Winging It: Where Alaska’s aviation system came from

A lot of my time is spent advocating for the aviation infrastructure that we count on to fly around Alaska.  Airports, nav aids, weather stations, Flight Service, weather cameras, etc. are all things that we use and often take for granted. But where did they come from?  If you are at all interested in that question, check out Jack Jefford’s book Winging It,  originally published in 1981, but more recently released in paperback.

winging it coverJack Jefford came to Alaska in the fall of 1937, to take a job flying for Hans Mirow in Nome.  Like many pilots of the time he learned to fly by shear persistence. Jefford kicked around the mid-west trying any way he could to make flying into a career—including a stint as a barn-stormer—before coming north.  Travel to and from Alaska at that time was by ship. Once arriving in Nome, the airplane was pressed into almost around-the-clock service transporting miners to the creeks for the short summer season.  Aviation was all by visual reference, when the weather allowed.  “City” airports were located at the larger communities like Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Bethel. In-between, the airports literally were “fields” or gravel bars; frozen rivers, lakes and sea-ice in the winter months.

Pre-1940, radios were just starting to be installed in airplanes.  Not the VHF radios we know today, but HF radios initially requiring the pilot to learn Morse Code.  Even that was greatly appreciated, Jefford explains, when he crashed in the mountains east of Nome in severe winter conditions. The distress call he tapped out in code eventually brought local natives on dog teams to his rescue, ending his six day ordeal.

In the spring of 1940, Jefford made a change that corresponded with a huge growth spurt in aviation infrastructure development. He was hired by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (precursor to the FAA), as an Airways Flight Inspector just as the country was headed into World War II.  This was the start of his government career which “…would span thirty two years and over twenty thousand flying hours.” It put him in the cat-bird seat during the establishment of the initial airway structure that linked Alaska to Seattle, and connected the communities across the state.

The Japanese invading the Aleutian Islands certainly kicked military activity into high gear. A number of Jefford’s stories involve building the airports and airways down the chain.  The federal DLAND (Development of Landing Areas for National Defense) Program started in 1940, and poured $400 million into the development and improvement of military airfields across the nation.  Over two dozen airports in Alaska were constructed or improved under that program, many of which would later be turned over to the Territory (and eventually the State).  Jefford spent considerable time shuttling engineers and equipment between these construction projects.  Airstrips constructed under the DLAND program included King Salmon, Cordova, McGrath, Galena, Northway and Moses Point, to name a few.

At the same time, radio ranges to establish IFR airways were under construction.  These were low-frequency ranges that operated with dots and dashes to define the different “beams” leading to the station.

Not only did Jefford help site these facilities and transport the teams in to construct them, his job included flight checking and hauling the supplies to the technicians, specialists and families that staffed the network of facilities. Some of the most compelling stories center around rescue missions.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

One memorable event took place on December 11, 1950.  The CAA manager at the Illiamna station, also a relatively new private pilot, crashed his Piper Clipper near the small community of Nondalton, on the shores of Lake Clark– badly injuring himself and his passenger.  The military flew a doctor to Illiamna, who was transported by dog sled to treat the injured pilot and passenger. He reported that the pilot was in critical condition, not stable enough for dog sled transport, and in need of air evacuation to Anchorage. Snow and icing, severe enough to force a military rescue helicopter to retreat, thwarted an earlier rescue attempt.  Departing from Anchorage in the FAA’s DC-3, Jefford encountered moderate icing as he crossed the Alaska Range but made the approach into Illiamna, which was reporting a 500 foot ceiling and less than a mile visibility. He managed to land and waited for conditions to improve.  Reports from the doctor advised that the injured pilot probably wouldn’t survive the night if he couldn’t get advanced medical attention.  After testing the snow cover on the unplowed crosswind runway at Illiamna in a truck, Jefford asked the residents of Nondalton to put out an array of gas lanterns on the lake ice in front of the village.  The flight crew calculated how many minutes they could fly the north leg of the low-frequency range before arriving at Nondalton, knowing that beyond were the peaks of the Alaska Range.  Jefford took off and flew the prescribed number minutes before being forced to circle back—without seeing any lights. On the second try he extended slightly, and just as he started his turn back, a crew member spotted the lanterns, allowing them to land on the unconsolidated snow. The deceleration in the unpacked snow made for a very short landing roll, requiring all of Jeffords talents to keep the Dug from nosing over.  After loading the patient and doctor, it took multiple attempts before they were able to get airborne, and make the trip back across the mountains to Anchorage.

