Imagine flying high around the peaks and valleys of North America's tallest mountains, or flying over fields and flowing ice caps with glacier tongues extending out into the ocean. This is the daily routine for many Alaskan bush pilots. Pilots in the north country fly into remote, dangerous and hostile environments as part of their job or hobby. Due to the remote nature of the flying, and the inclement weather Alaska brews on the turn of a dime, bush pilots have developed techniques and methods designed to keep them in the air, alive and flying for another day. As the old adage says about Alaska bush pilots, there are old bush pilots and bold bush pilots, but no old bold bush pilots.
Most Alaskan bush pilots keep a specialized and specific set of emergency gear in the aircraft. Winter sleeping bag, emergency food such as military MREs (meals ready to eat), water, flares, ePIRB (Emergency Personal Locator Beacon), GPS unit, rifle and ammo, bear spray (held in the storage compartments out of the cabin), and a small bivy-sac are typically found in the cabin of the aircraft. If winter flying, extra down parkas, hats and gloves are kept in the plane. Many bush pilots now carry satellite phones for communication redundancy.
For most Alaskan bush pilots, mountain flying is part of the job. Flying through the mountains in Alaska requires a high level of situational awareness. Pilots frequently check, recheck and then check again for thermal inversions, wind conditions and any cloud formations over tall peaks. A contact lens shaped cloud forming over the high mountains, such as Denali or Moose's Tooth, indicates the presence of extremely high winds and are places to avoid when flying. These clouds are known as lenticular clouds and are extremely dangerous for aircraft. Pilots flying into remote areas, such as the Brooks Range, know to keep an eye on the ground for any place they may be able to place the aircraft in an emergency landing situation. Due to the extreme wilderness conditions of the Brooks, pilots frequently keep radio contact with different lodges, outposts and locations as they pass over them, giving them location updates as they fly.
Versatility and Landings
Bush pilots in the watery environment of southeast Alaska (known as the panhandle) have float plane endorsements, allowing them to land on the ocean, lakes or flat water sources throughout the region. Pilots in this region typically keep non-cotton parkas and clothing in their emergency kits, as cotton clothing is a poor choice in wet environments. Many bush pilots in the region keep fishing reels and poles, with tackle and hooks, in their kits in case they need to fish for food in an emergency or put-own situation.
Pilots flying the extreme north will equip their planes with either skis or tundra wheels for rugged ice and snow or gravel bar landings, keeping them alive in the wilderness if they need to touch down for emergencies.
Article Written By Eric Cedric
A former Alaskan of 20 years, Eric Cedric now resides in California. He's published in "Outside" and "Backpacker" and has written a book on life in small-town Alaska, "North by Southeast." Cedric was a professional mountain guide and backcountry expedition leader for 18 years. He worked in Russia, Iceland, Greece, Turkey and Belize. Cedric attended Syracuse University and is a private pilot.