Heading for the Last Frontier
Alaska
 

by
Ron Fox






     Getting out of the navy in 1977 with only 1,200 hours flight time didn't do me as much good as I had hoped.  I had figured with the $1 million or so the navy had spent on me to learn how to land jets on an aircraft carrier, drop bombs, shoot rockets and shoot fifty caliber guns in air combat maneuvering would have put me pretty high on the aviation food chain.  I had a wealth of both high-tech and low-tech flying experience which I was sure would lead me right to the ranks of high-paid airline pilots.  I had assumed it was a foregone conclusion without ever having the benefit of a guiding hand to advise me in attaining that lofty goal.  My navy experience stuffed my big head with all sorts  of what I was soon to learn was low-regarded fancies in the civilian aviation world such as my being one of the few hand-picked elite of our country's warriors, quick-witted, fast-reacting, athletic, physically fit, hard-charging tigers of the front line in our national defense of freedom.  What drivel!  My bubble popped when I learned what little regard airlines had for such nonsense.  In 1977 most U.S. airlines wanted at least two thousand hours total flight time with half as much Pilot in Command time of a turbine powered aircraft.  Since only about half of my total flight time was PIC and only about half of that in turbine powered aircraft; I was out of luck.  Hey I was still young yet; only 30.  I figured all I had to do was get a job flying to boost my hours as long as it was in a turbine powered aircraft.  Fat chance in 1977 of my finding that kind of job.  OK, not to sweat Ron.  I figured it was only a temporary setback and that I had plenty of time to get more hours of flight time.  All I had to do was keep flying and everything else would take care of itself.  It would take me another couple of years away from "mainstream aviation" to discover that I was pushing the envelope of airline employability due to my advanced age.  In those days the airlines liked to get their pilots young before bad habits set in, or so I was told sometime later.
     Oblivious of this age preference at the time, and since I had to work for my Airline Transport Rating, (ATP), to further my chances of airline employment, I got a job dropping skydivers at the Antioch, California drop zone in a Cessna 182.  I had $13,500 in GI benefits which could be applied to flight training.  I figured I would have no problem studying on my own for my ATP so I used my benefits by buying large blocks of flight time in Piper Cherokees at Navajo Aviation in Concord, California.  Big mistake.  I could have bought a type rating in a Lear jet, a DC-9, or other airline jet.  This would have been a much more applicable use for this money.  With no one to advise me on such matters, I figured on my own that I needed to maximize my flight hours so I spent a few hundred hours in a Cherokee drilling holes in the sky around California and Mexico while I worked on my ATP.  As things turned out my progress towards attaining my ATP were somewhat delayed because I was having too much fun with  the craziest bunch of nuts I have ever encountered.
     After a few hundred hours in a DC-3, flying a Cessna 182 was like riding on a kite.  It was flimsy, noisy, and rattled like a tin can bouncing down the street blown by a stiff wind.  I got caught up in the fun these skydivers were having and I soon became known as the zero-g specialist of the Antioch drop zone.  I would usually give the regulars extra altitude.  When asked, I would level off, pick up speed, and then pull the aircraft up abruptly and enter a parabolic arch over the top where I would push down on the yoke creating a zero-g condition simulating zero-gravity for as long as I could follow the arch before gaining too much speed on the downside.  I regularly had three-man stars hook up inside my aircraft.  They would break up and float out the door one by one, turning and waving goodbye just off the wing in free-fall just as I was reaching redline airspeed.
     Something in my character would not allow me to stand by and watch so many people having so much fun without  joining in.  Call it a character flaw, but I knew fun when I saw it.  I was soon jumping myself.  It was almost as good a getting shot off a boat and before too long I had accumulated twenty-eight jumps in my logbook.  Perry Stevens ran a great skydiving school and his training was first class.  I had to comply with all the tough testing criteria and training protocols.  My first five jumps were on a static line from three thousand feet where the chute is automatically pulled from its backpack by the static line attached to the airplane.  Then it was up to ten thousand feet for required freefall drills which were observed by an instructor;  two, three-hundred-sixty degree turns in each direction, and one each forward and backward loops with proper recovery and stance.  Then it was on to the really fun stuff.  I had so much fun in one day at the DZ that I decided to retire from skydiving before I killed myself.