This book is not a traditional biography, but was developed from many hours of tape-recorded stories Jefford told over a five year period.  It reads as though you were listening to the master story teller himself.  He and the CAA/FAA employees of that era transformed Alaskan aviation, allowing the development of more reliable service.  Low frequency airways gave way to VOR-based airways that are now the “legacy system” we are watching transition to space-based navigation.  Even though Alaska still has a sparse network of infrastructure in comparison to the lower-48 states, it is good to look back and appreciate what aviation was like in earlier times.  A big THANK YOU to Jack’s daughter Carmen Jefford Fisher, who with the assistance of her husband Mark and the late Cliff Cernick, made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy Jack Jefford’s stories—and have a greater appreciation for the men and women who developed aviation system we rely on today!

PAYING IT FORWARD

My interest in aviation education frequently leads to discussions with my peers about the current world of aviation education from our desire to introduce children at a very young age all the way through to career training in higher education. I should define my reference to a “peer” as, like I, someone whose career has “matured”. Add to that a feeling we share that motivates us to want to share some of what we have learned along the way. I think the current vernacular is called “paying it forward”. I especially enjoy talking to youngsters who are enamored with airplanes. I was, and still am, and they enjoy listening to someone who can tell them about flying in a way they can understand. Maybe having grandchildren helps me relate at their level, or possibly, I haven’t really grown up yet myself. I like the second one!

I can remember, like it was yesterday, flying jump-seat on a DC-3 at age 12 with a crew that were anxious to tell me as much about what was going on in that cockpit as I could absorb. I’m sure they have passed on now, but those guys really sunk the hook in me in those days. That’s why I got into aviation some 53 years ago. If only they knew what a great career and what a happy man they helped shape all those years ago.

I remember when I was in high school and at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Miami. Some of the highlights of those learning experiences were visiting lecturers from business and industry who shared their knowledge with us. It was real world stuff that provided insight we weren’t getting from Teachers, Profs and books. I took notes like crazy and there weren’t even any tests afterwards. I don’t think we ever had a “visitor” who wasn’t enthusiastic about their career and that was contagious.

I’ve been talking recently with some friends who, like me, want to share what we can with those who aspire to a career in aviation. We don’t want to teach at the elementary or high school levels full-time but do enjoy an invitation to speak to those children on occasion. On the other hand, if there was an opportunity to teach at a college or university, that might be a different matter. What better place to help prepare those headed into the real world with some… “real world”. Sounds almost ideal… college students learn some useable information from those who lived, loved and learned it and they both share the satisfaction of having done it together.

But wait… there is a problem. Most of us with decades of real-world experience don’t have Master’s Degrees or Doctorates so we can’t qualify to teach at most colleges or universities. Why, you ask? Well it seems that “educators” have built a fence around their world that artfully excludes we, the perceived to be “under-educated”. Yes, I know about “Adjunct Professors”. Look up the word adjunct sometime and see if it doesn’t insult you a bit as an accomplished career professional. I must be careful now that this doesn’t turn into a rant.

So, if you agree that there is, in fact, a sadly under-resourced pool of knowledge among those of us “matured career” folks, lets come up with a way not to waste it.

The Red Sox & the Yankees; American East – Aviation – Division

As I sit typing this blog on the day of the Red Sox season opener against the Baltimore Orioles—Eastern Region HQ (me) Vs AOPA HQ (colleagues)—I am reminded that competition is indeed a celebrated characteristic of American culture. By the very nature of our nation’s humble beginnings competition is, like in sports, ever present in business and in life.

New York’s aviation industry is credited with an annual economic impact of $4.5 Billion in state and local revenue and the source of 500,000 direct and indirect jobs (or 4.7% of the state’s workforce).  While these numbers are certainly eye catching, as an athlete and competitor, success is less about what is achieved and more about the relationship between ones achievements relative to one’s potential for an interval of time.

There’s an old adage that reigns particularly so for aviation industries in the Northeast where competition between states is compounded by our relatively small geography. That is, “If you are not taking steps to move forward, you are moving backwards.”  In other words, to simply maintain the status quo one must change and adapt.

I recently participated in a phone interview with an NBC news affiliate out of Buffalo regarding the New York Aviation Jobs Act (AJA – A.3677-B/S.273-B)—which is the industry’s sound bite to create jobs and boost revenues through the targeted elimination of a significant financial barrier to the purchase and operation of aircraft in New York.  A respected journalist in his region, I was unable to determine if he harbors personal angst with the legislation or if he is in fact an exceptionally talented devil’s advocate.  I would prefer the latter and of course offer him the benefit of any doubt.    One of his arguments opposing the AJA was a question of Northeastern state’s efforts to repeal targeted sales & use taxes as “a race to the bottom.”  If by bottom he meant the elimination of the associated tax, then I would issue an emphatic “YES!”  His angle (as I understood it) offers the cushy scenario in which the elimination of these exemptions would place states on an even keel and ultimately generate a guaranteed revenue stream for a state.  Within this conjured world I would again reply with an emphatic “YES”, followed by an even more emphatic BUT that world doesn’t exist..”  As some might view this parallel universe a stroke of genius in which big corporations continue to pay government large sums of money with no loopholes to line their deep pockets with additional dollar-signs, reality knows not all things are created equal.  The list of examples is endless so I’ll spare you my own interpretation and point to the first and most obvious of them; differing tax rates.

