Cockpit Chronicles: Alaska flying – then and now: Part 2

Continued from Part 1


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.



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.

Cockpit Chronicles: Alaska flying – then and now

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.

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

Cockpit Chronicles: Come along and enjoy the view

“Descend to 1-3-0.”

“Descend to 1-2-0.”

I found myself listening to London Control while admiring one of the all-time greatest views I’ve ever seen.

“Slow to 220 knots. Fly heading 1-7-0.”

As we banked to the right, I looked over my right shoulder at the London eye, a blue ferris wheel that stands out among the amber lights struggling for relevance against the sunrise.

No one should be up this early. Most of London is still asleep, and even if they were awake, they wouldn’t be seeing the view we were witnessing. The lights of the city, the bridges crossing the Thames river and the sunrise that blankets the buildings with more light after every turn of our holding pattern makes me pause for a moment to realize just why this job is the most visually rewarding of any occupation.

As we turned to the right one more time, I began to ponder whether an astronaut would actually prefer the variety of these spectacular sights that a mere ‘low-level’ pilot can see.

A 777 ahead of us was still dark enough to cover the city lights. Even Mike, the captain with close to 40 years in the air, was taken by the scene. “That’s just incredible” he said as the airliner banked to the right and peeled away from us a thousand feet below.

I had to resist the temptation to pull out my camera. I had taken some photos earlier, at 12,000 feet, above the 10,000 foot floor where we can’t allow a camera to distract us during the more critical ‘sterile period’ of our arrival into Heathrow.

So often I wish I could save the five most interesting things my eye sees on a flight. I have to try to capture whatever I can and post them here or on Flickr.

It was a couple of well timed views like this that inspired me to post a picture from every flight with a small caption on a blog years ago. Then I’d write more. And then more. Finally leading to the Cockpit Chronicles.

It’d be so much easier if I could just bring you along in the cockpit jumpseat.

That morning I filmed a few clips while above 10,000 feet that are almost like being there. Here’s what spinning around Guildford, England looked like.

Coming home from London, three and a half hours into the flight, we came upon a view I hadn’t seen yet in the eight years I’ve been flying across the Atlantic.

Our route of flight was far more northerly–nearly 200 miles north of any track I’d been on, in fact. We would be crossing directly over the southern tip of Greenland. This time I’d be ready. Should the clouds allow, I was sure to get some pictures or a video clip of the landscape below. In the past, I’ve seen Greenland from 59 and 60 degrees north latitude, which put the ice covered island just off in the distance. Unfortunately, clouds usually cover most of the island.

This time we were at 62 degrees north, passing over jagged mountain tops that weren’t obscured by clouds, but surrounded by silky glaciers that resembled low level cirrus clouds. In fact, it was hard to tell if the snow below was actually cloud cover.

The captain made a PA and I called back to our flight attendants. They needed to see this. A view of Greenland they’d likely never forget.

Of course, you’re welcome to take a look as well:

A piloting career may not be what it used to be. Speeds have changed. The technology has changed. Security procedures and threats have changed. But one thing that has always remained remarkable in this job, even in my grandpa’s era, has been the view.

Those lower altitudes may be filled with more detail, but the higher flight levels can give a wonderful sense of perspective. And sometimes a little perspective is just what we need. I certainly got my fill on this trip.

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. Follow him on Twitter @veryjr

Cockpit Chronicles: Paris – Chez (grand) Papa

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.

“We’ve had a minor explosion back here,” one of the flight attendants, Susan, told us during our preflight.

“There’s orange juice all over 2H and J.”

Selfishly, we all perked up. Those were our crew rest seats. The thought of sitting in a wet seat gave a new urgency to the co-pilot’s voice when calling maintenance to get the cover and cushion replaced.

I was the relief pilot again for this flight. My schedule for June is exclusively for FB trips to Paris, but occasionally I’m able to trade over to the co-pilot seat if it opens up during the month, which leaves my relief pilot position open to someone who’s on reserve or another pilot who’s able to trade into it.
There’s no difference in pay between the relief pilot and the co-pilot positions, but most pilots prefer to fly if they have the chance.

We departed Boston at around 7 p.m., and just ten minutes later I left the cockpit for my crew rest seat, hoping it wasn’t still soaked from the orange juice. Maintenance did replace the cushion and cover of the seat bottom, but the window seat was especially wet on the seat back. So I opted to sit in the aisle seat, where I put a comforter blanket behind my back.