     I had five firsts on that glorious day and I was determined never to have another one.  I had my first ten-thousand foot jump, my first kiss pass, my first star, (skydivers hooked up in freefall), my first parachute stack, (parachutes hooked up while open, flying in unison), and my first parachute malfunction.
     The day opened with a memorable orange-streaked sunrise.  There was practically no wind that early, but the temperature had already reached eighty degrees which foretold of an even warmer day in late summer.  I had agreed to meet a bunch of the regulars at the DZ for some accelerated training and advanced fun and I was eager to get it on.  Snortin' Nortin' was the only regular there when I rolled in.  Everyone called him Snortin' Nortin' because he rode a huge,  beautiful Norten motorcycle.  No one knew his real name, or ever admitted it.  It was rumored he was the president of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, but no one ever heard him admit to it.  He was the nicest, mild-mannered, friendly and courteous guy I would meet there which certainly didn't portend of his off-DZ activities but he was powerfully built,  he had the jacket,  his blonde hair was shoulder length,  and he had a full-face beard.  He was slow to rile but his eyes could cut you to the quick.  We all figured if he wasn't a Hells Angel, he could have fooled one.
     After joining him in a smoke he cautioned me about getting too enamored with the fast lane crowd I would be jumping with today and to keep my wits about me.  I didn't know it at the time, but these were wise words he had shared with me.  When the wild bunch had finally congregated on the lawn outside of the hangar,  Perry issued me one of his fifteen-foot Para Commanders which he had meticulously trained me to pack to his satisfaction.  I was observing the rest of the bunch grabbing handfuls of their rectangular parasails and jamming them into their packs along with dirt, weeds, and grass and I marveled at their jovial and boisterous disregard for proper packing procedures.  I wasn't too shocked to see several of them passing around a bottle of tequila as well as several reefers because I was one of their jump pilots and had observed their craziness for some months.  I was keeping a clear head,  however,  determined to live through this.
     Our first jump that day was to be a ten-thousand foot freefall for fun and basic skydiving stance, practicing turns and just enjoying it.  It's hard to describe the feeling of freefall.  Besides your stomach feeling the weightlessness, the hammering of your heart,  and the incredible wind at over a hundred miles per hour,  the notion of just where you are out in the open with no airplane around you is quite unique.  For the first time in my life I was able to feel what a bird feels in flight.  Of course I wasn't flying, I was falling, but, as small as my wings were, my hands and body position did allow me to turn every which way and by arching my body and holding my arms to my side with my hands cupped downward, I was able to cover a considerable horizontal distance.  I was sorta flying; just rapidly downward.  This was as close to flying like a bird as I was going to get.
     The next few jumps we concentrated on maneuvers one at a time until all the required training and successful observation were completed.  Despite this group's deteriorating condition, the training was professional and complete.  My logbook was signed off properly after each jump.  Cutting corners while learning to skydive is not a good idea, although I was allowed to cut some.  For instance, I didn't have an altimeter, so I had to rely on my jump partners to tell me when it was time to pull.  As a pilot this didn't concern me too much because I was used to the view.  The view of the ground during freefall,  however,  would tend to remain static for some time before getting larger quite rapidly when it was time to pull.
     After the required training was completed and signed off, our subsequent jumps became more and more fun.  I began partaking of whatever was being passed around on the lawn and my parachute packing procedures were slipping.  Time and again I witnessed the seeming carelessness of my partners packing their chutes and I became deadly complacent.  Soon between jumps I was stuffing handfuls of my chute in the bag like a pro.  Silly me.