For fear it isn’t obvious, I’ll jump back to the blog’s title for a moment as I infused a historic Major League Baseball rivalry as a metaphor for competition among the states.  While my intent is always crystal clear in my mind, I am aware that the rhythmic ramble with which I preach results in an uncanny knack for skewing even the most focused minds.  I thank my Nanna for that talent! ;)

Not long after accepting this position I realized politics boils down to a matter of perception.  In New York, our plight has less to do with the economic importance of General Aviation as much as it does its economic potential.  With the annual economic figures as I previously tossed out, no one really disputes GA’s importance to New York—but—with any tax legislation there is a financial value attributed to revenue generated from a given proposal.  We tend to think of this value in terms of a “price tag”, and the value associated with the AJA is $13.4 Million.  Legislators must then weigh the value of these presumed guaranteed revenues against the economic potential, or opportunity for increased (or decreased) revenues.  In other words, an exemption like this one is really an investment and so becomes a case of getting legislators to “see the forest through the trees.”  AND while we have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support our case, the dynamics from upstate to downstate make for a unique challenge gaining support from the Assembly.

Basis for Change: Since 2002, NY has lost approximately 700 income generating aircraft.  Courtesy of our friends at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), we know the average business aircraft generates $1 Million in annual economic activity and 5 jobs.  So where did they all go? I should first point out for those of us who grew up in parts of New England outside of Massachusetts; the Boston Red Sox is considered New England’s baseball team; hence the fan-handle Red Sox Nation.  With the advance of targeted sales tax exemptions throughout Red Sox Nation, many of New York’s aircraft popped-out to airports just over the border.  Why you ask?  It is the generally accepted notion that corporations (as well as individuals) are in business to make money and so the competition of a free market society presents opportunity in the form of reduced expenses.  GA is by its very nature a mobile industry.  Given the simple reality that owner/operators can save hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) basing their aircraft in neighboring states, they did just that.

The net result:If you build it, he will come” – Field of Dreams

Red Sox Nation realized that by creating a competitive financial atmosphere for aircraft, we would not only maintain those aircraft currently based here but pick up additional aircraft, each of which needs to bed-down (hangar/tie-down), purchase fuel, and requires various other services all of which—and most importantly—employs people.  These people earn salaries, their income is taxed and then whatever remains is spent on homes, groceries, entertainment, and so forth.  Over any interval of time, the potential for revenue generating transactions increases exponentially, which is all made possible (in this scenario) because of the economic engines that are state airport systems.

Comparison of Success:  Without breaking into the weeds, New York’s GA industry generates its $4.5billion & 500,000 jobs from its system of 130 public use airports.  Comparatively, the seat of Red Sox nation (Massachusetts) is credited with $4.3billion and 400,000 jobs from only 40 public use airports.  Now while the direct comparison of these states treads on apples and oranges, I am required to remind you that not all aircraft were created equal.  Instead let us consider another viewpoint.  According to the FAA, New York is currently host to 7,455 (based) aircraft at its airports.  Massachusetts, with one-third as many airports, is host to 3,664 aircraft.  The simple law of averages indicates the Red Sox’s have a batting average almost twice that (based on raw numbers alone) of its longtime rival.  So again, it is fair to conclude there is a correlation between the number of based aircraft and the associated success of a state’s aviation industry.

The Yankees are and continue to be a historically successful team, however, (as some fans like to gripe about an unlimited payroll) two-times as many airports offer considerably more economic potential than the neighboring system.  As such, my Red Sox continue to dominate the American East—Aviation—Division.  As we say in sports, there’s always tomorrow so fear not my Yankee friends and colleagues.  The Aviation Jobs Act is alive and well despite the final budget resolution released today (Monday, March 31st).  As the AJA awaits consideration in the Assembly Ways & Means Committee, your industry representatives (AOPA, NBAA, & NYAMA) are hard at work educating lawmakers and changing perceptions.  The opportunity to turn the tide is  ever only one-swing away and no fans know this better than those tuned into the fourth game of the 2004 ALCS between none other than the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Keep GA’s voice strong and join or renew today: http://www.aopa.org/Membership.aspx