High-risk pilots take on the deadly skies of Alaska

Northeast of Anchorage, Alaska, bush pilot Terry Holliday soars through a gorge on the Knik River, en route to the Knik Glacier, the kind of backcountry flying that"™s high in reward "“ and risk.
Image credit: Julian Dufort
Date:25 May 2011 Tags:, , , , , , ,

Vast wilderness, fickle weather, moose-hunter stalls – flying in Alaska has always been risky, and it’s made even more so by the daredevil creed of the bush pilot. Now, a new generation of back-country aviators looks to technology to make northern skies safer. By Jeff Wise

In the afternoon of 9 August, 2010, eight passengers climbed into a single-engined De Havilland Otter floatplane at a fishing lodge near Dillingham, Alaska. A light rain was falling from the low-hung clouds, and gusty winds roiled the surface of the lake, but the group was keen to press on to the next destination, a fishing camp on the Nushagak River. The poor weather had delayed them all morning, but now, finally, the pilot was giving them the thumbs-up.

They had every reason to trust his judgment. Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, was a former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines and one of the most experienced aviators in the state. By 2:30 pm, the last of the party was buckled in. With a full-throttle roar, the Otter rose from the lake and headed southeast.

It didn’t get far. Three hours later, another pilot spotted the Otter’s broken fuselage on a ridge a few kilometres from the lodge. A helicopter rescue party found four badly injured and five dead, including Smith.

Fatal aircraft crashes are far from unusual in the far north of the Americas, but the August 9 accident was special. Among the dead was Alaska's former US senator Ted Stevens, 86, one of the USA's leading advocates for aviation safety. A pilot himself, he had lured millions of dollars in government aviation grants to the state.

That even a figure such as Stevens could wind up dead in a plane crash underscores the brutal reality of flying in Alaska, where the fatalities per capita are 20 times higher than the national rate. Alaskans have long accepted that risk. They have no choice: aviation is essential to life in America'fs biggest state. It's how remote, roadless villages get their mail and supplies. It's how hunters and prospectors get into the backcountry. It's how fishing lodges bring in their clientele. Without small aircraft, modern life would be impossible across much of the state.

The huge distances and the rugged terrain are only part of what make Alaskan flying so dangerous. A US National Transportation Safety Board study also identified what it termed bush syndrome, or the willingness of pilots to take risks that put themselves and their passengers in danger.

One example: a type of accident the Board categorises as "visual flight rules (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)”, meaning that a pilot who has been navigating by sight finds himself in weather conditions that make it impossible to see where he’s going or which way is up. VFR into IMC is a leading cause of fatal crashes in Alaska, perhaps including the one that killed Stevens. The NTSB study noted that half of all the pilots interviewed admitted to flying VFR into IMC, and nearly one in four did it intentionally.

Ted Stevens wanted to change that cavalier mindset. He helped to establish the Medallion Foundation, an educational non-profit that encourages pilots and air carriers to promote a culture of safety. And he backed a US Federal Aviation Administration-led technology initiative called Capstone. Under the programme, which began in 1999, the American Government paid for private aircraft to be fitted with a GPS system that broadcasts the aircraft’s position to ground-based transceivers, which then send back data about weather and the location of nearby aircraft. In regions where Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) was implemented, the system cut accidents nearly in half.

But for all the talk of improving safety statistics through education and technology, it’s important to recognise that there is a reason why some risk-taking bush pilots fly the way they do. In a decade of visiting Alaska, I’ve travelled frequently in small planes, occasionally in conditions that seemed insanely hazardous. Stevens’s death made me think of all the times I’d flown low through mountainous terrain, or in disturbingly poor visibility.

I thought in particular of John Graybill, a renowned bush pilot whom I’d profiled in 2001. As he squired me around the state in his two-seat plane, touching down on rough gravel bars and tundra-covered hilltops, Graybill seemed utterly fearless, even when high winds and turbulence shook us like a dog toy. He delighted in talking about the five crashes he’d survived. “You’re not a bush pilot,” he’d say, “until you’ve crashed a plane or two.”

Graybill’s behaviour may seem baffling, but it was not wholly irrational. What kept him flying when the danger meter was off the charts was, I think, the same thing that kept Terry Smith in the air – and, to a certain extent, me.

Riding shotgun with Graybill did not just give me premonitions of my own death. It also made me feel intensely alive. When I came back from my week with him, I felt oddly transformed. I began to have vivid dreams of flying small aircraft. In time, I became convinced that the only way to stop having these dreams was to get my pilot’s licence. And so, when a small windfall brought me a modest chunk of change, I drove to the Fifty years of hunting trophies hang from the walls of Terry Holliday’s hangar at the airport in Birchwood, Alaska. “I took most of the Alaskan ones by flying to where I was hunting,” the bush pilot says. “The oldest one up there is a black bear from 1961.” nearest small airport and signed up for an introductory lesson. It was absolutely terrifying. Six months later, I had my ticket.

