Sunday, April 08, 2012

Stories of human error in ‘The Map of My Dead Pilots’

by David A. James / Books in Review

April 08, 2012

FAIRBANKS - An acquaintance once told me that if you live in Alaska long enough, someone you know will die in a plane crash. In my case it took 10 years for this prophecy to come true, but it did.

Colleen Mondor, who spent the 1990s running operations for a small commuter and freight airline based in Fairbanks, knew enough aviators to learn this lesson several times over. In “The Map of My Dead Pilots” she brings their stories vividly alive and recounts numerous other mishaps experienced by the men she dispatched to remote corners of the state.

Alaska’s vast and varied landscape, combined with its severe shortage of roads, has made aviation the most logical means of long-distance transportation. However, its unpredictable weather and countless rugged mountain ranges strewn about in every direction render this mode of travel far more treacherous than in milder latitudes.

That combination, Mondor suspects, attracts pilots willing to take bigger chances and push their planes much further than their counterparts down south would ever dare.

In this dark — and darkly comic — account, Mondor draws readers into the daily happenings at the unnamed business she refers to only as “the Company.” Coming across as something of a bottom-feeder among the local puddle-jumper outfits, the Company flies routes between small villages, regional hubs like Bethel and Barrow, and the state’s metropolitan areas. Passengers and freight of every sort imaginable are toted along, although mail delivery is what keeps the business in the air.

The pilots are a ragtag lot of men looking to get enough hours to qualify for better jobs in the Lower 48. Most would rather be anywhere else, but fate and a misguided sense of adventure have landed them in the far north.

Here they are pushed beyond their limits by the demands placed on them by the Bosses and the Owners (like the Company, always capitalized, and like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon, always offstage but ready to disrupt the proceedings at any point).

Mondor gets off to a shaky start. The early chapters set the stage but do so in a nonlinear and somewhat unfocused manner that might discourage some readers from sticking with her. They definitely shouldn’t quit, however, because starting with the fourth chapter, the stories start pouring out and the book becomes impossible to set down.

The tale that gets things moving concerns a pilot known for his daring-do who got away with poor decisions enough times to consider himself charmed. His luck ran out while flying a group of schoolgirls from Gambell on St. Lawrence Island to the mainland. He’d taken off with just enough fuel to complete the flight, provided no complications arose. But arise they did and he made an emergency landing on the sea ice.

No one died, and the pilot lied to everyone (including the Federal Aviation Administration) about the cause of his forced landing.

No one bought it, of course, except for the pilot himself who held onto his fabrication until the day when even he couldn’t believe it anymore.

The reality of the catastrophe he narrowly avoided causing sets in, and then his personal problems commenced and his chances of ever flying again evaporated.

While this pilot survived physically, if not spiritually, another flier known for cocky behavior slammed into a mountain and died on a clear day while looking for a wolf pack to harass instead of looking at his surroundings. Mondor examines the incident looking for some justification but concludes that if he hadn’t crashed this time, he would have done it another, for as a friend tells her, “He flew into a mountain.

You can’t save someone who’s going to fly into a mountain.”

A running theme in this book is the attempt at understanding what causes accidents. Virtually all of the ones she describes boil down to pilot error, and for Mondor, this indicates that Alaska draws people who seal their destinies simply by coming north.

One of the most troubling deaths for her is that of a pilot who worked for the Company and who she greatly admired for his skill and his innate decency. Taking off from Tanana, he ran into immediate trouble with one of his engines and crashed into the Yukon River while trying to return to the village airport.

Parts of the plane, including the engine believed to have failed, were washed downriver and never recovered, leaving the FAA unable to determine the crash’s cause. The other Company pilots, interviewed for this book, offer broad-ranging speculations on what went wrong. Ultimately it all comes back to the decisions made in the cockpit in a matter of seconds under extreme stress. In other words, pilot error once again. There’s more than just death in this book, and as dark as it gets, it’s also very funny. Several chapters give readers an idea of just what sort of freight gets hauled around the skies above us — soda pop, liquor, potato chips, meat, animal and human carcasses, and so on. We also learn why the Company quit hauling sled dogs. Elsewhere the story of a mercy flight to save a village teenager from her suicide attempt turns anything but heroic. Mondor also revisits some of the highlights of Alaska Bush piloting history to show how little has changed since the pioneer days.

What Mondor ultimately recognizes about Alaska aviation, though, is that pilots are easily replaced, more so than the planes, which cost money. If you think you matter, she writes, then get yourself killed, “And within a week, your company hires someone else to take your place ... Welcome to the Last Frontier.”

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
The Map of My Dead Pilots

By Colleen Mondor

Lyons Press • 2012

256 pages • $22.95

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