What others say: Alaska’s pilots are its lifeblood

  • Sunday, July 19, 2015 4:28pm
  • Opinion

In the opening pages of Colleen Mondor’s book, “The Map of My Dead Pilots,” a handful of bush pilots are trading blue-mouthed gripes:

“We’re just a bunch of damn bus drivers,” one says. “Glorified bus drivers.”

“Bus drivers in Mexico,” another replies. “A really lousy part of Mexico.”

A third adds, “More like bus drivers on the moon,” he says. “No one does this kind of work anywhere else for the pay we’re getting. Might as well be on the moon.”

The pilots who fly Alaska’s skies today may not be Noel Wien, Joe Crosson, Russ Merrill or Carl Ben Eielson, but they’re far from bus drivers. No bus driver was ever so important.

Alaska has six times more pilots per capita than the rest of the United States and 16 times as many registered aircraft. Flying is not in our blood, it is our blood.

Most states have asphalt arteries that tie their capital’s beating heart to the industrial organs. Alaska’s arteries are filled with air, stretching from Hyder to Adak, Ketchikan to Barrow.

Since the 1920s, small planes in Alaska have carried the mail, the groceries, the dogs and the people that make our state run. And when something goes wrong, it’s as serious as a heart attack.

On Friday, a small plane flying between Juneau and Hoonah crashed. That plane’s pilot, Fariah Peterson, died. Her four passengers survived, though two were injured seriously enough to need treatment in Seattle.

We don’t know what caused the crash, and we likely won’t have a firm answer for a year or more as the Federal Aviation Administration investigates.

It may turn out that Peterson’s actions saved the lives of her four passengers at the cost of her own.

Alaska’s pilots run risks — but that is not to say they are reckless. They brave the weather, mechanical breakdowns and the simple consequences of chance: a valve or tube that freezes, a windshield that ices over, or an instrument that doesn’t work right. Many of these cannot be controlled by mechanics or regulated by a pilot in the air. They just happen.

Technology makes it easy for us to take aviation for granted — we accept that the plane will always be on time, that it will always fly regardless of weather. But these aren’t Alaska Airlines’ Boeings, the next-closest thing to a magic carpet. Those are too large for the hundreds of towns and villages off the road system. We need our small planes, our capillaries, to keep flying and flowing.

When they don’t fly, the tragedies are small but significant — a birthday party with an empty chair; a forfeited high school basketball game; a Christmas present undelivered.

And so, Alaska’s planes will keep flying. That should not be seen as a sign of disrespect to Peterson, who has now traded one set of wings for another. Her memory will live in the minds of her friends, family, and every pilot who takes to the air in Alaska.

— Juneau Empire,

July 19

More in Opinion

This Aug. 3, 2021, photo shows Juneau International Airport.  The Federal Aviation Administration shared recommendations on Thursday for improving aviation safety in the state. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: How the FAA will improve the margin of aviation safety in Alaska

Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state…

Central Peninsula Hospital is seen in Soldotna on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Perspective of an educator in a ‘high-risk’ group, part 2

During some of the darkest days of my time in ICU, it was obvious where we all live is a special place.

Lawmakers havereturned to the Alaska State Capitol for a fourth special session. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Revenues should be determined before more PFD spending

The governor believes the dividend drives the entire calculation. Sadly, he has it backwards

Ronnie Leach. (Photo provided)
Point of View: For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #weareresilient

At the onset of COVID-19, we expanded our services in a way to ensure COVID-19 consciousness.

Rep. Don Young talks during a June 2021 interview with the Empire. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion:Where’s Don Young when America needs him?

Once upon a time, avoiding political controversy was completely out of character for Young.

Peter Zuyus
Voices of the Peninsula: Seniors appreciate vaccination efforts

To those who have worked to encourage vaccination we say: Be proud, you are, in fact, saving lives.

Jackson Blackwell (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Carbon dividends are the bipartisan climate solution

By levying a gradually increasing price on carbon, U.S. emissions will be slashed by 50% in 15 years.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Dunleavy: Facts Matter

Political opportunists care more about spreading political untruths than accepting the facts.

Steve Hughes. (Photo provided)
Voices of the Peninsula: We are all victims of COVID-19

It is disturbing to hear, as a triage nurse, the many reasons cited for not getting a vaccine that are based on misinformation.

Opinion: LGBTQ+ Alaskans deserve respect and dignity

Like every state that lacks equality, we need federal protection.

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (logo provided)
Point of View: September is National Recovery Month

The biggest challenge when talking about recovery is the truth that one… Continue reading

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is seen in this Dec. 19, 2019 file photo. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Opinion: Alaska will greatly benefit from historic infrastructure bill

I was able to add many provisions to our bipartisan bill that are targeted to help Alaska.