Alaskan Flying

I mentioned yesterday the unique world of Alaskan aviation: more dangerous than elsewhere in the country, but also more necessary. As a sign of the ubiquity of aviation in Alaska, consider this Google Earth shot of the shore of Lake Aleknagik, where the plane that crashed two days ago was headed. (Click for larger; coordinates in Google Earth are 59° 16' 53.2" N, 158° 37' 14.1" W.) In addition to the lake itself, where floatplanes land, within this small zone there is a public-use airport on the left of this view, the relatively large strip running roughly northwest-southeast, plus a little private airstrip on the right, listed as belonging to a mission organization. Its two runways are the narrow lines forming a cross among the trees. Even the "large" runway is short by normal standards (2040 feet in length), and the private airstrips are only half that long.


What kind of airplanes can operate in such circumstances? Ones like this, the incredible Aviat Husky. Watch 15 seconds' worth and you'll get the idea.

And here, via Google Earth, is a ground-level view of the lake area, illustrating why people go to the risk and bother of getting there:

Below and after the jump, three accounts from people with flying experience in Alaska. First:

Many years ago I knew of a US Army officer and hunter who picked his pilots for their years of flying experience in Alaska. The more years without a major crash experience the better. It meant they understood how dangerous small planes, Alaskan terrain and terrible weather conditions were.

From a former Alaska pilot:

Beginning in 1967, I taught in Dillingham for three years, in New Koliganek for two, and, in 1971, landed my first flying job with Peninsula Airways out of King Salmon. The area around Aleknagik lake is an old, familiar stomping ground. I earned my bones as a float pilot flying every lake, bay, and river in the lake system. If, as reported, a search aircraft was flying in that terrain under a 100 foot ceiling and with one mile visibility, the weather required an experienced hand that knew every rock and tree on the route.
From what I have read it seems to have been a situation that demanded a max rated climb to an altitude that would permit an instrument approach into Dillingham and a night in one of its several hotels. [JF note: if the pilot suddenly encountered clouds, the textbook way out would have been to climb as quickly as possible to an altitude safely above the terrain, then contact air-traffic control for an instrument-flight rules return to the nearest airport with an instrument approach, which allows safe landing through the clouds, which was in Dillingham.] Alternatively, as it was a superb float equipped aircraft, the lakes provided ample landing area on which to sit out weather. Absent massive structural failure, this looks like pilot error.[JF caveat: almost all small-plane crashes arise in some sense from "pilot error." This pilot was extraordinarily experienced. We'll see what emerges.]

From another pilot:

While in the Navy, I flew in and out of Shemya, Alaska, an island at the end of the Aleutian Islands in the mid to late '60s. It is small, one mile by two miles.

I was in a VQ-1 - I am certain you know the plane that was struck by a Chinese fighter and had to land on Hainan Island. It was a VQ-1 plane and, although called a spy plane, it was actually a reconnaissance plane. That's our story and we are sticking to it.

In Shemya, we tracked Russian missile shots. Navigation devices were not as accurate in those days, to say the least, and to find that island at night in bad weather is not something that I would like to do again. What I remember was the weather, particularly the wind. The differential between the jet stream and the wind below the jet stream seemed to be the greatest we experienced. Good conditions on Shemya were below standards everywhere else. Just walking outside was no fun. Our plane was kept in a hangar where we lived (oh, it was great fun!), so we got into our plane, started it in the hangar, taxied out and off we went.

It was difficult, challenging flying and exciting landings. I take my hat off to those aviators in Alaska - there are no easy flights there.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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