Anywhere else, our paths never would have crossed. Politicians and tycoons were not our usual passengers. But their corporate jets couldn’t land on the lodge’s short gravel airstrip, so they hired our company’s bush planes for the last leg of their journey to Bristol Bay. The previous week, I’d flown a planeload of them to the lodge and their apprehension about flying across bush Alaska was palpable. Now, it was time to pick them up.
Any aircraft they occupied required two pilots, in case anything happened, so we doubled up in the cockpits, though our planes were designed for single-pilot crews. The guy flying left seat was a longtime Y-K Delta pilot who had just finished an honorable career with the Alaska Air National Guard. After flying a few helicopter tours in Vietnam, the military had awarded him the Legion of Merit, America’s sixth-highest service decoration, for flying many life-saving missions.
He and I were the mop-up team in an old battered freight plane and were to carry boxed fish and excess luggage to Aniak. If there were extra people, we’d take them, too, but that was unlikely.
I looked forward to this easy morning run. We did not get down to the bay much, and I had nothing to do but look outside. A summer morning like this is almost worth a winter of flying through blizzards. The distant Kilbuck peaks glowed and the sunlight glinted on the water as we flew south along the Kuskokwim River, where fishing boats worked their nets, harvesting subsistence salmon.
To those who live by their plans, Alaska does not care. The foggy morning had meant no take-offs, so we were behind schedule. The high-end jets sat empty on the ramp in Aniak, missing their tightly scheduled departures. Like the weather here, mosquitoes and salmon treat everyone equally. Salmon don’t care who is on the end of a baited line, and to the mosquitoes, any flesh is fine. At the airstrip, the moguls puffed cigars and scratched their bites while we loaded their fish boxes. They talked among themselves, and we pilots and guides seemed invisible to them as we loaded the planes. Few spoke with us.
The guides tipped us off that there had been some fuming about our late arrival. To my knowledge, fuming never helped dissipate fog. Apparently, someone had suggested legal action because we missed the pickup time, though our dispatcher had explained why. Let the lawyers bash their heads against the walls finding fault with the weather, I thought. I’d be interested to hear their logic.
It turned out there was an extra passenger, so we put a seat up and surrounded him with boxes of salmon and luggage. I recognized him from the news. He once worked in the highest circles of government, until he lied under oath. I briefed the perjurer, and we took off.
Buzzing low across Alaska is like being in an IMAX theater. Below, we saw paired tundra swans in each pond, and flocks of thousands of birds turning in unison like a precision flying team. The peaks shone and the ocean sparkled, much brighter than on the flight down. Once in awhile we saw a moose standing alone.
As the great landscape premiered in front of us, I wondered what our passenger thought as he gazed outside. When I had heard of him on the news, I had disliked him, but not now. He was just a guy looking out an airplane window, seeming to enjoy this great land. Maybe he wished he’d done things differently, or maybe he couldn’t wait to get out of this dirty, 30-year-old Cessna 207 with the duct-taped headliner and get back to the next big scheme.
I pointed out a brown bear along the Quinhagak River. He nodded his thanks. Then the sun and the drone of the engine lulled him to sleep. Soon we were back on the ramp in Aniak and the whole group milled, fingers flying on their electronic devices. One man told me that he had several hundred important messages waiting, but he couldn’t get cell service. He had to “get out of Alaska, fast!”
My pilot friend and I quietly carried the bags and fish boxes across the ramp to the corporate jets. A Legion of Merit holder carrying the bags of a convicted perjurer. But we provide air service and that was part of the job. We’d done our work for the movers and shakers, and they were done with us. It was clear whose party we’d never be invited to.
We taxied back to our building and the jets blasted off like skyrockets to their Lower-48 destinations. The moguls had their fresh fish and their week of relaxation. I’d seen the names on the luggage tags; people whose decisions affected our country were on those jets. I hoped the serenity of the Alaska Bush had rubbed off on them.
Returning to the regular parade of passengers—the people who lived and worked in the Bush—was like coming home. Unlike flying with the high rollers, I had the feeling we were all in this life together. To them I existed. The regulars greeted me and thanked me when we landed. They took weather delays in stride. They loaded their own bags. Sometimes they got so loud, laughing and talking, I had to ask them to quiet down so I could concentrate on flying. It was good to be done with the morning’s charter and back to flying the VIPs.
—Ross Nixon is a commercial pilot based out of Bethel. He wrote about crashing his private plane on an overgrown runway in the Dec./Jan. 2011 issue.