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Flying in bush Alaska can be very exciting...
by Jill Smith
Part 2 of a continuing series
as published in our newsletter, Logbook, July 1999

Flying in bush Alaska can be very exciting, very scary and very dull (mostly when you're grounded due to weather). The Cold Bay base of Peninsula Airways has four airplanes--two Piper Cherokee Saratogas and two Piper Navajo Chieftains. We have scheduled service to three native Aleut villages-King Cove, False Pass and Nelson Lagoon, also to a cannery that only operates in the summers - Port Moller. The other village we go to with scheduled service is Sand Point and that is a flagstop which means we will go there three days a week but only if we have someone who wants to go or come from there. We don't do their mail service as we do with all the others. We fly people, mail, and bypass mail, which includes groceries from suppliers that are going to bush grocery stores, UPS, Fed Ex, freight such as boat engines and food, booze and cigarettes from the Cold Bay store to the outlying villages. Only one of the villages we serve has full time, year round stores. We also do charters, medivacs and we are school bus drivers. Since there is only one school in each village, to be able to compete in sports, we fly the boy's team from village A to village B and then take the girl's team from village B back to village A to play. Then the next day, or end of the weekend, we take them back.

One of the worst jobs is hauling the salmon roe from the canneries. This is big business and the head honchos of the seafood company - in this case Peter Pan Seafoods - come over from Japan to keep tabs on the transportation of the roe so none of it disappears. The roe is worth a lot of money in Japan. It is awful to transport! It's slimy and it smells! You always want to wear your worst set of work clothes because the roe doesn't come off if you get it on yourself. It comes in boxes (these are fine, I wish it all came in boxes) and plastic tubs. The tubs are usually leaking and I try to hold them as far away from myself as possible. That gets kind of hard when they weigh about 30 pounds each. When we transport the roe, all the unused passenger seats are out of the plane and we put tarps down to keep the leaking slime from getting everywhere. It's really bad if you drop one of the tubs too hard and the excess slime on the sides flies everywhere. Yuck!

We have agents in each of our villages that bring outgoing mail to us, take the incoming mail and give us reports on the weather and runway conditions at that particular village. Before we leave on a flight we call the airport and ask how it is. The agent says, "Clear and good visibility and the runway is in great shape." You need to be extra suspicious if one of your passengers is really anxious to go, or the store has brought alcohol or cigarettes for you to take to someone. On one particular flight I was taking to Nelson Lagoon in the Navajo Chieftain, we got just such a report. It really was quite a nice day, too. Nelson Lagoon is 72 miles NNE of Cold Bay. We have marine radios in our airplanes to talk to the village agents. When I am 10 minutes out I call the agent and let them know I am inbound. Usually the whole village listens to the marine radio. The weather report is still good. As I'm turning final a man's voice comes on the marine radio with "Hey, Jill, you should probably land past the intersection. It's sanded there, O.K.?" Instantly I'm suspicious. I acknowledge the transmission and start concentrating. I'm landing on runway 8 and, as with all runways out there, there are no taxi ways, just intersections that lead to the ramp. You always have to back-taxi. The runway looks great from where I am--nice gravel and clear of all snow. I touch down just beyond the intersection. Holy Cow! It's a solid sheet of ice! It's so clear, that's why it was deceiving while I looked at in on final. You could ice skate on it. I have absolutely NO braking action! Throttles are completely at idle; I'm using rudder to keep it straight as I start to fishtail a little. I'm using "manual" anti-lock brakes - that's tapping one brake and then the other in rapid succession. My right hand is now on the mixtures, ready to kill the engines if I can't stop. Someone calls on the marine radio as I'm finally sliding to a stop at the far end of the runway. "Hey, Jill, how 'bout if we come down to you at that end, so you don't have to back-taxi, O.K.?" Well, isn't that a novel idea! No way was I going to attempt to taxi after that landing! I barely managed to get it turned around and as we were all working around the airplane we could hardly stay standing, it was so icy! Thankfully there was no wind and I just took off from that end of the runway. When I got back to Cold Bay, I said, "No more Nelson Lagoon runs till it's totally sanded!" By the afternoon run they had spread 1000 pounds of sand on the runway.

Cold Bay is a village at the end of the Alaska Peninsula, about 30 miles from the first Aleutian Island of Unimak. Cold Bay's population is around 70, same with Nelson Lagoon, which we service three times a week. Port Moller, which is about 15 miles north of Nelson Lagoon, swells with fisherman and cannery workers in the summer, but only the caretaker and his wife are there in the winter. During the winter, we only go there once a week (three times in the summer) and the caretaker is usually quite talkative when he meets us, as you can imagine! False Pass is on Unimak Island and has about 50 people and dwindling. We service them three times a week, too. Sand Point has a population in the high hundreds and is probably the nicest of the villages with a couple of paved roads and a pool at the school. I believe it is the seat of the Aleutians East Borough (no counties here). We come here three times a week only if there are passengers. King Cove is the biggest village at 200 to 900 people depending on whether the cannery workers are in town. We go there six days a week. King Cove is also the closest to Cold Bay at 18 nautical miles away-approximately a 10-15 minute flight. It's also one of the two worst airport areas we go to. The other is False Pass, but more about that in another column.

The terrain and weather mix to make for some awful conditions. Cold Bay is almost equidistant from the Bering Sea and the North Pacific. The location is prime for terrible weather - deep low-pressure systems, high winds, lots of turbulence, fog, and precipitation. Cold Bay has over 300 days a year of a least partial cloud coverage and measurable precipitation. It is also the third windiest town in the country. The terrain goes from totally flat tundra to some rolling hill tundra to huge mountains and volcanoes-up to 8000' to 9000' from sea level.

In my first week there, I was with a company instructor in the Chieftain doing some instrument flight training. We were doing a holding pattern at 1500' over the NDB approximately five or six miles northwest of CDB. On the inbound leg of the hold, we should've had a 40-knot wind about 30-40 degrees off the nose from the right. For the life of me I could not figure out the holding pattern! I knew where I was the whole time, but I couldn't make it look like a racetrack. My instructor, sitting with his arms crossed, a smug smile on his face said, "Something's kicking your *!#, isn't it?" And he was laughing very hard. I took off the hood to figure out the problem. It was the wind direction and speed, mixed with terrain height and location. The terrain was causing the wind to come from different locations, depending on where I was in the hold. On a "normal" holding pattern if there were a crosswind from the left on the inbound leg, I would correct the nose to the left on the inbound leg and to the right on the outbound leg. Because of what was happening to me, I had to correct to the right on the inbound, to the right on the outbound and on the 180-degree turn from the outbound to the inbound, I flew straight and level for one minute! My brain was mush when we got back to the airport. But, boy did I learn a lot that day. Mainly, with wind and terrain, treat it as water. Water flows over and around the rocks and things it comes across in its flow. Wind does the same thing.

But then there are days when the weather is so bad we can't fly. That is when it is very dull. We try to occupy the time by cleaning airplanes, hangars, sleeping in the passenger lounge, reading and writing letters and doing numerous crossword puzzles. But mostly we stare out the window looking at the weather and talking about it. "Wow, did you feel that gust?" Or, "Hey, check out the waves of water moving across the ramp!" And, "Look at that huge snow squall moving in!" And there you have it: excitement, terror and boredom.

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