Flaunting their wild ways

SUN JOURNAL

Flying: Alaska bush pilots still flout many regulations, but insurance companies and the FAA have tamed some of the extravagant risk-takers.

December 20, 2003|By Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BETHEL, Alaska - To find the young pilots who will take you flying early the next morning, step through the mud that mires two trashed Ford pickups and stomp up the stairs of a drafty house just east of the airport. It's dark. Mongrels scavenge in a vacant lot next door. The temperature is dropping fast below freezing, and there's no mistaking where the party is.

Tupac has taken over the stereo where the Stones left off. Eight guys crowd the living room, gawking as air traffic controllers blast the window from the tower with a lightgun. In the kitchen, a couple pushes people aside as they spin each other to the music, while one guy screams ecstatically as he holds an empty beer keg over his head as if it were some wild game trophy.

Let it never be said that the men and women who work the most dangerous job in Alaska don't know how to blow off steam.

Or how to tell stories.

They say the best pilot in Alaska - a career that kills at a rate 100 times higher than the average job in the United States - is the one who is still alive, and after many beers and many shots of whiskey chased with Mountain Dew, these bush pilots seem to think it's a part of their continuing education to celebrate survival by flaunting their skirmishes with death.

One pilot, Corona in hand, tells of packing the plane with half-gallon bottles of whiskey and gin and as much beer as could fit in, until the plane was too heavy to take off. So they drained some of the fuel, and at the end of their flight the gas gauge read "empty."

Yarn after gripping yarn, including "spiraling vortex of death" - "We were pointed straight down ... all I could see was the ground ..." - pour forth before the Monday night party peters out unceremoniously.

Around 8 a.m., the crew starts drifting into Arctic Circle Air, one of about 10 carriers in the Bethel area. Founded in 1885 by Moravian missionaries, Bethel is 2,285 miles from Los Angeles (as the crow flies), 400 miles from Anchorage and 80 miles from the Bering Sea. It is a lonely, treeless burg built on permafrost in Alaska's southwestern corner and home to the state's second-busiest airport.

The iconic bush pilot - grizzled guy in caribou coat and beaver hat - still exists. So does his mythic plane. But skimming on mountain lakes and glissading on glaciers is mostly summer work, paid for by hunters, anglers and tourists. The pilots who fly year-round tend to be younger and more transient, arriving in Alaska in search of adventure, hours in the air and whatever else it is that draws a young person to wild, raw places.

At the moment, Jimmy Christensen, 22, is pushing a Cessna 207 into the hangar. He takes a broom to a layer of frost clinging to the wings and propeller. Wearing a baseball cap, he is teased for not being able to grow facial hair. Christensen was caught with marijuana possession two days before high school graduation. His uncle sent him to flight school in Arizona for a year. He arrived in Alaska four years ago.

Aaron Stinson, 27, was born in Victoria, Texas, but only after he has had a few drinks does his accent leak through. He's sipping coffee now. Outside, a heater is blasting hot air into his plane, warming the solenoids and liquid crystal circuitry. With a degree in international finance, he became a pilot as a way to meet women. He flew out of Jamaica for a year before heading north.

Matt Warrick is a month younger than Christensen. He has the week off, but stopped by anyway. Farm boy and Eagle Scout from Nebraska. He started flying in junior high and never stopped.

Warrick is the only pilot here who doesn't drink, but if the others look a little hung over, fear not: The FAA requires eight hours of abstinence before flying - bottle-to-throttle, they say - and these pilots love getting in the air so much, they're scrupulous in timing other indulgences.

As for the rest of the rules, most of them have been bent, if not broken altogether. Alaska is its own world: When the Civil Aeronautics Authority first visited the territory in 1934 and tried to bring order to the skies, the pilots rebelled. Flying by the book was unprofitable and foolish. Not much has changed since.

Stinson, who is on his first flight of the day, is taking three engineers from the local telecom company to St. Mary's, a small village 110 miles northwest of Bethel. They will spend a week out there upgrading the community's satellite connection so residents can access the Internet with a local call instead of long distance.

The plane, a single turboprop workhorse known as a Caravan, is cruising at 1,500 feet, packed to the headliner with duffle bags, sealed boxes, an ATV, a gun case and circuit boards.

Because there are no roads in this part of the state, the bread-and-butter work for carriers such as Arctic Circle Air is the federally subsidized mail deliveries - "pop and Pampers" runs, as the pilots refer to them - and special charters.

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