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Where wings meet the wild

The young fliers who ferry anglers, tugboat pilots and Pampers across the Alaskan wilderness work as much for adrenaline as a paycheck. As Thomas Curwen reports, they seek life's purpose -- and parties.

November 18, 2003|Thomas Curwen

Bethel, Alaska — To find the young pilots who will take you flying early the next morning, step through the mud that mires two trashed Ford pickups and stomp up the stairs of a drafty house just east of the airport. It's dark. Mongrels scavenge in a vacant lot next door. The temperature is dropping fast below freezing, and there's no mistaking where the party is.

Tupac's taken over the CD player where the Stones left off. Eight guys crowd the living room, gawking as air traffic controllers blast the window from the tower with a lightgun. In the kitchen, a couple are pushing people aside as they spin each other to the music and there's this kid screaming ecstatically as he holds an empty beer keg over his head as if it were some wild game trophy.

Let it never be said that the men and women who work the most dangerous job in Alaska don't know how to blow off steam.

Or how to tell stories.

They say the best pilot in Alaska -- a career that kills at a rate 100 times higher than the average job in the United States -- is the one who's still alive, and after many beers and many shots of whiskey chased with Mountain Dew, these bush pilots seem to think it's a part of their continuing education to celebrate survival by flaunting their skirmishes with death.

"We had packed the plane with half-gallon bottles of whiskey and gin and as much beer as we could fit in," begins one young pilot, Corona in hand.

"But it was too heavy to take off," pause for dramatic effect, "so we drained the fuel. When we landed in Bethel and the tail set down, the gas gauge turned up empty."

Even as heads are still bobbing over "Anchorage Beer Run," another pilot (who requests anonymity out of consideration for anxious insurance and FAA types) launches into "The Fired Mechanic."

"I was just out of Hooper Bay. Smoke started pouring into the cockpit," he says, eyes widening. "I grabbed the extinguisher, shoved the nozzle into the dash and pulled the trigger. That seemed to do it, but I had to fly home with only the compass, altimeter and wind-speed indicator."

Yarn after gripping yarn, including "Spiraling Vortex of Death" -- "We were pointed straight down ... all I could see was the ground ... " -- pour forth before the Monday night party peters out unceremoniously.

The fun of flying

The late fall sunrise is a frosty Popsicle that pokes with sadistic glee at the previous evening's enthusiasms. Around 8 a.m., the crew starts drifting into Arctic Circle Air, one of about 10 carriers in the Bethel area. Founded in 1885 by Moravian missionaries, Bethel is 2,285 miles from Los Angeles (as the crow flies), 400 miles from Anchorage and 80 miles from the Bering Sea. It is a lonely, treeless burg built on permafrost in Alaska's southwestern corner and home to the state's second busiest airport.

The iconic bush pilot -- grizzly guy in caribou coat and beaver hat -- still exists. So does his mythic plane. But skimming on mountain lakes and glissading on glaciers is mostly summer work, paid for by hunters, anglers and tourists. The pilots who fly year-round tend to be younger and more transient, arriving in Alaska in search of adventure, hours in the air and whatever else it is that draws a young person to wild, raw places.

At the moment, Jimmy Christensen, 22, is pushing a Cessna 207 into the hangar. He takes a broom to a layer of frost clinging to the wings and prop. Wearing a Yankee cap, he's the kid they tease for not being able to grow facial hair. He was busted for marijuana possession two days before high school graduation. His uncle sent him to flight school in Arizona for a year. He arrived in Alaska four years ago.

Aaron Stinson, 27, was born in Victoria, Texas, but only after he's had a few drinks does his accent leak through. He's sipping coffee now. Outside, the Herman-Nelson heater is blasting hot air into his plane, warming the solenoids and liquid crystal circuitry. Degreed in international finance, he became a pilot as a way to meet women. He flew out of Jamaica for a year before heading north.

Matt Warrick's a month younger than Christensen. He's got the week off, but stopped by anyway. Farm boy and Eagle Scout from Nebraska. He started flying in junior high and never stopped.

Warrick's the only pilot here who doesn't drink, but if the others look a little hung over, fear not: The FAA requires eight hours of abstinence before flying -- bottle-to-throttle, they say -- and these pilots love getting in the air so much, they're scrupulous in timing their other indulgences.

As for the rest of the rules, most of them have been bent, if not broken altogether. Alaska is its own world: When the Civil Aeronautics Authority first visited the territory in 1934 and tried to bring order to the skies, the pilots rebelled. Flying by the book was both unprofitable and foolish. Not much has changed since.

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