When I heard about Ted Stevens’s death, I wanted to ask Graybill for his take so I could post it on my blog, jeffwise.net. But I was in northern Manitoba at the time, and I had to check out of my hotel in 45 minutes. So I patched together a post based on past interviews, put it online and caught a ride to the airport.

I got home late, crawled into bed and woke up the next morning to find the following comment on my blog: “I thought that I would let you know that John Graybill died in a plane crash with his wife Dolly this morning. He was flying home from a vacation and the weather got bad and he lost control of the plane.”

August's gruesome toll continued to climb. By the end of the month, 13 plane crashes had left 12 people dead across the state. It was as if Ted Stevens’s dream had died with him.

A few weeks later, I flew to Alaska to talk with some of the state’s most experienced pilots and administrators. Among them was an early adopter of ADS-B technology, a 30-year-old Inupiaq Eskimo named Lee Ryan. A third-generation pilot, Ryan comes from a family that has long embraced aeronautical technology.

His great-grandfather used to deliver the mail by dogsled from Unalakleet, on the Bering Sea, to Kaltag, 130 kilometres inland on the Yukon River. When aircraft came along, his son, Ryan’s grandfather, realised that by air he could accomplish in an hour what took a dog team four days.

Today, Lee Ryan is the chief pilot of Ryan Air, the company that his grandfather founded. He oversees a fleet of 13 aircraft that serves 76 native communities spread across an area the size of the eastern United States. “Flying here isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Ryan says. “I’m not here to prove my manhood. If there’s a way to make my job safer, I’ll take it.”

On the day I visited Ryan at one of his company’s hangars in Anchorage, a huge low-pressure system was parked over the Bering Sea, sucking in howling winds that were gusting over 60 km/h. On Lake Hood, the float-plane basin next door, tiny whitecaps marched toward shore. Ryan was keen to demonstrate his fleet’s latest avionics in action, but the rules he himself established specify that the company’s four Cessna 207s must remain on the ground when the wind is gusting more than 55 km/h. Instead, we pushed one of the planes out on to the ramp so the ADS-B system could get a signal from the satellite fleet.

As the wind rocked the airframe, Ryan toggled through the features on the plane’s Apollo MX20 multifunction display. He hit a button and the computer screen showed every aircraft within range carrying ADS-B or transponder equipment. He hit another button and we had a satellite weather display of precipitation in the region. The next screen displayed in red every place within 8 kilometres that was less than 100 metres below the altitude of the plane. “It gives us outstanding situational awareness,” Ryan says. The plane Terry Smith was flying was equipped with an alert system that warned of dangerous terrain, but the NTSB could not determine whether it was working.

Of course, it’s not enough to have the best information possible; you have to use it intelligently. That afternoon, when I returned to Lake Hood, I noticed a pair of pontoons 15 metres off shore. Sitting atop one of them was a wet, chagrined-looking man. Another man bobbed in the water. A moment later, fire engines and police cars roared up, and a pair of rescue boats motored toward the capsized plane. It turned out the men had been trying to take off when the fierce winds upended their aircraft.

Not everyone wants to improve Alaska’s safety record looks to technology. That same week, I drove north from Anchorage to the town of Birchwood, where I met 50-year backcountry veteran Terry Holliday. A former neighbour of Graybill’s, he specialises in the kind of wild and woolly aviation that John Graybill introduced me to. Holliday sometimes touches down where no plane has ever landed: tundra, beaches, gravel bars. Electronics are useless for take-offs and landings in those settings, he told me. The only things that can keep a pilot alive are skill, judgment and experience. “I’ve survived all these years without technology,” says Holliday, who has never had a major accident. “I’m not against it, but for my kind of flying, it’s not going to do me any good.”

On a bright, calm morning, Holliday took me for a ride in the back seat of his Super Cub. We’d barely begun to roll down the runway at Birchwood Airport when the plane leapt from the tarmac and rose up over the tree line, revealing a rolling carpet of golden birches that stretched toward the Chugach Mountains. Soon we were flitting over the gravel bars of the Knik River, heading for the great sprawling mass of the Knik Glacier. Another plane, piloted by Holliday’s friend Tom Atkins, flew alongside, carrying photographer Julian Dufort.

Fifteen minutes later, we were at the base of the Knik Glacier. Holliday descended until we were ying low over a luminously blue stretch of water choked with car-sized chunks of ice. On one side rose a vertical rock face; on the other, a sheer wall of blue ice. Holliday drove down the gap like a cabbie down Park Avenue. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences I’d ever had, but if the engine failed, there would be only two possible outcomes: quick and hot or slow and cold.

