Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Alaska Adventure: Part 2

Alaska is very different from the lower states, obviously. First off, it is a huge piece of real estate. One can fly hundreds of miles and see no sign of civilization, but you will see some of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere on earth. A land of high mountain ranges, some snowcapped year-round. Mount McKinley is among them, being the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. One feels so terribly lonely, almost as though on another planet.

 The thought kept rumbling around in the back of my mind that if I had an engine failure and went down in this vast timber covered country it would swallow me up without a hiccup and no one would ever find me.

Of course, as always when flying over such places, the engine goes on “automatic rough” and my ears are keenly tuned to detect the slightest variation of sound.

As I explained earlier I was hired to apply seed and fertilizer to sections on the Winter Trail. It had been rubbed raw by the Alaska pipe line consortium as they were building a very large pipeline from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

My boss, a youngish fellow named Ken Frazer, had gotten permission for me to use sections of the new road being built along the Trail for my landing strips. This route would take me many many miles up and over the mountains of the Brooks mountain range and on across the North Slope.

All I had to do was watch out for vehicles also using the road. And other critters such as arctic fox, mountain sheep, caribou herds, grizzle bears, road building crews and their equipment, low flying freight and passenger aircraft, as well as a few bush pilots.

I also found that I must keep an eye out for EPA inspectors strutting around letting us know that they were keeping a close watch on our activities. These turkeys were the worst of the lot. As an example, one morning, I was fueling my aircraft which entailed pumping aircraft grade gasoline from barrels into my fuel tank with a hand-pump. To make sure my fuel hose was clear I ran about a pint of gasoline through the hose and on to ground or road base, as it were. The god-like EPA inspector spied me doing this and officiously marched up and gave me to understand that spilling fuel on the ground was a federal offence because it contaminated the EN-VIRO-MENT. At first I thought he was kidding. I soon found that he was dead serious.

Our conversation went something like this:

"Young man, if you spill any more fuel on this ground I will write you up for a huge fine."

"Well now, do you really think a pint of gasoline is going to contaminate the EN-VIRO-MENT?"

"It damn sure does. Nature didn’t intend for that gasoline to be on top of the ground, not even a pint."

"Now wait a minute, Mr. Grand Federal EPA representative, don’t you think I am part of nature?"

He glared at me, a surprised look on his officious face and snapped, "You know it ain’t natural for that gasoline to be on top of the ground."

"Great-scot! Nature didn’t intend for this pipeline to be here either, or this road or these camps or any of this traffic and you are concerned about a pint of fuel? You do realize if we weren’t here you wouldn’t have a job. Not only that, my big fat friend, but I am part of nature and this specimen of nature thinks it is better to fuel your airplane with a clean hose. I run some fuel through it so as to remove any dirt and debris and if I got that stuff in my plane’s fuel tank I might crash and really mess up the environment with aircraft parts and my blood, guts and other body parts."

He couldn't think of a rebuttal but I didn't think he liked to be called fat. He puffed up like a big toad frog and gave me a good cussing and said, "If you do that again I will have you removed from this operation."

Anyway, I never saw him again and I continued to clean my hose the same way. In fact I chuckled as I ran a couple of pints through the hose just see if the sky would fall.

We moved on up the trail and were within about 50 miles of Prudhoe Bay when the weather turned sour on us, It began to snow and blow and the camp supervisor of the camp where we were staying came to us and said, "You boys had better leave before it gets any worse."

I got in my plane and headed for the pass through the Brooks Range. I didn't get far up the route. The cloud ceiling got lower and lower until there was no room to fly under it. I turned back and tried another pass. It too was closed by clouds.

I returned to the camp. where I was staying. The camp supervisor soon appeared at my room and gave me to understand that he was shipping me out anyway. He said in a very strong British/South African accent, "We need your beds for other workers. You will be leaving."

I explained that my aircraft did not have the necessary instruments to fly on instruments alone.

"Makes no difference, you will have to leave your aircraft in our custody and board the next commercial passenger plane that makes a daily run, landing at this camp each day. You can come back retrieve your aircraft when the weather permits... which may be next spring."

The weather was so bad with very low ceilings and it was nearly dark and gloomy. I was pretty sure no pilot in his right mind would be making a landing in a passenger airline type aircraft at this little airport which was located in the bottom of a large canyons. How wrong I was. A short time later I hear the engines of an approaching aircraft. I looked up the canyon, which was pretty much a tunnel about two hundred yards in width with rock walls on each side and a ragged cloudy ceiling of about two or three hundred feet. As I watched, a twin-engine turbo-prop Fairchild 24 burst out of the cloudy ceiling, flaps deployed, gear down and in seconds made a touchdown like he did this every day... which he did.

I climbed aboard, the plane was quickly turned around and we took off and within seconds we plunged back into the cloudy ceiling. In a very short time we broke out on top of the dirty scud in time to see a beautiful Alaskan sunset.

From that, I came to understand the skill and nerve of Alaskan pilots. My hat's off to the likes of them.

My return to the lower 48 was uneventful. So ends my little story of ag-flying above the Arctic Circle.

Photograph by Dale in 1974

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