Alaska Travel Magazinenext

The thing most Alaska vacationers seem to miss —especially those that opt for a cruise ship packaged hop in a low wing tricycle gear Piper off the paved strip at Skagway —is the experience of a true bush flight.

In a taildragger. Landing on a short, rocky strip hacked out by hand on a braided river sandbar, not even marked on aeronautical charts, or a topo map. Now, that is doing it Alaskan style!

And most likely you won't find four-color brochures in the "must experience" racks in Anchorage hotels, describing guaranteed, in one old Alaskan phrase, as a "Thrill-em, chill-em, no kill-em" tours. The reason why is as different as going to a rodeo somewhere west of Laramie, or actually riding along on a dude ranch roundup. Alaskan bush flying in a taildragger is going somewhere, to do something very real. So, to even start this adventure you need some sort of excuse. Just as a fisherman loves dinking around in boats, supposedly to bring home supper, we need a reason for breaking free from earth.
Like boating, but not fishing, then fly in to float a wild river —flat water, or world class white. Not a hunter, and want to bag wildlife photos instead, then ask your pilot to put you down at a (pre-season) hunting camp. There also are some very exciting wilderness cabins and rustic lodges only reachable by plane. Save the cost of expensive cruise ship hotels by flying in to a wilderness drop-off camp for a few days of day hiking.

Other excursions could be visiting Athapaskan villages in search of native artwork,direct from the artist.. And, there is always collecting wild blueberries in season, or prospecting for gold. One of my favorites is just going visiting. With the right bush pilot you can drop-in on some very interesting bush dwellers tired of just talking to themselves. Bring a bag of deli chicken, fresh salad makings, to be polite, and leave the picture taking till after you become a friend.

Yes, there is a bit of danger involved with taildragging. Weather is always a factor. The consequences usually involve waiting for a pick-up. In the Alaska Range, small planes have trouble going over the top, so usually the route is through mountain passes. The joke here is: Want to see some Dall Sheep? Look up!

Sometimes navigating these routes can be a bit squirrelly, so a good pilot will leave a party set for days (having suggested beforehand that you take enough food) until conditions are safe. When all aviation in Alaska was grounded after 9/11, there were a lot of curious hunters, out of radio contact,camped under clear blue skies, waiting to hear that distant hum of a plane coming to pick them up.

And speaking of terrorists, you also run the risk of lawyers trying to involve you in a class action suit against a frontier way of life. The reason passengers don't really get a straightforward answer as to the age of a taildragging bush plane is that outrageous lawsuits closed down the production of Supercubs. Worse, just as small town pediatricians, and ladder manufactures, bush pilots have had to respond to the economics of carrying huge amounts of liability insurance. Even so, know that the hourly rate you have to pay to charter is still below that of a silk stocking legal firm as Bloodsucker, Leach, & Parasite.

Fortunately the average Alaska bush pilot is a larger than life individual who is not about to give up his way of life to some outside bean counter. I watched the look on the face of Don Sheldon when a visiting MBA type surveyed all the planes the legend of Denali owned — a Supercub, a Cessna 180 ski-wheel, another with oversize tires, a Cessna 185 on floats — and suggested he would be better off financially to sell them all and put the proceeds in a tax sheltered investment fund. Don had been raised on a Wyoming ranch, so I likened his response as another verse of don't fence me in, with a twist of taking your barbed wire and shove it.

Perhaps the happenstance of living outside of a measurable demographic marketing area has something to do with a lack of importance bush Alaskans have for the year an airplane was built. The FAA requires annual airframe inspections, and engines are up-dated, replaced, or rebuilt on a regular basis. After Don let me land 42 Uniform all by myself, I got hooked. I went on to obtained my license by soloing a pre World War II Taylorcraft, with, as I remember it, three instruments? I know many bush pilots younger than their Cub.

What is important is how good the pilot happens to be. I am no longer current. Gave it up when I realized that it took more than a bird to soar with the eagles. My rule of thumb, when hiring a pilot, is not to ride with anyone less than 500 hours experience, no matter how much enthusiasm they exhibit at a local cafe, talking about angles of attack over a stack of sourdough pancakes. I also have an aversion to retired U.S. Air Force colonels who have thousands of hours at 10,000 feet, but haven't figured out that some river drainages flow north to the Bering Sea, and some South to the Gulf of Alaska.

The looks and demeanor of bush pilots can be deceptive. So can their sense of humor (an absolute requirement). And some of the best I have flown with were skookum Alaska style females.

So here for the first time anywhere is the ultimate tail dragger pilot evaluation test. It is very important how a passenger packs his camp gear, cloths, and food. Show up for loading with a big hard sided suitcase, and you should be left behind, or at least cussed out in a muttered voice. Watch to see that when your pilot picks your soft sided, stuff-able bundles, if he makes a judgment as to the weight. He may even reach way back in and switch position with his absolutely-cannot-go-without survival gear for something lighter. A pilot paying attention to weight and balance before setting it down on something you may think impossible, tells me he has the experience to pull full flaps (just for a second or two) to hop over a creek inconveniently cutting a rollout into two strips. How you get it off again, is a different story.

Not all wheeled bush planes are single passenger taildragging Supercubs you can 'hop'. Some high-wing 3 passenger Cessnas are equipped with STOL kits, allowing slow takeoff and landing on short strips. Larger passenger (4 to 6) Cessna 206s, and the Beaver can operate safely out of 1,600 feet usable.

My point is that even though civilization (lawyers and the Sierra Club bureaucrats) has made it difficult, there are ways to access the wilderness of this great state with what some people consider a good old freight hauling, able to climb the grade, banged and battered but still unbeatable Alaska style pickup.

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