Airplanes are a necessity for most guide businesses in Alaska. Whether it be getting clients into camp by using a flying service or as many guides do, use them to set-up and check on spike camps, fly-in supplies or for the numerous things needed done on a daily basis. You really get dependent on them. Operating in the bush in Alaska with the extreme weather conditions and bad or just short landing strips sooner or later you are going to have an accident. You may remember my first job as a guide working for Tony Lee in the story “I Can Do This” he had an accident on my first day. Another case in point is Gary Bishop, our chief pilot at the Dog Salmon River camp, was talking to one of our newly hired pilots about his personal safety record and the guy said with a cocky attitude, “I’ve never had an accident.” Gary said, “If you work off airport in the bush it’s just a matter of time.” The very next day the guy had an accident. AAA was no different than any other guide operation. On any given day during our season we would have two or three “super cubs” performing a wide variety of different tasks. We also had flying services flying our clients in or out of base camps so there was a wide range of exposure.
AAA Alaskan Outfitters has a great safety record. The only fatal accident in my twenty-two years was the one that I had in the Wrangell’s in 1985. That didn’t involve the business but none the less it was a devastating tragedy. See the story “The Worst Day Of My Life.” It’s been 33 years since, and I think of that day often. That being said, we did have other accidents that involved our planes and some from supporting flying services. Most of them were minor accidents such as prop strikes. We had an extra prop at some of our areas that we could use to get the plane back to an aircraft repair facility. If not we would get someone to fly a new prop out to us.
In the early days of guiding before I got into the business, with small hard tires and weak standard gear legs, prop strikes were a common occurrence. I talked to one guide that had three in one season. In fact, the first couple years of our business the Alaska Professional Hunters Association was still giving out a Prop Strike Award at the annual banquet to the guide with the most prop strikes. With the introduction of Airstreak tires, which were a soft rubber 30” tire, and the beefed up extended gear legs you could roll over most rough areas without going on your nose. Prop strikes then became fairly rare. AAA started out with the Airstreaks then the Alaska Bush Wheel company made the “Bushwheel”, which was a better made tundra tire that went up to 31”. We bought the 31” Bushwheels the first year they were FAA approved. In my twenty-two years with AAA we only had four prop strikes and three accidents which included damaging the prop. The flying services working with us had three more. Other than my major accident I never had a prop strike. I’m sure I came close a few times but I pulled it out, thank the Lord. Most of those happened around our Alaska Peninsula area, mainly because of the major winds and the ever changing strips. Also there were always more planes being used in that area. Since I retired twelve years ago and with AAA now only having the one area, they have had just four including the ones from the flying services.
During the season, whenever there is an airplane accident everything stops until repairs are made or you get another plane. In the fall of 1991 when I returned from Cold Bay to the Dog Salmon River camp there was a crashed Cessna 185 at the start of our strip. A flying service that was coming in to pick up clients landed short and crashed. No one was hurt but it sheared the gear legs off and took out the prop. It took a couple weeks to get it fixed just enough to fly it to a repair facility.
If you only had one plane and had an accident it could ruin your whole season. If you had more than one plane you could get by but it meant you had to double up the flying which put you behind until you could get another plane.
Accidents weren’t the only problem. Even if you did all the required maintenance something was always breaking. I lost an engine between the sheep season in the Wrangell’s and the Western Alaska season and had to borrow an engine from a friend. It was changed in one day and I headed to our Western Alaska area. I’ve lost two different cylinders over the years. One dropped my rpm’s by one-third and being loaded heavy I had to quickly get back on the ground. Dan and I ended up changing both of them in the field. Dan worked for an aircraft repair shop when he wasn’t guiding so that was a tremendous help in doing the repairs. I had a brake assembly shear off while landing sending me in a 45% path off the runway through two foot high tundra. Fortunately, I was able to bring the plane to a stop without going on my nose and getting the prop. Thank God for miracles! Chuck Miknich, one of our guides, was riding in the back seat experiencing that excitement and I’m sure having him back there with the extra weight was part of the reason I didn’t go on my nose. I had the parts sent out and repaired it. Something like that was always happening. We had to be pretty creative and have a good knowledge of how to repair or cobble together our airplane to get it out of the bush or get it working again. Duct tape and safety wire were our best friends.
You might remember the story, “Cub in The Lake” where my super cub blew into the lake. That ended up being quite a project pulling it out and getting it flying again but, “you gotta do what you gotta do.” There were many other times when landing in the high winds on the mountain tops to check camps that the plane would almost get blown off the top. Now that would have been a major problem.
On a couple of occasions the damage was beyond our capabilities so we had to hire mechanics to fly out and repair or cobble together the plane in order to get a one-time ferry permit from FAA, which was required, so we could fly it back to civilization for major repair. However, the most resourceful was, after an accident that Dan had at the Dog Salmon River camp, when we hired an air service with a helicopter to fly the whole plane out suspended on a cable under the helicopter.
I had heard about this procedure but had never seen it done. We contacted Sam Eglj at Eglj Air in King Salmon and asked him how much it would cost and what we needed to do to get it ready. The cost was around $2,500 to get it to King Salmon and then $1,000 to fly it to Anchorage on Northern Air Cargo. Before he could sling it we had to take the wings, elevators and stabilizers off and secure the wings to the fuselage and get the total weight down to less than 1,000 pounds. Most super cubs weighed between 1100 and 1300 pounds. Our cub, 2518A weighed about 1150 so we had to shave off at least one hundred and fifty pounds. We got it ready and gave Sam a call. Now all we had to do was wait for a calm day and then the chopper. He used a Bell 206B Jet Ranger.
When he arrived he looked things over and then hooked a harness between the four wing root attaching points and then attached the cable from the helicopter to the harness. He told us that you never know for sure how it is going to ride hanging from the cable. He had done this procedure numerous times with no problem. However, we had to sign a statement that if it didn’t fly right and interfered with the flight of the helicopter he would have to eject it which more than likely would destroy the plane. I was reminded of the time Tony Lee told me that he knew a guide this had actually happened too. He said that the helicopter had lifted the plane about five hundred feet up and the plane started swinging erratically and was causing the helicopter to have trouble so they dropped it and it was destroyed. I couldn’t imagine that happening but knew it was possible.
With that, Sam warmed up the helicopter engine and then became airborne. The chopper hovered over the plane and attempted to lift it. He got a wheel to barely lift off the ground but never could get the whole plane up. After about five minutes of trying he landed.
He got out and told us he wasn’t going to be able to dead lift the plane but if we could get the plane moving down the strip he thought he could do it. We got the cub lined up on the strip and Dan and I each took hold of the lifting handles on each side of the cub below and in front of the elevator. The chopper again got airborne and hovered above the cub. Dan and I lifted up the tail and started moving the plane down the strip. The faster we went the lighter it got and all of a sudden it lifted up and away. I have pictures of the operation but none of Dan and me running down the runway. Like I previously said, “You do what you have to do to get the job done.”
Anything involving an airplane is expensive. Accidents of course can cost big bucks. Two of ours cost around $40,000 each. Most guides had and were required by their permits to have liability insurance but didn’t have hull insurance because it was so expensive, around $10,000 a year. We figured if you made it three or four years without a major accident you saved money. That worked out for AAA.
As you can see in the guide business not only are airplanes expensive to buy, maintain and operate but there is always something exciting going on. Sometimes too exciting!!