Frosty leaves and clover
Our friend Scott has been a pilot for many years. We met several years ago when he was shopping for a new bicycle. Over the years we've talked bikes, commuting, clothes (I talked him into trying wool) and flying. He was the first one to share with me the saying: "There are old pilots and bold pilots but there are no old, bold pilots." For as long as I've known him, Scott has invited me to go flying in his small (4-seater, I think) 1983 Maule airplane. He's offered to do gear drops on the Resurrection Trail, invited Jon and me to fly to a wilderness lake with our bicycles for some remote winter cycling. He loves flying and wants to share it. But sometimes his visits to the shop seemed to correspond closely with recent small-plane crashes. I would bring up a crash and he would explain what had been done wrong. The conditions that contributed. Wind, route choice, pilot as spotter. Mistakes that should have been avoided. For all these years I've avoided getting into a small plane.
View Larger Map
This past Saturday, Scott stopped by the shop and Jon suggested he call me at home. The weather has been unusually beautiful this October and he was planning a short trip to Talkeetna with a brief stop at Willow on the return trip. I thought about it. I tried to not think about it. I hemmed and hawed until it was stressing me out, but I told him I'd let him know in the morning. A plane had crashed in Denali just a few days before. I couldn’t help but think about that. When Jon got home later in the evening I told him I wasn't going. The house remodel is enough stress, I told Jon. I didn't need the added stress of something I saw as completely frivolous; a joyride. This was no time to test my nerves.
The plane, affectionately named "Baby," parked at Lake Hood.
So, when Scott called Sunday morning to see if I was going to go flying, I calmly asked, "What time?" Jon stood in the bedroom looking at me but he didn’t ask what changed my mind. I'm not sure exactly what changed my mind, but one rule I try to follow is this: Don't make decisions at the end of the day. That's why the term "sleep on it" exists. Because we make better decisions after a night's rest. Our heads are clear and it’s easier to be reasonable. I guess Sunday seemed as good a day as any to finally put this fear, this hurdle, behind me. Like the remodel, do it before another winter sets in.
Okay, I'm ready as I'll ever be!
Jon couldn't join us on the little jaunt so Scott asked if I wanted to bring anyone along, for moral support. I didn't feel like calling anyone, especially on such short notice, but there was more to it than that, as I’ll explain later.
Lake Hood and the Chugach Mountains.
When we took off from Anchorage, from one of the big runways at the international airport, I mostly felt alright. Scott explained the process and why we were taking off at the big runway instead of the small gravel strip near the float plane lake - for a smoother takeoff. We quickly rose above the houses and trees, gaining altitude as we headed north across the water.
If we had a Bridge to Nowhere, it would span that narrow part of Knik Arm.
We flew over ponds and lakes, rivers and bogs. Cabins, roads and trails. I tried to relax, taking photos and enjoying the view from the small seat, my arm against the door. Just a few miles from Willow, we hit a little turbulence. For a pilot, it would be nothing. For me, it was "can we just go to Willow today?" so Scott changed our course. We'd be on the ground in five minutes, he said over the intercom. Then the air settled down, the plane stopped its slight bounce and I felt like I'd wimped out. "We can go to Talkeetna," I said. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to make it to our destination. Scott again modified the course ever so slightly and we continued north.
Pilot Scott Christy flying the Maule called "Baby"
The sky remained clear and blue. The mountains were in view as we got closer to Denali and the surrounding peaks of Denali National Park and Preserve. Scott briefly explained how winds will come down every valley. How the heating ground can cause turbulence when it meets the higher, cooler air. He made radio contact with Talkeetna and soon we touched down on the paved strip in the small town that is the jumping-off point for flight-seeing and mountain climbing on Denali. After anchoring the plane and having a short visit with the air traffic controller, we strolled toward town for lunch and to collect spruce cones* while I told Scott my rule about not making decisions late in the day. I’d had time to think as we flew, so I also shared with him some of the ideas I had about my relationship with, my reactions to, fear.
When I'm afraid of something, I don't want to talk about it. Maybe it's because some of my fears don't seem rational to other people and talking about them with non-fearful people can be embarrassing and hard to articulate. Any pilot you talk to about a fear of flying will tell you that you have a better chance of getting hurt in a car accident or a train ride than in a small plane. Scott had told me I had a greater chance of getting hurt while riding my bicycle in Anchorage and that probably is statistically true. But facts and figures mean nothing when you are the one something happens to.
That morning as Jon left for work and I was leaving to go fly, I told him that if anything happened, be sure to say: "she did not die doing what she loved! She wanted to live to be 100. She died doing something that really scared her!" Then I added: "And you better put that in my obituary." I would never say that before hopping on my bike or driving off in my car. But that is my level of fear. (I'll admit I've had similar thoughts when flying on commercial jets.)
Besides not wanting to talk about my fears, I don't want people to witness my fears. I told Scott that when he said I could bring someone for moral support, I thought only briefly about it but didn't want anyone else along because overcoming this was something I had to do on my own, without a crutch or an arm to squeeze. Thinking about it later, I realized that I don't want someone who's perfectly comfortable doing something checking in on me all the time to see how I'm doing while saying "this isn't so bad, is it?" I mean, that's what parents say when they force you to eat something you don't like or take you to get shots. I guess I prefer facing my fears without witnesses asking me if I'm doing okay. I want to go it alone - just me and my head full of thoughts. I’m the same way on my mountain bike and have seen this in customers who haven’t ridden bicycles in years: we don’t want to have any witnesses to our nervousness or failures, but when we succeed, we are happy to report back that we did it.
Denali and Foraker, under the wing, on the return flight.
After lunch, a stroll around town and a stop at the Talkeetna cemetery, we took off to the north so we could bank left and get a good view of Denali as we turned to the south. Soon we were landing on the gravel landing strip in Willow. With tundra tires it wasn’t that rough, kind of like my fat tires on the snow bike. We strolled around the perimeter of the strip, looked at other planes and searched for elusive spruce cones*. We waited for another pilot to do a touch-and-go, then took off for the final leg home.
Talkeetna cemetery where propellers mark some pilots' graves.
As we were flying back toward Anchorage, my thoughts briefly turned to the trips I’ve wanted to take but that I’ve not done because they require getting in a small plane, much like the little Maule we were flying in. A backcountry trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Gates of the Arctic; Lake Clark and Katmai. I started thinking of visiting these places. The small plane opens up so much more territory. So many places in Alaska are just not accessible to people who don’t like to fly in small planes. I don’t want to be afraid and I suppose I was ready to take this step; it just took the right timing, a persistent friend and the ability to trust the pilot. It was a big leap for me. That doesn't mean it won't still make me nervous. And I will need my distractions, especially for the landings.
Our fair city
On the approach back to Anchorage, as we again crossed the waters of Knik Arm, I put the camera on film mode and started shooting. I held the camera steady as I shot the view of Fire Island to the west, then the city to the east. I kept filming as we descended over the Coastal Trail, past Wisconsin Street, Spenard Road, then banked right as we got closer and closer to Lake Hood. That was when I thought: he remembers he took his floats off, I hope. Then beyond the lake, across a road I saw the small dirt landing strip. A car drove by. Our nose centered before the runway as we glided lower and lower until the big tires touched the ground. Once again I was home on the sweet, sweet earth!
Setting a course for home.