The following are a low-time bush pilot’s ruminations on intuition and decision making in a high-risk environment. The actual events occurred some years ago.

It was a beautiful fall day in Talkeetna, Alaska. I was nearing the end of my first season as a Part 135 pilot, employed by a small operator that was one part maintenance shop, one part floatplane air taxi, and one part flight school. The work was diverse and thrilling, and I’d been given a rather long leash for such a green pilot. Today’s mission was to try and retrieve some overdue sheep hunters from a wildly remote glacial lake just outside Denali National Park’s western boundary.

My boss looked up at me as I walked into the office. “I got a sat-phone call this morning… they say it’s spitting snow a bit, but it’s VFR. Really windy though.” The weather had been quite nice on our side of the Great Range, but as is often the case, they were on the threshold of the other side. A series of fall pressure systems in the Bering Sea had brought an early mix of wintry conditions to the Kuskokwim headwaters.

I taxied the Cessna 180 floatplane out in the bright, still waters of late afternoon, and enjoyed an empty-airplane departure into smooth air. However, as soon as I lifted above the canopy, I could see what lay in store. Fifty miles distant, the Alaska Range was capped by an ominous roll cloud. My destination was bestowed with the poetic name Mystic Pass, and it bore a small reputation for the smashed-up airplanes decorating its sides. Before becoming the green bush pilot that flew in this story, I had worked as a climbing guide on Denali for nearly a decade. It was a dangerous job, and and I found myself often applying that experience to flying. It took all the risk-assessment I had learned in that decade to make the decision to keep going through the pass. But an insidious question loomed in my mind (as it often did that season): What would a REAL bush pilot do?

A wall of IFR loomed just down-valley from my destination, and snow was being spat horizontally out of it. My mental workload was high, but there weren’t enough reasons not to land, so I put the floatplane down on the most sheltered part of the lake I could find. As I fought the plane to shore among the icebergs, the sheep hunters came bounding over the rocky moraines. “We didn’t think you were coming!” they shouted over the wind. They scurried away to break down their camp, leaving me alone to try and turn the Cessna in the howling wind. I called out, imploring them for help, but my voice was lost in the gale. I dug my floatplane-wrangling rope out of my grey survival pack, and threw the pack onto the equally grey boulders of the shore.

“It’s going to be a rough ride out of here!” I informed them as we departed the icy whitecaps of the lake. “That’s fine with us!” they replied excitedly. The looks on their faces spoke of true hardship. We began a series of climbing turns in the VFR box to get back over the pass. The turbulence made me want my mother, and snow stuck to the windscreen like bird poop. This is probably nothing to a REAL bush pilot, I thought. As I’ve gained more experience in the Alaskan skies, this thought has remained true. But lacking the intuition that experience brings, I didn’t yet know where that line lay. It felt very close.

What is intuition anyway? Very often, it feels like a mystical quality, mercurial in nature, and transient. However, I believe that intuition is real, that it is the result of tacit memories derived from patterns we have learned over time. Development of intuition equals subtle changes in our behavior as a result of experience, which is directly linked to the overt changes described by the thing dear to a CFI’s heart: the fundamental definition of learning. When I wish to make a decision based off this subtlety, I find it helpful to ask myself: Is this intuition reliable? My criteria are based on a second question: Do I have enough experience to have sufficiently altered my behavior? Though the answer is often a moving target, I find it a helpful place to start. Before developing reliable intuition, one must adhere to rule-based decision making. Formula, matrixes, and rules are en essential part of ADM. But I do believe that formula, when combined with a reliable intuition, makes for a powerful decision maker. And it may help to explain the “luck” that follows the best bush pilots around.

“What’s that over there?” Asked one of the hunters. He was pointing to the carcass of a red airplane, an obvious victim of CFIT from a previous time. I swallowed hard as my thoughts divided between this comforting sight and the crazy things the VSI was doing.
The home lake was a picture of serenity as we docked the plane and unloaded the gear. I rejoiced in the calm and sense of mission accomplished, thinking that I never, EVER, wanted to go back to Mystic Pass again. But as the hunters unloaded, my survival pack was nowhere to be found. A sick feeling lodged itself in my gut: I’d left it at the glacial lake. Inside was my cell phone, my sat phone, my survival gear … and my wallet. “You can charter the plane and go get it, ” said my boss in a rather unsympathetic tone. The ace in the hole of the Alaskan aviator is the long daylight of summer. It was about the only thing I had going for me. As I rose above above the canopy yet again, the Alaska Range looked even more ominous with its evening backlit fracto-cumulus. I clenched my jaw and gripped the yoke with one sweaty hand. My wallet was at Mystic pass, and I was gonna get it.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.