Alaska's veteran bush pilots tackle challenges others might not

Former senator Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful congressmen of his generation, was killed Aug. 9 in an airplane crash in a remote part of southwest Alaska.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The prized silver salmon are making their frenzied annual run to the headwaters of Alaska's Nushagak River, drawing the puddle-hopping planes like the one in which Alaska's preeminent political figure, Ted Stevens, and four others died Monday.

"The first time I saw them on the Nushagak, they were running seven miles wide and three miles deep down that river," said Mort D. Mason, who spent three decades ferrying fishing parties to the remote reaches of Alaska's wilderness. "It is an incredible sight that boggles the mind when you're a couple hundred feet up. The whole river looks black, it's so thick with fish."

The vast expanse of Alaska is the province of bush pilots like Mason, whose small planes provide the only access to areas without roads or railroads. They link the small towns and hunting lodges that lure outdoorsmen, who test their skills against the salmon, moose, caribou, black bear, grizzlies and prized snow-white Dall sheep.

The flying is as different as the hunting up there, with the small planes flitting about without the guidance of federal air traffic controllers, flying low to escape the cloud cover that blankets the landscape, often skimming the treetops, passing between mountaintops and hopping over the hills.

"I once flew for four hours and never got above 60 feet," said Mason, 79, who retired in 1985 and wrote a book titled "The Alaska Bush Pilot Chronicles: More Adventures and Misadventures from the Big Empty."

Alaskan bush pilots learn to land on tiny fields and the thousands of lakes and rivers that dot the backcountry. The water often provides the only landing option for float planes like the red De Havilland DHC-3 Otter, built in 1957, that Stevens and eight others were aboard when it crashed.

The plane, owned by an Anchorage communications company that also owned the lodge Stevens was visiting, was bound from Lake Nerka to the Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik when it went down about 8 p.m. not far from Dillingham, in rain and mist that lowered the cloud cover to 1,300 feet.

"I'm surprised that they were flying in bad weather at night," Mason said. "I've got 1,000 hours flying in bad weather and night, so it's done, but it's a good thing to avoid if you can."

Still, it's the nature of Alaskan pilots to tackle challenges that others might not, he said.

"Down in the Southern states, they see a cloud come across the sun, they put it off until tomorrow," he said. "Up in Alaska, they wait until they see a duck waiting at a bus stop before they reconsider flying."

In an age when technology has given pilots tools that the Wright brothers never dreamed of, much of Alaskan flying still relies more on sharp eyes and an agile hand on the controls.

Mason's advice to would-be bush pilots: "Find the oldest instructor you can and learn to fly aerobatics, because you need to walk away with all the confidence in the world." The pilot of the 53-year-old De Havilland almost certainly was one of those Alaskan veterans, Mason said.

"You wouldn't find a new pilot in an airplane like this, so it had to be an old, experienced hand, and I'm guessing it was a mechanical problem," he said.

Like virtually everyone who has lived in Alaska, Mason said that Stevens was no stranger. In 1961, Mason said he walked out of his bank at Fifth and E streets in Anchorage in need of a lawyer. He saw a lawyer's shingle pointing to an office above the bank and walked up to meet the future senator from Alaska.

"It was a very small office," Mason recalled. "That was before he became a big deal."

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