Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Do what you can to make flights with a bush pilot easier

By Christine Cunningham

The woman behind the counter told me she could try to get me over on wheels when the first pilot got back. I was eager to join the rest of my hunting party already in the field, but I hadn't called ahead to confirm my flight and spent the next several hours watching a little wiry white-haired pup named Piper come in and out the door with business.

We watched as a crew unloaded a moose from a floatplane while pilots checked in with the office in the carefree manner of men who spend most of their days in the sky. Finally, and without introduction, a man in a red-and-black flannel shirt asked if I was ready to go. I didn't know whether I was getting kicked out or picked up. I followed him out the door 20 feet to a Super Cub parked next to my truck.

"I've never flown in a plane that small before," I admitted.

"It's only my second time," he said.

Visiting wild places

Once inside the Cub, we sped across the parking lot and scooted up the driveway like we were on a four-wheeler with wings, turned a corner and were airborne. Below, the perfectly mowed lawn and office on the lake turned into an image from Google Earth.

Oil platforms stationed in Cook Inlet appeared below. Mount Redoubt steamed in the distance above the Drift River Valley. The tidal sloughs glowed amber, and the flats were gold with the day's last light. Flying just above sea level, I watched through the passenger window as the Cub carried me to a hunting camp I knew was on the horizon.

I may be guilty of a few romantic thoughts about flying in Bush planes. After all, it's difficult not to associate Bush planes with the wild places they fly — places where solitude dissolves rudimentary notions of time and space. The rules are based on changing weather, terrain and game plans. You want your pilot to be as close to the pulse of that world as possible and able to react to changing circumstances without any time lost to surprise.

No matter how glamorous the job looks, bush pilots aren't getting rich. Most fly because they love it and can't imagine doing anything else. Flying in numerous Bush planes over the years on hunting and fishing trips has provided lessons in how to be considerate of myriad contingencies concealed behind bush pilots' outwardly cool appearance.

If the air-taxi service says don't bring more than a certain amount of gear, I don't. This request isn't like a commercial airline asking me to fit my carry-on into a prescribed square or asking me what fictional weight is on my driver's license. Over-the-limit payloads in small aircraft are dangerous and illegal.

The smaller the plane, the smaller the area to hold gear. If you haven't flown in a Bush plane before, it's worthwhile to look at the aircraft you're flying to get a frame of reference when you pack. If you have extra-long or extra-heavy gear, ask if it will fit ahead of time.

Even if time allows and you can afford an additional trip for gear transport, weather can close in fast, particularly in mountain passes. No one wants to get stuck in the Alaska Bush lacking items that had to be left behind because you didn't plan well or ignored the air-taxi guidelines.

Passengers wanting to know more about their chosen air taxi before takeoff can search the National Transportation Safety Board aviation database ( and come up with the company's accident history.

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