Cockpit Chronicles: Alaska flying – then and now

Flying Alaska Cockpit ChroniclesLast week I found myself flying to London with a captain who had started his career in pretty much the same way I did-he too had worked for a couple of airlines in Alaska, albeit more than a decade before me.

As we headed out to dinner, we happened to run into another pilot I knew who, coincidentally, flew for Era Alaska just as I had. Even more surprising was that his co-pilot flew for an airline in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

We agreed to have dinner together at an Indian restaurant ten minutes from the hotel in London. While waiting for some tandoori to arrive, the subject of the Discovery Channel show, Flying Wild Alaska came up. It led to a few wistful stories about the times when we were doing that kind of flying, twenty to thirty years earlier.

“It looks like a lot of fun and adventure from the comfort of your living room, but it’s not as much fun when you’re low on gas, in a mile visibility while trying to read a map and hoping to cut the Mead River. It makes you appreciate this job (flying a Boeing across the Atlantic to London) so much more,” Hank said.

We all agreed. It’s nice to get a little perspective every now and then, and the Discovery Channel show about flying in the Alaskan bush gave us a not so gentle reminder.

But then someone began to check off the items a modern-day bush pilot has that we didn’t back then. At the top of the list was a GPS. While I had flown with a Loran-C for navigation, its accuracy up north wasn’t anything like the GPS. The other pilots at the table didn’t even have a Loran.

“Just a compass and a map up on the north slope.” Hank said.

Next up, I mentioned the real de-icing equipment they have now, not to mention the hangars. Just a few hours earlier I had been writing the de-icing post for Gadling, so the memories of crawling on the curved and slippery wing twelve feet in the air while scraping the ice off were fresh in my mind. Our de-ice ‘equipment’ at the time was a pump bottle you’d find at a garden store.

As tough as we had it, I imagined inviting perhaps another four pilots back from the past to join us. They would be the early bush pilots of the twenties and thirties who would have given anything to have the airplanes we had. So in deference to them, I thought I’d use a few of my grandpa’s photos to illustrate the differences in air travel in Alaska back then and today.

RUNWAYS


Gravel bars, while sometimes rough, were a preferred summertime runway.

During the first few years of flying in Alaska, there were no official runways. The most ideal landing spot was in Fairbanks, where flying really took hold, at a horse track that was converted into a landing strip. Outside of Fairbanks, landings were made in the summer on gravel bars along rivers or ‘domes’ which were treeless hill tops above a village. Locals made attempts at clearing runways, but their lengths were initially too short or had too many obstacles.
A few towns, such as Nome and Kotzebue were essentially treeless, but runways still needed to be built to accomodate airplanes on wheels since the ground was usually soft in the summer.

Winter flying opened up a lot of areas to landing, especially for airplanes equipped with skis. One concern was at the beginning and end of the season; when a decision had to be made whether to depart with skis or wheels. It wasn’t always obvious how much snow the destination airport would have. The short days in the winter presented a problem as well, since there was no lighting to mark the frozen ‘runway.’

What should we go with today, skis or wheels?

Airplanes with floats became an option starting in the thirties and that combination continues today as a popular way to get around during the five or so months out of the year that allow for it.


Bellanca float plane on the Chena river in Fairbanks in the ’30s

Today the main cities and towns all have runways that are lighted and plowed. So ski flying is used mainly for off-airport operations onto lakes, glaciers and even arctic ice-flows. But the airplane is still the most vital way to move about the state, as few towns outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks are connected by roads.

Kenai, Alaska airport today. Note the float plane ‘strip’ next to the paved runway.

AIRPLANES

Open cockpit flying

Aside from the landing gear choice, a huge number of changes have come about since the early days of flying in Alaska. In 1924, my grandpa, Noel Wien, was operating out of Fairbanks with an open cockpit biplane called a Hisso Standard that could seat two crammed-in passengers in the front seat. They were required to dress as if they were taking a long winter dog-sled ride, as the wind chill, even at 50 degrees fahrenheit, was bone chilling. This, coupled with the air-cooled engine, prevented year-round flying.


Note the two passengers in the front seat. Legroom wasn’t a complaint back then.


Passengers had to bundle up even in the summer when flying in the open-cockpit Standard


Heated, pressurized cabins make it possible to get around in a t-shirt for many passengers.

In winter of 1925, my grandpa toured the states to look for an air-cooled, fully enclosed cabin airplane that would be capable of flying through an Alaskan winter.

Unfortunately, that airplane didn’t exist yet in America. After visiting several manufacturers who insisted they’d have just such an airplane in another year, Noel settled on a Fokker F.III he found in New York. It had no brakes, the pilot sat outside and the engine was still water-cooled. However, the passengers would ride enclosed in a cabin inspired by a Pullman-train that included upholstered couch type seats, and curtains. At least the passengers would be warm. He operated that airplane for the next two winters before a fully enclosed cabin aircraft with air-cooled engines became available.


The first enclosed-cabin air service in Alaska. Although the pilot still sat in the open.


Passengers rode inside in leather armchair style seats

Today travelers flying in Alaska may find themselves tucked in a Cessna with fold down seats and freight strapped down next to them, or they might have the opportunity to fly between the major cities in an Alaska Airlines 737 “combi” configuration that places the freight in the front separated with a wall from the abbreviated passenger cabin.


Passengers behind a wall and freight in front on this Alaska 737 “Combi”

Turboprop aircraft like the Dash-8 and Beech 1900 are a common way to get people and freight around between the towns as well.


An Era Alaska Beech 1900 is loaded with freight from a dogsled

Performance

The 150 h.p. Hisso engine mounted to the large WWI Standard trainer provided enough horsepower to get out of some short strips, but only when the airplane wasn’t carrying a lot of weight. I ran across this video from 1927 that shows my grandpa departing Nome in a fully loaded Standard. I was a bit shocked at the lack of performance.

Compare that to a recent bush pilot competition in Valdez where highly modified Super Cubs and Maules compete for the shortest takeoff roll. Granted, the pilots are flying empty airplanes with a bit of a headwind, but my grandpa would have given anything for this kind of bush plane.

Reliability

The OX-5 and Hisso engines were able to fly between 50 and 300 hours before requiring an overhaul. My grandpa found that he could get closer to the 300 hour time if he changed the oil every five hours (essentially after each trip).

Today, the piston engines flown in Cessna 207s can go for 2,000 hours before an overhaul and the 1,100 horsepower turbine engines in a Beech 1900 can fly for 6,000 hours before being rebuilt.

Continue reading Part 2: Navigation, search and rescue, ticket prices and what HASN’T changed…