Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I am thankful we survived this flight

Until I began traveling around Alaska in small airplanes I was afraid of flying. One event I experienced during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race changed that. A pilot everyone addressed as Crazy Horse flew me over what is called the Farewell Burn, an area of more than 300,000 acres that had been cleared by wildfire.

We spotted a dog team making way across the open snow and Crazy Horse asked if I wanted to make a picture. I said sure and he immediately put the Cessna 172 into a precipitous dive toward the musher. I snapped the picture, dropped the camera and grabbed the hand-hold overhead and held on for dear life. It was in that moment I realized I was clinging for safety to the very thing that was going to kill me and that if we were going to crash there was nothing I could do about it. Over the course of almost two weeks flying along with the race, Crazy Horse and I had several more adventures but from that day forward I had taken a fatalistic attitude toward flying and it never bothered me again. It didn't even bother me (much) during another serious flight along the Seward Peninsula a couple of years later.

At the time I was spending the winter in Nome and had flown to Shishmaref farther north on the coast of the Bering Sea to interview famed dog musher Herbie Nayokpuk. I spent a couple of days with him and his family working on a story about his preparations for the Iditarod. After that I boarded a Munz airplane for the trip back to Nome in clear, calm weather. On the way we landed for a quick exchange in Teller, about halfway. After Teller we flew out south over Port Clarence and then east along the Norton Sound coast. A short time out the weather changed.

We flew through what looked like a dark curtain into what amounted to a whiteout only dark. The pilot was new to the air service on a check ride with a senior Munz pilot and I could often hear the senior pilot talking to the man at the controls, guiding and advising passing on advice gained in years of flying along that coast. When we flew into that cloud, I heard an exchange between the two but only picked out the word "beach."

Our course changed but since there was no landscape to observe the only way you could tell was by the adjustment to the airplane's attitude and altitude. We dropped and headed north until just a vague outline and a few drift logs identified the Seward Peninsula shoreline. These were our guiding landmarks leading us home. As we flew along occasionally the airplane would rise a few feet or drift off to the south and the landmarks disappeared. At one point the senior pilot had to elbow the one at the controls to make him aware he was drifting away from land again.

Except for that driftwood on the ground all around was a blank shroud of gray. The pilots were in touch with someone on the ground and at one point after an obvious conversation with ground control, I heard the senior pilot say out loud, "I don't care what they say, I think it's safer to go on than to go back."

At that point I pulled my tightly packed sleeping bag off the deck and hugged it in front of me. I had been told at one time or other this would cushion me in a crash and perhaps save my life. We pushed on in the gray void following that beach and gradually making our way east for what seemed an eternity, the sense of it being without landmarks I had no idea how fast we were going or whether we were making any progress. Then a couple of buildings appeared followed by a row of utility poles and this I knew. They led the way to a runway at Nome's airport.

Wind buffeted the airplane at that point and I heard the pilots talking about the advisory from the ground that there was six inches of slushy snow on that runway. With the airplane taking gusts from the side and dropping in altitude even more they aimed at the end of the runway. During the descent the runway looked through the windshield like it was rolling from side to side. Finally, the senior pilot, I recall his name was Victor, took the controls. As if magically the airplane steadied as he brought it closer to the runway.

Then in an instant, he set the airplane down, not like from a gradual flight path into a decelerating roll down the runway, but like a helicopter, straight down, bang, ground, stop. I don't think we rolled ten feet. Sheepishly I pushed the sleeping bag off my lap and back onto the deck. As we left the airplane I happened to bump into Victor and we looked into each other's eyes for an instant. I said the word, "nice." That was all that passed between us, but we understood each other at that moment. Then we had to push the airplane through the slush to move it to safety off the runway.


  1. I once went back to Nome with Ramon Gandia. He'd crashed 43 times by that point. He came to the strip in Shishmaref, asked, "Are you Kitty?" and ordered me to get in. He said Albro had been calling his wife with dire warnings about what would happen if he didn't get me back safely. As we came up to Teller, he was reading a book, flying the route of the river, 60 feet off the deck. I always heard that the air above you and the the runway behind you didn't do you any good. I was hoping I wouldn't be aboard for #44. It worked out all right. He made his drop, and we were out of there, but I always preferred other pilots.


Interesting quotations

· " “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. Kurt Vonnegut

“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” Stephen King

The thing about ignornance is, you don't have to remain ignorant. — me again"

Never debate with someone who gets ink by the barrel" — George Hayes, former Alaska Attorney General who died recently

My dear Mr. Frost: two roads never diverge in a yellow wood. Three roads meet there. — @Shakespeareon Twitter

"The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling," Adm. Ernest King, USN

Me: Does the restaurant have cute waitresses?

My friend Gail: All waitresses are cute when you're hungry.

I'm not a writer, but sometimes I push around words to see what happens. – Scott Berry

“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

We are all immortal until the one day we are not. – me again

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Sister hits moose on way to visit sister who hit moose.

Man loses his testicles after attempting to smoke weed through a SCUBA tank

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve