Glaciers and Gravel Strips 23/04/07

It’s been something of an obsession of mine ever since we first arrived at the ranch. Even before we moved in I was already pacing out the yard to see where I might put a small plane down.
Every angle seemed to come with a different set of problems: one took me too close to the trees, another would have me touching down in the horse’s paddock, a third clipping a guest cabin.
I reckoned, perhaps optimistically, that 1000 feet in a fairly straight line might do it. On a good day, with the right wind, perfect piloting skill naturally, optimal braking… and so on.
Two years on and I’m no closer to fulfilling that particular dream. Major obstacles to be crossed include a lack of money, lack of an airplane and an excess of awkwardly-placed trees.
That hasn’t stopped me flying, however, and this weekend in what I regard as a major personal victory I finally persuaded Kristin to come up with me (admittedly with a second pilot also in the airplane.)
My history with aviation is as varied as it is long. Terrified as a young man of even the most benign commercial flight I found myself drinking heavily before take-off and often making a fool of myself.
Once I was so drunk on arrival I sat on the baggage carousel with the bags until an official hauled me off.
Another time while taking off in a war-torn country with bullets flying around the airport I realised I was more scared of the plane than the gunmen.
Eventually I determined to rectify the situation in the only way I knew how. I took a private pilot’s course in Hungary. For the first five or six hours, as I remember, I was too scared even to open my eyes.
When the flight test came along a portly old Magyar showed up with an undersized pooch, who hopped into the back of the plane. “Don’t worry,” said my instructor. “As long as his dog doesn’t bark, he’ll pass you.”
Those were the chaotic 1990s in Hungary, a period when anything was possible. A girl I met apparently passed her test with only an hour’s instruction after providing sexual favours to an examiner.
Later in my life, usually between conflict assignments, I took the opportunity to move up the aviation skills ladder.
During various holidays from work I got myself a tailwheel check-out, a commercial pilot’s licence, an aerobatic endorsement and a float rating for flying seaplanes.
Even during the lean years (aeronautically-speaking) I assiduously kept my medical current and made sure I had the right hours and training to fulfill the recency requirements.
The excuse for yesterday’s flight was to complete my US mountain check ride.
Since arriving in Anchorage I have flown a number of times. The surroundings are so beautiful and the place so aviation-friendly it would been shame to pass up the chance.
Merrill Field, the airport in the middle of town that we flew from yesterday, is only one of four or five in the immediate vicinity and far from being the biggest.
Nevertheless it has more General Aviation planes (that’s small private plans for those of you who are not aviation nerds) than any other airport in the world.
Wheel planes, ski planes, tail-draggers, amphibians. It even has an ancient beaten up model from the Soviet Aeroflot fleet that somehow made it over the Bering Strait.
In terms of airspace, Anchorage has to be one of the most complicated places in the world to fly. The proximity of the military base to the town means you must hug your prescribed altitude with the utmost care or risk having an F-15 take off your tail feathers.
The previous times I had flown here the winds and weather had made life difficult. With the temperatures way below freezing on one occasion our descent threatened to supercool parts of the engine.
Another time the winds were so high that my check ride pilot looked at me askance when I suggested we go up. I made three landings out of five, which was not too bad given the circumstances.
On the others, as the plane wobbled this way and that, I just hit the gas and went around for another go.
Yesterday forecasts were mixed as we lifted off and headed east, Kristin comfortably ensconced in one of the back two seats.
As we approached the line of the mountains the small plane began to buck and toss a little. Up above nasty looking rotor clouds showed signs of severe turbulence above the ridges.
For the first half hour or so we persevered. We flew over Knick Arm Glacier, a pure sometimes translucent blue in the grey morning. Off to the sides we saw Dall Sheep or perhaps goats clinging to the mountain slopes.
By now the plane was beginning to bump. I looked back at Kristin and she had a fixed, nervous smile on her face. She had taken out her sick bag and was clinging on to it. She was slightly green.
We headed out of the canyon and north towards the Talkeetna Mountains. Yoke back, power full in and a steady climb to 7000 feet. The cabin cooled as we moved into the higher, colder air.
And then, as if by magic, we were soaring among the snow-covered peaks, breathtaking views on every side. The turbulence disappeared along with the wind. For 10 minutes it was almost as it we were in a virgin, glittering world.
We landed back at Merrill a little over half an hour later. It was an almost perfect touchdown, though I say it myself. Taxiing back to the hanger I turned to see Kristin looking relaxed and relieved.
“What you think of the scenery,” I asked animatedly.
“It wasn’t too bad,” she said. High praise indeed from an Estonian.
Not that I think she’s off to get her private licence tomorrow. But I, as always after such a flight, am once again browsing the internet looking for cheap airplanes and loan sharks and reading up on the rudiments of a bush airstrip.
We’re leaving Alaska in a couple of weeks and heading back to our wonderful valley. Can hardly wait to pace out the yard again. Maybe this time I’ll find my perfect landing strip.