Lower Yukon: The Romance of Bush-flying….?

My first flying lesson was in a Cessna 150.  This particular aircraft, N844OU, rolled out the doors of the the Cessna Factory in Witchita, Kansas only 8 years after my parents carried me out the doors of the maternity ward at the USAF Base Hospital in Puerto Rico.  Without disclosing too much personal information, the later event happened just about two years following the “Ton-Kin Resolution.”  The former was in 1975.

The fact that I was about to entrust life and limb to a machine nearly my age was of little concern to me.  One reason being that I was far too excited about the adventure of learning to fly to be concerned about much of anything.  Another reason was the confidence of my instructor, who not only had to function with the thought of flying an airplane that had seen over a score of years, but also allowing a complete novice to take the controls.

I believe there is a definition of true faith somewhere in that equation.

Since that first lesson, and many many hours of safe and joyful flying in aircraft of similar vintage, I’ve come to respect a truth that we all hope applies to aircraft and humans both: if properly maintained and treated with care, age is not a limitation to ability.  Moreover, while years (and the abuse of novice pilots learning to land) may take its toll on appearances, ultimately it is what is under the skin (or cowling) that counts.

Isn’t this what we learned in Kindergarten?  Don’t judge a book by its cover…or an airplane by its paint.  Beauty is only skin deep.

Nevertheless, when I walked out to the aircraft that would take me from Aniak to Shageluk on my first visits in the Lower Yukon, I found my commitment to looking beyond appearances more than a bit challenged.  Once strapped in my seat, and surveying the interior of this aircraft, I found it to be in full crisis!  My goodness, was that duct-tape around the windows?

Evidently, duct-tape is sufficient to seal out even 120 knot winds.  A good thing on a cold Alaska morning.

Once airborne, however, it didn’t take long before I was perfectly comfortable.  And as we leveled off at a  mere 2,000 feet msl, I began to really appreciate and marvel at the capabilities of this well-used Cessna 207 Stationaire.

Despite the fact that it was beaten-up and the instrument panel had more gaps and empty spaces than a hockey player’s smile, the plane was very well equipped.  Front and center was a Garmin 530 GPS navigation system, a system probably worth more than the aircraft alone.  At the tip of the pilot’s fingers were full color terrain awareness, a moving map display, every navigational whistle and bell, and even on-board traffic alert and read-out.  Nice.  The fact that this glorious piece of avionics technology was installed in an otherwise well-used aircraft seemed the essence of irony.

In the end, however, flying in Alaska is much more enjoyable looking out the window than at a cockpit display.  The scenery below was breath-taking, and from only 2,000 feet, I found myself once again enthralled by the natural wonder of this land’s rivers. wetlands, mountains, and wildlife.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of time to enjoy passing scenery.  The flights around the villages of the Lower Yukon or all rather brief affairs–15 to 20 minutes and you are preparing to land.  And landing at the villages is a rather simple matter, too, despite the perceptions of wild bush-pilot adventures.  Even though small and remote by ‘outside’ standards, every village we visited had an improved landing strip–rolled gravel with pilot controlled lighting, and even AWOS (automated weather observation systems–these transmit the local weather conditions to the aircraft radio).  There are more “airports” in Western NY that I’ve visited that are less well equipped.

Makes you wonder about the definition of Bush Flying.

In the villages, a landing aircraft attracts a lot of attention.  A fleet of cars and pick-up trucks await the arrival of the plane. But lest one think this is a welcoming party, the reason for the attention is not the passengers, it is the cargo.  I still marvel at the quantity of cargo that shared the aircraft with the people on-board.  Everything from US Mail to a new Sanyo LCD flat screen television was packed into every allowable space.

I am certain that the allowable space I was occupying others would have preferred to have been filled with more cargo.

The fact is cargo pays the bills for many small air service operators.  Flight schedules and plans are driven by the transport of cargo.  If there isn’t enough  cargo to make a flight economical, the flight doesn’t happen.

Even if there is a bishop waiting to get from Anvik to Grayling.  Even if there is a bride in Grayling waiting for a bishop to arrive to perform her wedding ceremony.

Evidently, romance and bush-flying don’t always mix.


About Bishop Mark Lattime

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lattime is the 8th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.
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