An air force of one


When the Iditarod began in 1973, organizers had a wacky vision of racing dog teams across the vast frozen nothingness that dominates the heart of Alaska come winter.

But without a practical and savvy pilot like Larry Thompson, that vision might have been dashed against the cold, hard reality of hundreds of miles of trackless terrain firmly in the grip of punishing winters.

Without Thompson, there might never have been an Iditarod Air Force, that collection of pilots that moves people, supplies, dog food, lame dogs and countless other items back and forth between Anchorage and Nome.

Without Thompson, there might not have been a race. As superbly fit as racing sled dogs are, no team can pull all the food needed to fuel a 1,000-mile journey.

"There's absolutely no way the race could have happened without Larry or somebody like him, " said Rich Burnham of Kaltag, a four-time Iditarod finisher who was Thompson's friend and business partner. "No way it could have functioned."

These days, two dozen or more pilots make up the Iditarod Air Force every year. At the beginning, it was just Thompson.

Thompson, who came to Alaska in 1960 from Bisbee, Ariz., fit the role of the quintessential Bush pilot -- a stocky, 5-foot-3 man with a black beard and fleece-lined cowboy boots. He described his Iditarod flying as "hours and hours of monotony, then minutes of stark terror."

Thompson flew an old Cessna 180, using hand flaps that ran levers controlling the plane's lift. During the Iditarod, the Cessna was always packed.

"There was dog food in gunny sacks stacked up as high as we could see inside the plane," said photographer Rob Stapleton, who flew with Thompson in the race's early years.

In 1979, the Iditarod presented Thompson with a huge trophy proclaiming him the "World's Greatest Pilot." He died of lung cancer in 2004 at age 69.

Inducted 2011 Greatest accomplishment Was the first and, at the beginning, the only member of the Iditarod Air Force, the collection of volunteer Bush pilots who shuttle food, supplies, dogs and people between Anchorage and Nome during the race. Vital stats Born: May 28, 1934 in Arizona Died: 2004, age 69 Hometown: Big Lake Awards At the 1979 mushers' banquet in Nome, the Iditarod presented Thompson with a huge trophy proclaiming him the "World's Greatest Pilot." Honorary First Musher of the 2004 Junior Iditarod.

Anchorage Daily News