I have always been interested in challenging types of flying. Of course, when you first start flight training everything is challenging, but eventually, it gets easier and you look for more so you do things like getting your instrument rating or your multi-engine rating. Having gotten those I was looking for more and I decided to get my tailwheel rating which turned out to be a decision that drastically changed the course of my career.
I became obsessed with flying tailwheel airplanes and needed more. I love the thrill of landing on challenging short gravel and grass strips and just couldn't get enough. At the time I was living in Tennessee and I knew I wanted more of this type of flying and I wasn't going to be getting much of it there. I decided that after I finished school I was going to move to Alaska and try my hand at flying the bush.
After I graduated I had a one-way ticket to Anchorage and a bag of clothes. I didn't have a job or anything lined up and I was just hoping to find one while I was there. Several days went by with no luck and I decided to rent a small airplane just to do some exploring for a day. I had a complete blast and when I brought the plane back I asked the owner if he knew anyone that was hiring a tailwheel pilot and he said something along the lines of “well I could use a cub pilot but I can't really pay much if anything”, I told him that I didn't care and would take any sort of flying I could get.
Next thing I knew I was on a ski-equipped red and white Super Cub flying through the mountains to drop stuff off at a lodge. I was having an absolute blast and loving every second of it. Diving into tiny little fields of snow surrounded by mountains every day I was living my dream even though I wasn't getting paid for it.
Time went on and the Cub and I got to know each other better. We were flying through both beautiful and nasty days with anything that we could fit inside of the plane. There is a certain connection that you form with an airplane when it is the only one that you fly. You get to know exactly how it will handle under any conditions and you feel more and more comfortable each flight, at least until things don't go your way.
I will never forget the first time I have truly been scared in an airplane, it was a day that started out bad and just kept getting worse. The day started out like a lot of other winter days, a little cold, light snow, and clouds at around 1500ft. Obviously, I'd prefer to fly on a sunny day but a little bit of snow is no problem, in fact, I prefer flying in the snow over rain because the snow doesn't really even touch the plane, it just blows over it so it's not super noisy like the rain is. So I take off in the cub starting out my 2 hour round trip to the lodge and back, keep in mind the cub is not a plane designed to fly in poor visibility. The only instruments it has is an altimeter, a turn coordinator that didn't work, a magnetic compass that kind of worked, and an airspeed indicator. The only way you knew which way was up is by looking out of the windows.
So this day I'm flying through the mountains on my normal path following the river. The mountains on each side are 4000 to 6000 feet tall and I'm down around 100 feet above the river
using it for navigation because I had no GPS or anything of the sort and there was only around 2 miles of visibility at this point. I get to the lodge without any problems but as I'm unloading it starts snowing harder and harder. I know I need to leave very soon or I'm going to get stuck there. I finally finish unloading and against my better judgment, I try to make it home. As soon as I get into the valley the river is in. I realize my mistake. At this point, I can only see about 1/8th of a mile and can hardly recognize anything around me. The valley is too narrow to try to turn around so I just have no choice but to keep going.
The weather is terrible and my heart is beating out of my chest cause at any moment I could take a wrong turn down the valley and end up at a dead-end and fly into the mountain. I can't see but about 400ft in front of me and the only way I can tell the attitude of the plane is by looking straight down out of the window at the hardly visible river below. I just had to trust my gut and take the turns through the valley that I thought was correct. It seemed like I was flying through the valley for hours. There were points where I would be thinking, ok here in the next 10 seconds or so the river should fork and I need to go left and there it would be. Finally, as I get out of the mountains the visibility improves, only to about a mile but still way better than what I had in the mountains and I made it home safe.
I learned a lot about decision-making on that flight, but one thing about flying in Alaska is you never really know how good or bad it will be until you take a look so there is always a good amount of luck involved. Although I have had many more experiences like that one in the years I've been flying in Alaska. I think that one will always be the most memorable.
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