     On our next to the last jump that glorious day we reached our pull altitude of about three thousand feet and my partners waved me off.  I pulled my ripcord and confidently waited for the shock of my chute opening as it had been doing all day.  This time my wait was a little longer than it had been before.  You don't look at your chute when it opens; the shock can hurt your neck.  You look at it when it doesn't open as I did with a sick feeling rising up from my stomach.  I got about a two-thirds stringer deployment and about a three-fourths ball of spaghetti.  I was not a happy skydiver.  It wasn't until much later that I began analyzing the time factor in my next few moves, but I later calculated that my actions in the next fifteen seconds saved my life.  Take a moment and count out loud what you think is fifteen seconds.  It's not a long time, but you would be amazed at what one can accomplish in so short a time.  I figured that at one-hundred-twenty miles per hour, at three thousand feet I had about seventeen seconds before I would have hit the ground.  With a streamer my speed could have possibly been cut to say maybe eighty miles per hour straight down, but I had a ball of silk.  Perhaps my speed was cut to allow me a few seconds more time but I wasn't thinking of that at the time.  My training kicked in and I grabbed two handfuls of stringers hand over hand and released them.  This was supposed to encourage the chute to grab some air and open.  It didn't.  Next I grabbed the stream of stringers like a polecat running up a sweetgum tree and when I reached the ball of spaghetti, I began pulling it apart and fluffing it madly before throwing it out over my head.  The chute popped open with such a jolt that I blew seven panels out of the canopy.  My next procedure would have been cutting away the bad chute and opening my reserve but there wasn't time.  I had to ride it in.  My compadres were some height above me screaming unintelligibly and, although I couldn't get a very good look at them, it seemed like I was falling only a little faster than they were.  How fast I was falling soon became very evident when just a few seconds later I hit fast and hard, had a great roll only to roll again landing flat on my face.  One more tuck would have done it, but I had never rolled more than once before and I guess I didn't know when to stop.  My partners swooped down all around me, whooping and hollering and pounding me on the back yelling that I was one lucky sumbitch.  Snortin' Norton' told me I had to get right back up on that horse or I wouldn't be worth spit in the air again so he talked Perry into lending me another Para Commander which he had carefully packed himself.  A square parafoil would have taken more lessons and the sun was getting low, so up we went again, right to ten thousand feet.  This time crazy Jack was going to introduce me to my first parachute stack.  Jack, in 1978 when the fad was new, was part of the world-record ten-parachute stack.  Jack was about the craziest of the jumpers in Antioch.  One day, as I was cranking the engine with three skydivers onboard, he came running out to the plane wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt and jumped inside.  There was no seat next to me up front so Jack kneeled on the floor next to me with his hands on the dashboard asking me if he minded if he rode with me just for fun.  I told him to have at it and off we went.  After the jumpers left at ten thousand feet, he pulled a bottle of tequila out of the waistband of his shorts and a handful of yellow pills out of his pocket.  After my politely declining either a drink or a pill, he threw the pills into his mouth and gulped down the entire half-pint.  He turned to me and yelled, "It's been great!"  and then acted like he was going to jump out of the airplane without a parachute!  He jumped towards the back of the plane with a blood-curdling scream and, with a kick on the door, jumped behind my seat crouching low so I couldn't see him.  I thought he had jumped out of the plane and I turned her on her wing to see if I could see him in freefall without a parachute.  I was sure this was the end of my drop pilot career.  When he jumped and yelled, "Gotcha!," I almost died.  After that I always figured Crazy Jack was the one to watch out for.
     "It's easy," he said.  "I'll come in below you and form up and all you have to do is put your feet into the front channels of my chute and we'll ride around awhile hooked up.  I'll turn when you turn."
     That sounded easy so off we went.  We pulled high so as to have plenty of time to ride a stack.  His first pass was too fast and low and I missed the channels of his chute.  On his next pass my feet went right where they were supposed to.
     Now, the Para Commander is a round chute with back panels lower on the stringers than the front to allow more maneuverability and forward gliding than just a round chute.  The particular model was an eighteen-footer, three feet bigger than the one I had blown the panels out of.  What crazy Jack forgot was that an eighteen-foot Para Commander produced a hell of a lot more lift than a parafoil.  When my feet went into the front channels of his parafoil, my greater-lift chute pulled his parafoil into an upside-down V and it lost all its lift.  Now I was gliding around with Jack's weight pulling so hard on my legs and feet that I couldn't get my feet out of the channels.  He kept desperately screaming for me to kick his chute away and I was kicking like mad, but I remained stuck.  With the weight of two men on my Para Commander we were falling at a faster than normal rate and I wasn't sure the landing was going to be fun at all.  At last my frantic kicking paid off and his chute dropped away no more than a hundred feet from the ground.  Much to both our relief, it caught air immediately and he landed standing up on shaking legs.  I landed a couple of seconds later on legs just as shaking and turned to him calling it a day.  What I remembered of the celebration party at the DZ that night created awe in my mind that such crazy nuts could live long enough to accumulate thousands of jumps and I decided to retire from skydiving.  It was one of those watershed days that I will never forget.