If I’m not tired, I usually try to catch up on a few posts. There’s nothing like flying along in an airplane to put you in the right frame of mind to write about, well, flying in an airplane.

After my two hours were up, I went to the cockpit and the captain went back to our rest seat. Moments later we started to get into a small amount of light ‘chop.’ (Pilot-speak for those little, rhythmic bumps).

Typically it’s up to the captain to turn the seatbelt sign on at this point, but when he’s gone, the other co-pilot and I look at each other with the ‘you think these bumps are going to last?’ look.

“Ding.” I turned the sign on.

Sure enough, it smoothed out almost immediately. I’m starting to wonder if the sign has magical powers.

The flight attendants are required to make a PA, telling the passengers that the captain (who’s now sleeping in row 2…) has turned on the seatbelt sign. If we turn it off two minutes later, we’re sure to hit some bumps requiring the sign again. So we elect to leave it on for a few minutes longer to be sure.

I’m sure my grandpa, an early bush pilot in Alaska, wouldn’t have been annoyed by this minor dilemma. He was more concerned with far more significant issues as he flew passengers year-round in Alaska during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.

Ice forming on the fuel vent? Is the radiator leaking again? Does that snow look too deep to land on with these wheels? And most importantly, where can I land if this engine quits?

But we’d be given a challenge of our own from ATC. Shanwick called up using the airplane’s SELCAL system. Controllers have the ability to ring us using a special code on our airplane that sends an alert via HF radio. They usually only call when they need to clarify a position report or to give us a new routing. This time they needed us to slow enough so as to arrive at the next waypoint at or after 0621z.

ATC keeps the airplanes flying at the same altitude and on the same track spaced at least 10 minutes apart which is around 75 miles. So we were likely gaining on someone ahead. I slowed the airplane back to .76 MACH, and the computer figured out our new arrival time at the fix: 0622z.

Perfect. Challenge solved.

We sat back to marvel at the United 777 passing 1000 feet above us on the right, just as the sun was breaking through the horizon in front of us. Contrails were everywhere; most of them drawing a path in the sky that marked where we’d soon be making a right turn.

One of the airplanes 20 miles ahead was 2000 feet above us. The wake of airplanes can cause some bumps, even this far back, since it descends at about 500 feet per minute.

Depending on the winds, you’ll often get these bumps when 12 miles behind an airplane that’s 1000 feet above. Double that number for an airplane that’s 2000 feet above.

To avoid these annoying bumps, we’re allowed to ‘offset’ the airplane either 1NM or 2NM’s to the right. We put in a mile and slid over to the side, avoiding the bumps that were easy to see from the contrails.

Yet another problem solved. Grandpa would be proud.

Truthfully, there are so many other issues that make flying complicated today. I suppose my grandpa might be overwhelmed with many of the legalities, the procedures and the aircraft systems. After one look, he might even prefer to go back to his Tri-Motor Ford. I wouldn’t blame him. But I’m sure glad I don’t have to scrape ice from the wings of the airplane in the morning anymore.

We often chat in the cockpit at altitude about families, previous trips or activities outside work. But a very popular topic of conversation lately has been the state of the industry.

Just like most of the airlines, we’ve announced a reduction of around 10% in our flying for the fall schedule. This has a trickle down effect among the pilot group. Some captains will be bumped to a smaller airplane, or even back to co-pilot, which results in co-pilots either becoming more junior on their same airplane or bumped back to a domestic 737 or maybe even furloughed.

I was furloughed from 1993 to 1996, so I hope to never have to see that again. But we still have pilots on furlough from our 2001 reduction. Some of those were recently called back and I would hate to see them furloughed again. The only thing worse than getting furloughed is getting furloughed twice.

My dad always encouraged my brother and I to think about having a back-up plan in case the flying thing didn’t work out.

“It’s just such an unstable career,” he said in 1983.

How right he was. But I always knew it was the only job for me. Especially after studying accounting and management in college.

We landed in Paris and after the last passenger deplaned, we went down to the bus parked just in front of the nose of the 767. This isn’t usually the case, but in Paris we’re fortunate to jump on the crew bus right at the airplane that takes the twelve of us into the city.

The ride can best be described as excruciating. On the weekdays it’s stop and go, with jolts and surges lasting an hour and forty-five minutes typically. Some people try to sleep, others talk or listen to an iPod. I’ve actually managed to sleep a bit on these rides, but it’s not very easy to get comfortable.

