Planes and the Great Land: a memoir

From my West Anchorage living room, I watch the jet take off from the airport. I see it, silver glinting in the sun, ascending north, banking in a sweeping turn to the west, and finally heading south, all the while rising steadily against the backdrop of the Alaska Range across the Inlet.

Just a moment ago I read about the man who is credited with flying the very first jet into the city. His name was Murray Stuart and he started out piloting the aptly named "flying boat" out of Southeast Alaska in the early 1930s.

I learned this tidbit from a project I'm doing for the Anchorage Museum, writing and editing short bios on 100 notable pilots during 100 equally notable years of Alaska aviation.

I was born in Anchorage during the '50s and light planes were the way everyone we knew got around. Sort of like Greyhound, but less glamorous. On one memorable trip, I rode in the back of a two-seater Stinson, perched on a pile of just-harvested moose. Never mind seat belts, I remember wishing for a place to sit that wasn't made of meat.

It wasn't boring, though. Once, flying with my dad coming back from the Aleutians, we got into a heavy layer of fog and suddenly visibility dropped to what pilots chillingly call zero-zero. My usually recalcitrant father noted aloud that although we couldn't see it, we were actually quite close to a large mountain, which happened to be at a similar elevation to us. He tried to get above the fog to figure out where we were, I recall, and that didn't work. So he tried getting lower.

The good news: We were out of the fog. The bad news: The mountain was right in front of us.

We didn't crash, my dad almost never crashed, although he did have an alarmingly high number of what pilots call "dead stick landings."

At his funeral 11 years ago, those landings -- so called because, well, the stick that normally controls the landing was dead, usually because the engine had stopped -- were a topic of considerable admiration since they were all successful.

During the gathering afterward, I stuck close to people like former Gov. Jay Hammond, who'd flown with my dad well before statehood, and Ellen Paneok, reported to be the first Alaska Native woman to get a pilot's license. Their stories about my dad and those early days of near misses and unmitigated luck soothed me as nothing else could. No doubt their calm demeanors had been honed by their own harrowing adventures in the air.

My dad wasn't one to offer advice typically, but I learned from him early on that when you were flying a plane with an iffy engine, your best bet was to immediately go high and go fast. That way if the engine failed, you at least had enough altitude to glide the plane to some kind of controlled landing, rather than just pitching nose first into a stand of trees -- or worse. You'd be amazed how often that counsel comes in handy in non-flying situations too.

As I've worked on this project, I've been amazed that the names of Alaska's aviation greats aren't better known, even to someone like me who grew up breathing avgas. What astonishing, unparalleled courage and sheer hubris those early pilots had. They flew unreliable machines in killing cold temperatures into regions of the then-territory that had never before been seen by humans.

They crashed into remote mountains and walked out of the wilderness on their own, because who was going to fly in to rescue them? They lashed primitive, jury-rigged skis together with wire and a tree branch, and then had the audacity to land on them. They searched inhospitable heaven and earth when one of their own went missing -- and, if the stories are true, seemed to have a hell of a good time.

I think of pilots like Harold "Thrill 'em, spill 'em, no kill 'em" Gillam. People said there was weather and then there was "Gillam weather," which he reportedly claimed was never as bad as it looked. He fell in love with Marvel Crosson, a barnstorming pioneer pilot herself, and the sister of bush pilot Joe Crosson. She died in 1929, shortly after their engagement, when her plane went into a tailspin during a derby in the States. She tried to bail out but failed.

As for Gillam, he grieved mightily but continued to fly, carving out a reputation as one of Alaska's best. Then, in January 1943, his own plane, with five passengers aboard, crashed near Ketchikan, dropping thousands of feet after hitting a downdraft. Despite having the cockpit crushed in on him, Gillam and the others survived the initial crash. A passenger died after two days, however, and Gillam decided to walk out for help. He never returned. The surviving passengers were rescued a full month later and Gillam's body was found some time after that.

Then there are the pioneer aviators of whom we do have a passing knowledge, but passing just doesn't do them justice. Carl Eielson, for example, who pioneered airmail service in Alaska in 1923, flying twice-monthly mail from Fairbanks to McGrath in a plane with an open cockpit. He and his mechanic died in 1929 when they crashed while rescuing passengers from a ship stuck in the ice off Siberia.

And Russ Merrill, who discovered the mountain pass that would bear his name and be subsequently used by countless aviators, and who disappeared in 1929 on a flight bound for Akiak. Only a piece of fabric from his plane was ever found.

A few years ago, my second date with a pilot consisted of a dinner invitation to a pizza place in Talkeetna. We met at Merrill Field -- named in honor of Russ, of course -- after work and clambered into his little Cessna for the ride.

Dinner was OK, but our flight back that night remains a visual highlight of my life. There we were, black winter sky all around us, surrounded by more stars than I ever knew existed. My friend's Irish setter sat between our seats, alternately leaning from one of us to the other for petting, as we flew slowly and steadily toward the lights of home.

Flying is so incongruous, so completely unlikely, I remember thinking. How amazing anyone ever imagined that this was possible.

When my friend needed a tool from the back of the plane, I took the yoke for a few minutes. By myself in the front, torn between terror and glee, nothing but a thin pane of plastic between me and everything, I felt such privilege.

I understood, just for a moment, that opening this world for others is what drove Gillam and Eielson and Merrill and my dad and all the rest. For them, and now for us, there are no limits. Not even sky.