     Feeling the moss growing, I felt increased desire to get this stone rolling again, so I got serious and accelerated my flight training.  I was soon getting some time in a Piper Seneca II, a true squirrel of a light twin in which I would take my ATP checkride.  The fateful day had arrived and I was doing what I thought was a competent job under the hood, this contraption worn on the head which prevents a pilot from seeing outside the airplane simulating instrument conditions.  My Flight Examiner was a retired United pilot with umpteen thousands of hours of flight time who knew his stuff.  As we were getting vectored for an instrument approach in the clouds in actual instrument conditions, I knew that the last heading Air Traffic Control had given us was taking us uncomfortably close to Mt.  Diablo, the tallest peak within a hundred miles of the Concord airport so I mentioned to my examiner that we needed a turn pretty quick to avoid the mountain.  After bleating a quick "Oh Shit," he called ATC and requested another vector.  I could tell the air traffic controller was upset that he had forgotten about us but he wasn't nearly as upset as my examiner.  He told me to take off the hood and land, that this checkride was over.  With a couple of approaches to complete before the checkride would be complete, I was chagrined that I had done something to fail it.  We landed in silence and he told me to tie down the plane and meet him inside one of the debriefing rooms.  When I came in the handed me a cup of coffee and told me that any student under the hood who had more situational awareness than he did about where we were in the physical airspace more than deserved to pass his checkride.  He was impressed with my avoiding certain disaster and filled out my temporary ATP certificate right then and there.
     It was early March, 1979 when I received my ATP, but dropping skydivers for the last eighteen months had not gotten me a lot of flight time.  I had been a glorified elevator operator with hops of very short duration so I still didn't have the minimum hours to be considered for airline employment.  I didn't even try.  Flying was the only thing I was ever happy doing, so I knew I would fly.  The question was what was next.
     Having seen many movies in my favorite genre of flying adventure, the call of the wild was beckoning.  What would it take to become a bush pilot, I wondered.  A phone call to the Alaska Transportation Commission and ten dollars provided me with what they called a Scopebook Directory;  a book listing all of the commercial operators of aircraft in Alaska.  There were two hundred and thirty five of them.  I began a project to write a letter to every one of them, including with each one a resume of my flying experience.  Completing this over a period of two weeks, I mailed all of them, a stack some two feet high, the same day.  Within two more weeks I had five offers of flying employment from the last frontier.  My lifetime dream was about to come true!
     I went to my parents house in Lafayette, California and rescued my 1959 British Leyland 109 Land Rover from a family of mice who had moved into the glove compartment.  The 109 is the long, five-door bush vehicle with chipmunk cheeks, made famous in numerous African safari films.  It had been sitting in the circle next to their house for the past three and a half years while I had been away on my last Navy duty station, Midway Island, and my eighteen months of dropping skydivers.  I rebuilt the brakes and hydraulic clutch and packed an extra carburetor, generator, points, spare axles, electrical switches, wiring, voltage regulator, head and tail lights and other essential doo dads  under the rear compartment floor.  I outfitted a double bed mattress over a built up floor partition sitting on the side seat mounts and made up a bed like in any home with pillows and a comforter. and packed the compartment full of boxes.   When I camped I would unload the boxes and put them underneath the Rover to keep them out of any potential rain.  I packed my camping gear and outfitted my Land Rover with a five-gallon propane tank with long gas hoses supplying a gas lantern, a tent heater, and a two-burner Coleman stove.  The lantern would sit on top of the tropical roof and light the whole campground.  The Coleman stove would sit perfectly on the flat hood for cooking.  The twelve-inch seat shelves allowed a sizable area underneath the bed for a large ammo box full of smaller parts and a full toolbox.  After six years of Land Rover ownership I learned one had to bring whatever might be needed to stay mobile.  The Land Rover was engineered for field maintenance and repair in the worst of environments and virtually any repair, including tearing down an engine, could be accomplished with common shop tools.
     Loaded to the gills, I  headed up the west coast to join the AlCan Highway to Fairbanks.  I made the thirty-two hundred mile journey in just four days, camping all the way.  The drive was spectacular, the camping was in beautiful spots although only for very short periods due to my long days of driving.  My Rover careened along at a steady fifty-eight miles per hour bounding over potholes and ruts which caused the breakdown of numerous family vehicles that I saw along the way.  Fifty-eight was my Rover's maximum cruise speed above which the valves started to float, making quite a racket.  My only regret was not taking more time on this amazing trek to enjoy my surroundings more than I did.