Again we waited a few minutes in the lobby for our room keys. This is always a good time to co-ordinate the days activities. I had mentioned that I wanted to check out the Catacombs of Paris, which is near our hotel. Both pilots were interested, so we planned to meet up at 3 o’clock after a good sleep.

The Catacombs are a series of skull and bone filled tunnels that traverse everywhere under the streets of Paris. Apparently they were running short on land and the only solution was to relocate the grave sites into these tunnels. Obviously, this occurred long before Drew Barrymoore showed us in Poltergeist what a bad idea this was.

I was exci
ted to go down to the Catacombs, since I had read some of your comments suggesting a visit. I studied up, I knew to bring a flashlight, to dress appropriately and I even downloaded a couple of maps.

But there was one thing that I didn’t read up on; they close at 4 p.m.

We arrived a few minutes before 4 and stood in line, hoping they would let those already in line down below. Just as the line moved to the entrance, they cut us off. We’d have to come back another time. At least while waiting in line, I discovered one of the most beautiful statues in Paris:

Wifi available! Yep, this meant I could check my email on the iPhone while standing in line. I have an account with Boingo, a roaming service that allows you to bypass a lot of the fees charged at hotels and airports. Unfortunately, some of the locations are premium, which means you’ll pay about $10 an hour to use them. It turns out the parks in Paris are all in the premium category, but the hotel where we stay isn’t. Apparently, if I elected to go from the $22 a month plan to the $39 plan, there wouldn’t be any premium fees.

Since it was early still, we all split up. Jim the co-pilot worked out, Phil the captain borrowed another captain’s bike that’s parked nearby and went for a ride. One of our captains brought a bike over from the states piece by piece and built up a ten speed bike that no one would ever consider stealing. Of course that was his plan all along. He’s very generous in sharing the bike’s combination lock with the other crew members.

Of course, I’m so far behind blogging these trips, I needed to get some work done back at the hotel. We had previously arranged to meet with one of our flight attendants and two other captains from Miami and New York for dinner a few hours later.

Back at the hotel, I ran into Frenchy, one of my favorite flight attendants who’s now flying out of Miami. He’s recommended some great restaurants for the crew in the past and I wanted to pick his brain again for suggestions for our dinner tonight. He told me about a restaurant located on the grounds of a park near our hotel.

“What kind of price are we talking about?” I asked him, knowing that he generally had good taste in dining (i.e. expensive).

“Twenty to forty Euro.” He said.

Perfect, I thought. I had done a bit of ‘fine dining’ for the last two trips and it’d be nice to eat on a terrace near a park without having to take out a second mortgage on the house.

The six of us met up at the hotel and I told them of my new discovery. Everyone thought this sounded like as good a place as any, so we walked about 20 minutes to the Montsouris park.

As we approached the restaurant, Susan said, “It’s like Tavern on the Green!”

“Yeah, but without the price to go along with it.” I confidently remarked.

At 7 p.m. the place was empty, since most Parisians dine rather late. We managed to get a table without having reservations, but when we sat down and took a look at the menu, the table got a bit quiet.

The prix fix menu price was €52.

“I can’t do this.” One of the pilots said.

Since that worked out to $85 not including any drinks, and both Susan and I had spent a fair amount on dinner during the Les Papilles birthday celebration for Stephanie a few trips earlier, we decided it might be best to go somewhere else.

Jim and Phil wanted to try Chez Papa, a nearby restaurant that’s becoming popular with crews. I was happy to go along in an effort to save some money. I’m starting to realize that I need to alternate between a nice dinner and something more reasonable if I’m going to fly this trip exclusively this summer.

Susan and the two other pilots wanted to trek into the Latin quarter to find something more in between, price-wise, which I completely understood.

Chez Papa turned out to be a great choice. The choices were a bit random, with lots of Duck and Lamb offered in a variety of stews, but I opted for a potato omelette. And for a nice change of pace, this dinner ran at just €11 with a drink.

View Larger Map

The flight home was completely uneventful. I tried to snap a shot of Paris from the air. Unfortunately, we were climbing through 11,000 feet, so the view isn’t the best.

Phil and Jim starting to descend for the arrival into Boston.

With two Paris trips down and one to go in my 9-day in a row marathon, I still felt pretty good.

Little did I know, the next trip would prove to be a bit more troublesome…

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston. For the months of May through July, he’ll focus on Paris almost exclusively. If you have any good suggestions for Parisian activities, feel free to leave your tips in the comments.