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

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