In the twenties, the most popular map used for flying was a dogsled trail-map that showed the ‘roadhouses’ where mushers would rest and feed their dogs. For a pilot to rely on of these maps is ironic because early mushers justifiably weren’t happy to see the airplane arrive, as it posed a threat to their livelihood.
Noel Wien referring to a map inflight
As I pointed out earlier, modern airplanes are usually equipped with GPS, most of which include a terrain database that alerts pilots of any granite obstructions along their route of flight-a huge safety improvement.
Many planes are also equipped to display other aircraft traffic, which offers a tremendous peace of mind to pilots.
An Era Alaska Dash 8 flies between Kenai and Anchorage
Search and rescue
In 1924 and 1925, there were times when no other pilots were in the state who could come search for you should any mechanical problems force you down. That one critical part or a radiator that had burst meant that you had to try and walk to civilization.
Airplanes today are equipped with a 406 MHz ELT (emergency locator transmitter) that can be immediately pinpointed to within 2 kilometers by a satellite. This means a rescue is possible in just hours instead of days or weeks.
The going rate in the ’20s and ’30s was a dollar a mile, which meant that a trip from Fairbanks to Nome cost $520. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $6,248.
Today the 500-mile flight between those cities runs about $300. And Era Alaska has had $69 fares available recently for flights between Anchorage and Fairbanks-a distance of 260 miles.
WHAT HASN’T CHANGED?
The view in Alaska hasn’t changed much. And flying is still the best way to get a feel for how big the mountains and glaciers are and how much uninhabited land there is.
The harsh weather hasn’t relented either. Airlines are still flying in temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees fahrenheit with poor visibility that is often coupled with high winds, something that just isn’t as common in the rest of the U.S.
Preheating the engines and cabin on a cold winter morning on the North Slope
The eskimo villagers today are similar to their ancestors. Sure they enjoy a bit more technology, including 4-wheelers and DVD players, but they still subsistence hunt and fish and many of the same families that first saw my grandpa arrive in an airplane in the mid-twenties are there today.
When we complain about how tough our lives are, it’s not uncommon for a grandparent to chime in with their stories from the past to give us a little perspective. I’d love for a few of my fellow pilots to have the chance to walk fly in my grandpa’s boots for a week. Although, I must admit, I don’t think I could have done the things he did.
Fortunately for me, much of my knowledge about what my grandpa accomplished in the early days of flying were gained from a book about him called Noel Wien: Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot. I’m forever thankful that this biography exists, as it keeps me from complaining about crew meals and layover hotels.
Finally, I’m going to leave you with proof of Alaska’s beauty. But to show you, you’ll need to step into an airplane that’s more than 50 years old; an airplane that modern manufacturers just haven’t been able to replace. Special thanks to pilot Jeff Carlin for taking us along with him.
Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.
Last 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
You’ve always dreamt of flying out to a remote lodge in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, but you’re a bit concerned about the pilots. Are they really good enough to get you into that 1000-foot strip? Wouldn’t it be nice to know just how these aviators rank?
Well, the May Day Fly-In and Airshow in Valdez, Alaska has a bush pilot competition that ranks pilots and their planes in their ability to takeoff and land in the shortest possible distances. These airplanes are highly modified to handle the tightest gravel bars Alaska has to offer. And their pilots know how to get the most out of them.
If you’re looking for some experienced pilots to take you to a great lodge, you can’t go too wrong with the Claus family. Dad, Paul, accomplished the shortest takeoff at 19 feet, and his 18-year old son Jay scored a 39-foot takeoff, which was good for 4th place in his class. The Claus family own and operate the Ultima Thule Lodge.
Here’s 18 year old Jay’s 39 foot takeoff:
I think I’m ready to go visit the Claus family and see just WHERE they’re taking this airplane!
Join Kent at Cockpit Chronicles which takes you along on each of his trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.