The engine held, and Holliday swooped up and banked sharply, diving and landing on mud ats beside a glacial lake. We climbed out, our hair ru. ed by the cold katabatic wind owing down over the ice. High above us, mountain goats stood out as white dots on a looming rock face. Standing in this spot was the best argument I could think of for bush ying. So, if technology is not the way to make this kind of flying safer, I asked Holliday, what is?

“Common sense,” he answered. “It’s not something you can teach. You need a certain amount of luck and you need a certain amount of experience. If you get away with something once, you have to be smart enough not to try to get away with it twice.”

Clearly, John Graybill did not share that sentiment. According to the NTSB’s preliminary report, the 79-yearold was flying his Super Cub near McGrath, west of Denali, with his wife, Dolly, and his dog, Halla, in the backseat. A friend, John Bath, was flying behind in his own Super Cub with his wife, Ellen. As the weather began to deteriorate, Bath decided to turn back. Graybill pressed on – risking what may have been VFR into IMC. “Buddy, are you still with me?” Graybill called over the radio. Those were his last known words. Pilot friends of Graybill’s speculate that, as the clouds closed in around him, he remained confident that he’d be able to find a way through. When he finally ran out of room, he spotted a hole in the clouds below and dived for it, only to find that he’d flown into a bowl too small to escape from. In his first near-fatal mishap a half-century earlier, he had dodged a similar trap; now it had snapped shut for good.

True to form, Graybill wasn’t using GPS or ADS-B. His emergency locator transmitter was off . When the rescue team located John’s and Dolly’s bodies, they found that neither had been wearing a seatbelt.

A lot of people would have an easy label for that kind of behaviour. Reckless. Crazy. Stupid, even. Certainly Graybill was a man who lived his life with little regard for convention. And he paid a terrible price – not so much with his own death, which was something he and many others expected, but with that of his 78-year-old wife.

I’ve been a pilot for nearly a decade, but every time I preflight an aircraft I think about dying. I tell myself that the more aware I am of the potential fatal mistakes, the less likely I am to make one. But I know that the risk is still there. And that awareness gives flying an intense edge. I’ve seen incredible things from the cockpits of small planes – spouting whales, sandstone pinnacles, the Sierra Nevada mountains at sunset – and in each case the memory is shot through with the knowledge of the price I could have paid.

In an age of electronic marvels, we tend to look to technology to solve our problems. When it stands in for expertise, however, it puts itself between us and the world around us. It mediates and insulates. At its best, technology can empower. There is no one freer than a pilot in Alaska with an aeroplane. When you take off , you can have thousands of square kilometres entirely to yourself. There is no mediation. It is a matter of you, your machine and the wilderness. And that’s pure freedom.

A few weeks after Alaska’s horrible month drew to a close, I rented a small aircraft at Anchorage’s Merrill Field and flew south toward Soldotna. Climbing over the city limits, I crossed Turnagain Arm and headed across an uninhabited expanse of the Kenai Peninsula. To my left rose the dark flanks of the Kenai Mountains. Far to my right, the rugged coast of Cook Inlet stretched to the south. No sign of human presence was visible except a pipeline cut near the foot of the mountains. If I lost engine power, there would be no safe place to put down.

The plane was more than 25 years old, and equipped with neither ADS-B nor GPS. The engine droned on; the landscape inched past, darkened by a thickening overcast. I felt entirely alone in the world, a sensation both exhilarating and frightening. In the distance lay a silvery shape that was marked on my chart as Skilak Lake. A highway ran north of it, where I could make a survivable landing. Based on my airspeed indicator, it would be within gliding range in 10 minutes.

I checked the fuel gauge, the oil pressure, the tach. They looked good. For now I’d done all I could to reach my destination safely. Everything beyond that was out of my hands.

The perfect bush plane

Nearly 20 years after Piper Aircraft discontinued production of the PA-18, the Super Cub remains the iconic plane for the Alaskan outback. It’s not the fastest bird in the sky, but the following features and modifications make it a great fit for even the roughest improvised runway. – Davin Coburn

1. High wings
Increase visibility and allow for landings on strips with overgrown vegetation.

2. Vortex generators
Metal fins atop the wing and under the horizontal stabiliser improve control.

3. Climb propeller
Blades with a lower pitch angle boost take-off and climb performance.

4. Tail-wheel
This configuration is more rugged than a tricycle-geared design and offers greater prop clearance.

5. Belly tank
This 120-litres reservoir supplements two standard70-litre wing tanks.

6. Landing gear
Bush planes can be fitted with floats, tundra tyres, skis or wheel–ski combos (shown here).

7. Safety avionics
Garmin’s GMX 200 provides GPS data and navigation aids, Iridium sat phones work even in remote villages, and emergency locator transmitters pinpoint downed planes.

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