The following are a low-time bush pilot’s thoughts about the “bad old days” of Alaskan aviation.
Alaska can feel like an island sometimes. Obviously, it is separated both geographically and culturally from the rest of the nation. This can be said for the aviation community as well. Flying here is a haven of sorts, but can also leave one in an information vacuum. Seeking a broader knowledge of flying culture and collective wisdom, I have started to use social media. This is a drastic change for a young Luddite like myself, who is good with the ancient tech in a de Havilland cockpit, but is baffled by Instagram.
Being Alaskan, I gravitated to a backcountry flying group first. Right away, a debate raged over an incident at a recent fly-in, where a competitor in a STOL event damaged his aircraft. A sympathetic local had started a GoFundMe page to assist the owner in rebuilding his ship. A heated exchange raged between two factions: those who thought wrecking an airplane was ludicrous, and those who believed that crashing was part of the overall flying process. Both sides were incensed, with the vast majority of comments in favor of accepting the wreck. I was fascinated, and it got me to thinking about the current culture of Alaskan aviation. Things have gotten a lot better since the “bad old days” when I was little. However, there still exists a hero-worship of the hero aviator… and a rhetoric that things like bending metal, pushing weather, and high stakes are inevitable. I’ve heard the countless war stories in bars and at fishing holes across the state.
Honestly, a different type of story dominates my thoughts: a story told to me by a western Alaska pilot friend of an elderly Yup’ik woman who would pray before every flight to her village, running rosary beads through her gnarled hand. “They’d all had someone die in a plane crash,” he said. To me, this simple tale highlighted the sinister consequences of crossing that line where risk outweighs reward.
So I joined the debate. My post went something like this:
Several years ago, I was giving a BFR to the daughter of a famous bush pilot. We were going over some ground school, discussing the subject of emergency procedures. She, naturally, was concerned about the prospect of an engine failure over Alaska’s unforgiving terrain. I tried to explain that a forced landing, if done properly, could be eminently survivable. “Your dad crashed like 20 planes and walked away from all of them, right?” To which she replied, “… it was more like 26.”
But times have changed. I feel like I speak for many in the avaition community that crashing airplanes has become passé. What used to be a badge of honor is now a black mark: in the eyes of the FAA, most employers, and among my flying friends. Crashing a work plane is grounds for discontinuance, and crashing your own plane after hours isn’t looked on favorably either. And it’s not because my company or my friends are not bold. “There are those who have bent airplanes, and those who will,” said a remarkably empathetic POI after I had an incident in a work Super Cub. It was more sympathy than I deserved, and I felt ashamed. Early on in my flying days, I had to land dead-stick on a river bar because of carburetor ice. I was able to fly home unharmed, but badly shaken, after allowing the ice to melt. After tying the bush plane down and running my hands over the empennage gratefully, I went to find my flying mentor. I thought he’d be proud of how well I [performed] in a critical situation. Instead, he was deeply disappointed. It should have never happened in the first place. His reaction taught me a valuable lesson, one that I carry with me every time I fly.
This post elicited quite a few comments. However, the vast majority of commentors didn’t notice that my piece was meant to carry an opinion. Instead, they focused on the dead-stick landing part. My tale of caution ended up becoming a forum for all kinds of war stories celebrating dead-stick landings. My message got hijacked. People continued to celebrate the mistake.
When I was first learning to fly, my CFI walked into the room one day and dropped an enormous, squat book on the table with a thump. “Wh-what’s that?” I stammered. “That’s the rules,” he said with a laugh. At first I loathed the FAR/AIM. In my idealistic, juvenile understanding of aviation, I’d seen it as an impediment on my journey toward the freedom of the skies. These days a copy sits on my nightstand. I have grown to admire this publication and the philosophy it represents. We would never leave the ground if there didn’t live a little boldness, daring, and bravado in our hearts. But the line that cannot be crossed is more like a cliff. If recklessness should cause us to teeter over the edge, there may be no return from the void on the other side.
So give me a new rhetoric. A lack of war stories is a good thing. And with all due respect, I tire of the hero-worship of “famous pilots” that have crashed so many airplanes. That legacy has little to do with modern aviation. However, I do not think that we, as the pilots of today, are necessarily sissies, either. I think we have more information at our disposal, better equipment to fly, and (most importantly) are more cognizant of target risk. In today’s world, I would like to think that we operate at a threshold of boldness that gets the job done without bending anything. There are old, bold pilots… and I want to be one.