     Arriving in Fairbanks in the early evening of my fourth day, I drove straight to the Fairbanks Holiday Inn and checked in.  After showering and putting on my best jeans, lumberjack shirt, and old, scruffy cowboy boots, I headed for the hotel bar.  Entering the quiet, dimly lit room, I noticed very few patrons.  I was beginning to think I might have to go elsewhere for employment advice when I noticed an old guy with a scraggy beard at the very end of the bar next to the wall.  He was dressed like he just came off some wilderness trail or trapline and had made this bar his first destination.  The dusty trail had been long for me too, so I figured I had nothing to lose by having a few with a man of obvious considerable experience.
     I sat down at the bar a couple of bar stools away from this guy and asked him if he would mind giving me some advice on flying jobs.  He gave me a bleary-eyed-once-over and said, "Sure kid."
     I moved over a stool and asked him,  "Can I buy you a drink or two?"
     "Sure, kid," he replied.
     It had been some time since anyone called me kid, but I spread my five letters on the dimly lit bar and explained to him how I came to be in Fairbanks, looking for a flying job. He just chuckled and said,  " I don't know how much help I can be, but I'll take a look."
     He took the stack and leaned towards the dim light which was on the wall next to him and, scratching his beard,  began reading with obvious amusement.  I ordered us each a beer while he cackled.
     He held the first letter in his hand and told me,  "This here's a job flying an old Aztec from an island in the Aleution chain twice a week.  You'd be crazy to take this one; it would kill you for sure," and the threw it over his head.  The letter fluttered to the floor behind his barstool.  I opened my mouth to say something, but was at a loss for words.
     "This one is flying the mail out of Kotzebue on the Bering Sea above the Arctic Circle.  It's a one-bar town frozen all the time.  You wouldn't be happy at all there, I can tell you," and he tossed this one over his head.  It fluttered to the floor near the first one.  He was obviously enjoying himself, as he was chuckling the whole time.
     Reading the third letter, he turned to me and asked in a wheezing voice, "Do you have a seaplane rating?" The letter was from a float operation in Juneau, a considerable distance from Fairbanks.
     "No,"  I replied, "But I could get one."
     "No one will hire you without some float experience,"  he said as he threw this letter after the others.  I had pretty much discounted that one myself,  but I was starting to get nervous.
     He busted out laughing shaking the fourth letter in his hand saying,  "This old Pioneer airplane is older than you are, kid.  You'd be second stick kicking freight all day long and I doubt your captain would let you have much stick time in the bush.  You might get a few landings at the big airports but if you want to build time, this ain't your job."  With that, he tossed this letter over his head with a flourish.  I could tell he was thrilled to be of such great help.
     Now I was definitely worried.  3,200 miles is a long drive for what was turning out to be such poor prospects.  I was starting to zone out, a blank stare on my face as my advisor picked up the last letter.
     He read the letter, then he read it again.  "Hmmm, this one is interesting," he said.  "A regular mail run three times a week to three villages in the interior out of McGrath.  The Cherokee ain't no bush plane, but at least it's no antique."
     My attention perked up immediately.
     "How do I get to McGrath from here?," I asked.
     "You don't drive, that's for sure,"  he replied.  "There ain't no roads in the interior.  It's mostly tundra from here to there where there ain't no mountains.  They can't build roads on the tundra.  The asphalt or cement would hold the sun's heat and it would melt the underlying frozen vegetation and the road would break up and sink.  The outfit will probably send an airplane for you."

     I was greatly relieved that all hope was not lost.  With only one decent prospect left to me,  I retired to my room hoping I had not made this long trip for nothing.  After a troubled sleep, I awoke in a fret.  Not feeling like breakfast, my first order of business was a call to  Daniel Smith, owner of Hub Air Service in McGrath.  He was a very personable and jovial fellow and after a short conversation, invited me out to see his operation.  He advised me to call a friend of his who had a cabin just out of town who would probably allow me to park my Land Rover for as long as I wanted.  Smitty told me to call him back after arrangements had been made for my Rover and he would send his mechanic in one of his Cherokees the next day to carry me to McGrath.  I was ecstatic.  Real adventure was right around the corner.  I dreamt that night of some of the early bush pilots, some of the movies I had seen of bush pilots, of  Rod Taylor smuggling in Africa in a DC-3.  My cartoon character was fired up and in high gear.  I was here in Alaska and I was close to being what I dreamed of being as a youngster, a real bush pilot.

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