy, who said, “Oh yeah. Mary Anne used to fly into Savoonga on the mail plane when she worked for the state. The weather was always terrible, and the only way the pilots could tell if it was safe was by looking at the wind sock next to the runway. The problem was that the residents didn’t want to miss out on their mail, so they started putting rocks in the wind sock so it would hang down low enough to look like the wind level was OK.”
You need ingenuity to survive in Alaska, and that’s graduate-level thinking! Sometimes, however, the results don’t turn out so well.
An article appeared in the Anchorage Daily News last summer about a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of a fatal helicopter crash on Umnak Island in 2010. The pilot was herding cattle and found a bull tangled in some kind of plastic wrapping material.
After attempting to herd the bull toward ranch hands, the pilot tried to hook one of the helicopter’s skids in the plastic and carry the animal to the other location. When the plastic broke, they tried it again.
This time, the chopper did manage to lift the bull off the ground before the thrashing animal unbalanced the aircraft, causing it to crash.
A statement by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association read, “Even in Alaska, there are some jobs for which aircraft just aren’t well suited. Lifting unrestrained livestock would seem to be one of them, especially animals that weigh more than the machine can lift.”
There’s always some agency trying to take the fun out of everything. Thank God the Department of Fish and Game isn’t one of them.
It was back in 2007 near the Southeast Alaska town of Gustavus, and in this case no one was hurt. An Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist was aboard a chartered helicopter doing a moose study in an area where the antlered ungulates reportedly outnumber humans 2 to 1.
The scientist shot the animal with a tranquilizer dart, but the moose was in an area near open water. If it passed out in the pond, it could drown, so the pilot attempted to herd the woozy Bullwinkle onto safer ground.
The moose would move, the chopper would back off, the moose would move back, and the standoff continued. At that point, according to the Associated Press account, the moose charged the helicopter “damaging the aircraft’s tail rotor and forcing it to the ground.”
OK, let’s get this straight. A moose charged a helicopter and actually hit it. Division of Wildlife Conservation supervisor Doug Larsen was quoted as saying, “It just had to be one of those quirky circumstances. … This is pretty unusual and truly a very unique situation.”
Well duh. Of course it’s a unique situation. A moose charged a flying helicopter and knocked the sucker out of the sky!
Larsen went on to say, “As the animal got closer and closer to going down, an animal sort of loses its thinking—its ability to rationalize what’s in its best interest.”
What about the pilot? What happens when he loses his thinking and his ability to rationalize what’s in his best interest? What happens is quite simply another great day in Alaska’s aviation history.
I’m not a pilot, so I don’t want to pass judgment on anyone. But I did go to the library. I checked out the Acme Helicopter instruction manual, which does contain this statement: “Warning—Do not fly this helicopter low enough to be hit by a freakin’ moose!”
—Mr. Whitekeys is a musician, composer, former proprietor of Spenard’s Fly By Night Club and worldwide bon vivant. His DVD, Alaska: The First 10,000 Years, is available wherever cheesy videos are sold. His website is www.mrwhitekeys.com.