FAIRBANKS — David Lace just traded 42 years of “windshield time” with wheels up for windshield time with wheels on the ground
The longtime pilot retired last week. Per tradition, fire trucks shot arcs of water over the giant cargo airplane after his final journey from Nome to Anchorage.
“I was emotional,” he admitted. “But at the same time, it was good to end a career with no hits, no errors, no fouls, no violations.”
He retired because the law requires him to step down from flying big airplanes at age 65.
Lace can hardly remember when he didn’t love flying.
He was 16 years old and working part time as a technician at the University of Alaska Fairbanks arctic biology lab when he discovered the university’s flight club, operated through Tanana Air Taxi.
“Those days, it cost $12 an hour to rent an airplane with fuel,” he said. “I learned how to fly through that program and I really liked flying.”
It wasn’t an overreaching passion, it just was so much fun.
“I liked it so much, I went into partnership with a graduate stunt and we bought our own airplane, a little Taylorcraft. We used that all over the state. I had a great time flying that little airplane.”
In 1974, Alaska International Air added a C-130 Hercules to their fleet. A Hercules is a transport aircraft, which can ferry large cargo.
The airline company invited Lace to travel to the Lower 48 and earn a flight engineer rating. He took the three-month course in Seattle and went right to work. He was 23 years old.
He flew the Hercules for about 10 years.
“During that time,” he said. “I flew internationally — Far East, Middle East, Africa, all over Europe, along with North Slope flying. There was a lot of exploration going on at the North Slope.”
The Hercules, he said, was instrumental in getting the Alaska pipeline built, because it could not have happened without first building a road to Prudhoe Bay. Part of Lace’s job was helping set up camps north of the Yukon River, Coldfoot, Dietrich, Franklin Bluffs and Prudhoe Bay. All the units used at those camps are designed to fit inside a Hercules for transport, he said.
“We flew in Caterpillar tractors, bulldozers,” he said. “We flew everything in so they could start hauling gravel and building the road. Then the pipeline started.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without AIH, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Because pipeline construction was held up for a period of time during Alaska Native Claim Settlement discussions, AIH turned its attention overseas.
“It forced us into the international market,” Lace said. “We ended up flying from Botswana to England.”
When pipeline work began, the international work also continued.
Lace became a captain in the Hercules. Then, he became a captain in the 737.
Without listing all the details of how it evolved here, the next big step was when MarkAir launched. Lace worked as a pilot for MarkAir for many years, as the company competed with Alaska Airlines. But after expanding outside Alaska, in the early 1990s, MarkAir eventually went out of business.
“Then I went to New York and flew 747s for Atlas,” Lace said. “Flying around the world, hauling freight.”
Meanwhile, his wife, Chris, stayed home raising son Aaron and working at the University of Alaska.
“It was tough on her,” Lace said. “There I was, sipping coffee in Italy and she would call from Fairbanks and the plumbing wasn’t working.”
“I was gone and she had to hold down the fort,” he said. “It was not easy. Chris was a big part of me being able to do what I did.”
Realizing he needed to make a change, he quit and then began working as an FAA Air Carrier Inspector.
“I inspected foreign carriers, like Air France, Lufthansa, special charters through Russia,” he said. “It was a pretty active airport (in Fairbanks) in those days. Of course, we’ve lost all that.”
Recognizing his special expertise, the FAA used Lace as what they refer to as “a national resource on the DC6 and old vintage aircraft,” he said. “I would travel out of Fairbanks and go to Miami, Texas, Wyoming and inspect or do check rides on vintage aircraft.”
“They didn’t want to keep all the inspectors qualified in the old airplanes, so they used me, because of my background,” he said.
He loved the work, but it definitely interfered with his family life.
“I’ve been gone a lot,” he said. “I’ve missed birthdays, anniversaries. It is one of those job, 24/7. They don’t always tell you that when you sign up.”
Still, he is going to miss it.
He also worked as operations director for Northern Air Cargo/Northern Air Fuel.
When he retired last week, he was training pilots to fly big planes.
“I would do full check-ins, line checks, simulator check rides. I was a designated examiner the last two or three years,” he said. “FAA trusted me to administer check rides and issue certificates to pilots. I didn’t take that lightly. I appreciated their trust in me.”
He has so many memories, so many stories to tell, none of which we have room for in this column.
He recalled working briefly at Everts Air Cargo in Fairbanks.
“This is a great aviation family,” he said. “I gave flight engineer tickets to two guys at Evert’s when I worked there. Many years later, I gave them their captain certificate at Northern Air Cargo. That’s like, wow, cool.”
Lace isn’t sure what his flying future will be. Once pilots reach the age of 65, they are no longer allowed to legally fly planes carrying nine passengers or more.
“I never planned on getting to go this far,” he said. “Really, I’m just kind of reeling from the fact that one day, I’m okay to fly and the next day, I’m not. How crazy is that?”
He recalled sitting around with a bunch of pilots back in 1974, drinking beers. They all predicted when they might retire from aviation. Lace predicted his own retirement in the year 2011. That was way past when the rest of them planned to retire, and he got started long before they did. Since he planned to outlast them all, they dubbed him “The Last of the Storytellers.”
“That was my title,” he recalled. “I said, that means I can tell these stories. Yeah you can, they said, but nobody is going to believe them.”
“I’m going to miss the camaraderie of flying around with someone half my age,” said Lace. “I have a diversity of people from all walks of life and age.”
Sitting in a cockpit with a person leads to great conversations sometimes, he said.
He even has a favorite.
“I’ve worked with many different companies, but I have never been with a more agreeable bunch of pilots than the guys at Northern Air Cargo,” he said. “They are absolute great guys to work with. They passed Sandbox 101 in kindergarten with flying colors.”
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