Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fly low, fly slow: Alaska aviators converge on Talkeetna for annual event

TALKEETNA — The plane is almost motionless, languidly flying a few feet above ground. The engine is making the telltale sound of struggling – stumbling, stammering and spluttering – and the propeller is barely spinning.

Stalling is inevitable. This plane is clearly about to plow into the ground. 

It passes a man holding a radar gun. Suddenly, the engine screams back into life.

Quickly climbing in altitude it soon becomes invisible. Another takes its place over the runway.

The plane is almost motionless, languidly flying a few feet above ground.

This is the stressful and exciting experience of watching the Slow/Fast Competition at the 7th annual Talkeetna Fly-In.

The event is a test who can fly their plane the fastest, and then more worryingly, who can fly the slowest without landing or crashing.

Sarah Russell, the manager at Above Alaska Aviation, explained the fascination of pushing planes to the ragged edge.

“In the aviation world, there’s a cult following for the Super Cubs, for who can go the slowest,” she said. “It’s all about who can go slow and low.”

And slow really does mean slow, down in the low 20 mph range, Russell said.

Last year’s winner was a kite that flew passed the radar gun at 19 miles an hour.

The other Talkeetna Fly-In events aren’t quite as nerve-wracking to watch as the Slow/Fast competition.

There’s an aerial scavenger hunt where pilots are given GPS coordinates and are then given one point for every photo taken at that coordinate from the air and two points for every photo taken from that coordinate on the ground.

There are also prizes up for grabs hidden at these locations.

Then there is the Poker Run, an event where pilots collect cards every time they stop along the way to Talkeetna, making a poker hand and competing for prizes for who has the highest and lowest hands.

Beyond the fun and games, Sarah Russell said that the Talkeetna Fly-In’s mission is about fostering community.

“The main purpose of the Fly-In is to bring the community together and share our love and passion for aviation,” she said. “Aviators, non-aviators — everybody is welcome,”

The Fly-In was originally a memorial to the legendary bush pilots Cliff and Jay Hudson, but this year, the event has expanded in scope.

“We’ve had so many great pilots come through that we thought we’d include all of them,” Russell said. “We want to pay our respects to everybody who has gone before and everybody who’s been inspired since to take up the torch and keep flying.”

There are, of course, more mundane reasons for attending Fly-Ins.

“Originally they started with two guys saying, ‘hey there’s a cool place 50 miles away; let’s go and get a hamburger,’” Russell said. “Basically, pilots are always looking for an excuse to go fly.”


For all the focus on history, the Talkeetna Fly-In has a keen eye on the future of local aviation as it helps showcase the Talkeetna Build-A-Plane Project.

Dallas Haman, a volunteer at Build-A-Plane and the maintenance manager at K2 aviation explained how the project works.

“We take an airplane from when it’s damaged or derelict and get it back to where it’s airworthy and flyable,” he said. “The program started 8 years ago and the first plane was a Piper PA-32 300 Cherokee 6 — and it’s almost done.”

But the focus isn’t trying to finish the plane.

“The measure of our program is how many kids had a positive experience and went onto love aviation and make it their career,” Haman said. “Over those eight years of Build-A-Plane, we now have seven kids who have their mechanics license.”

The project is also able to donate vouchers for flying lessons so kids can get their pilot’s license and gain employable skills.

The co-founder of Denali Brewing Company, Sassan Mossanen, highlighted the importance of this employability for the area.

“Build-A-Plane encourages kids to participate in an activity that keeps them here because aviation is such a critical part of Alaska and especially Talkeetna,” Mossanen said.

And although the participants are typically between 10 and 19, Mossanen said they are known to accept younger children. His own daughter, for instance, was learning to rivet and do sheet metal work at 8-years old.

Dylan Cox, 16, started going to Build-A-Plane when he was 9-years old and the project allowed him to “find his mechanical ability,” something he was happy to discover because working in construction with his Dad had some distinct disadvantages.

“I was the little guy, I always got sent into crawl spaces, doing insulation, running wires,” Cox said. “I decided I didn’t like that, I liked mechanical work.”

Emma Apitzsch, 17, also found her mechanical skills at Build-A-Plane and together with Cox, she found her calling in the world of aviation.

Apitzsch will begin studying at UAF this year to get her A&P certificate.

Both Apitzsch and Cox are also student pilots and both have the goal to combine the technical skills of repairing and maintaining planes with thrill of flying them.

“Being a mechanic and a pilot is a special relationship, and in Alaska especially, you can go anywhere and get a job,” said Cox.

 In Alaska, there’s a plane under every tree

“The definition of owning an airplane is standing in a wind tunnel, tearing up 100-dollar bills,” laughed Chelle MacKenzie, a Fly-In returnee. 

So, if it’s known to be so expensive, why is flying so popular in Alaska?

“It gives you freedom,” said MacKenzie.

The belief amongst pilots is that the road system is overrun with people, popular fishing spots are fished out and the ‘real’ Alaska lays just out of view for everyone who is stuck on land.

“You can’t get away from people in Alaska on the road system,” said Daniel Jeffries. “You either need a boat or plane.”

And people here are keen to meet up, spend time with other pilots getting tips, networking or just getting to see great planes up close. Talkeetna seems then like a logical place for a fly-in. It’s a town that has a year-round population of a few hundred people and two airports. 

That draws in people with great stories about aviation like Kris Ogonowski who has lived in Alaska for 38 years and has owned her plane since 1993.

Her Arctic Tern, built in 1974, is rare with only “29 ever being built.” Hers is serial number one. And the plane’s illustrious history matches its illustrious serial number.

She thinks the plane’s original owner may have made an emergency landing on Knik Goose Bay Road.

And that same owner piloted the Arctic Tern over the summit of Denali.

“He left from Lake Hood and he had extra oxygen tanks for the engine. He had to put in flaps because he was running out of oomph. He must have got a draft to go up and over. And then, he throttled back and came and landed here, because he needed to get fuel.”

Everyone in attendance to this conversation agreed that the engine probably didn’t need to be running to make it down to Talkeetna

“If he had of shut off the engine, he could have glided all the way here,” said Ogonowski.

And just to make it nerve-wracking, he almost certainly would have done so as slowly as physically possible.

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