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Above the trail, Iditarod Air Force manages unwieldy race to Nome

The modern Iditarod is a logistical nightmare for thousands of volunteers, veterinarians, emergency responders, race organizers, trail-breakers, media crews, and yes, pilots all working to pull off the Last Great Race. Loren Holmes photo

Tuesday's discovery of a fatal plane crash along the Iditarod Trail is a stark reminder that even with experienced pilots, things can go badly while flying Alaska's skies.

It's not yet known what caused the Cessna 182 to crash into Simpson Pass en route to Takotna, killing the pilot, a 29-year veteran of the Anchorage Police Department, and his two passengers, an Eagle River mom and her daughter headed out to volunteer along the historic trail.

The fixed-wing airplane, owned by former APD Sgt. Ronald "Ted" Smith, 59, was found 4,000 feet up a mountainside. Smith, Carolyn Sorvoja, 49, and 10-year-old Rosemarie Sorvoja all died in the crash. A spokesman for the Sorvoja family could not say with certainty how Carolyn and Rosemarie were involved with the race. Officials with the Iditarod have said that the plane and pilot were not part of its Iditarod Air Force fleet, a dedicated team of aviators who crisscross the 1,000-mile race path from checkpoint to checkpoint moving supplies, veterinarians, staff and dropped dogs along the trail.

Over the decades, the Iditarod's aviation arm has grown more organized and is closely regulated, with safety considerations a prime motivation for the change.

There's no question, aviation is essential in Alaska and essential to the race – both for moving official personnel and goods around, and for carting eager fans and spectators to and fro. The evolution the Iditarod Air Force has undergone reflects a focused effort to clearly identify what type of flying volunteer pilots should be allowed to do, and what types of flying should be left to commercial operators.

What follows is a brief history of the Iditarod Air Force, the changes its gone through, other flight operations under way during Iditarod, and the effort to keep everyone who's taking to the air, safe.

Regulation yields impressive safety record

The  Iditatod is carefully navigating a grey area between general and commercial aviation in a setting unique to Alaska that recognizes the race's significance to the Alaska economy and culture. In the past 20 years there have been about a dozen accidents associated with the Iditarod. Aircraft include General Aviation sightseers, charter operators flying commercially and those directly affiliated with the Iditarod Air Force (IAF). Injuries ranged in severity from a 1993 fatality of an IAF pilot in Rainy Pass to minor injuries in destinations such as White Mountain, Elim, Ophir, Nikolai, Takotna, Galena and McGrath.

Most often, the cause of accidents was pilot error, usually due to not compensating for adverse weather conditions or choosing unsuitable terrain for takeoff or landing. The accidents are indicative of the variables the additional aircraft traffic introduces into the region, as charter pilots attempt to provide their passengers with the best views and fans push themselves beyond their comfort zones.

Lack of rural aviation experience is a big cause of aviation accidents in Alaska. Some pilots confidently fly into adverse situations and overlook the difficulties bush airports and landing strips may present, even on good weather days. Sometimes the worst pressure any pilot can succumb to is self-induced -- and the excitement surrounding an event like the Iditarod can seduce even traditionally cautious pilots.

In 2013 higher gas prices will likely keep the number of general aviation aircraft down and IAF Assistant Chief Pilot Danny Davidson is quick to point out that recent years have seen a sharp downturn from the past. "Years ago, when gas was cheap, it was difficult to find a place to park sometimes at a checkpoint," he says. "Now there might be just a half dozen or so other aircraft following along."

Dual storylines, along the trail and in skies above

With the Iditarod well under way, all eyes typically focus on the mushers and canine athletes racing ever farther into the Alaskan Interior, navigating roadless wilderness along the trail.   But high above the trail,  more than two dozen IAF airplanes keep the Last Great Race operating smoothly and safely.

The modern Iditarod is more reliant than ever before on aerial support. The competition presents a logistical nightmare for the thousands of volunteers, veterinarians, emergency responders, race organizers, trail-breakers, media crews, and yes, pilots who all are working to bring the Iditarod to the world. What goes on in the air between Willow and Nome every March is an annual tradition of increased plane traffic unrivaled by any other sporting event in the country. Planes have interrupted the race before -- incidents, accidents and weather-related frustrations are just as real for pilots as the mushers and sled dogs racing below.

A lot has changed in the air force's 35 year history. About the only thing that hasn't changed much is the mission and the historic Iditarod Trail itself.

The IAF was formally organized in 1978, about six years after the race itself began, and after several years of volunteers contributing their flight time and aircraft as needed. The initial handful of pilots who arrived brought with them varying levels of experience, said Davidson, who has spent more than 30 years working in association with the race.

"We really appreciated anyone at all who would help out in the beginning," he said.

Federally-regulated, bush pilot approved

For decades, volunteers offered not only their time and expertise but also personal aircraft to shuttle supplies, people and dogs along the trail. However, because the pilots received fuel and other nonmonetary compensation for their assistance, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) determined there was a conflict with commercial aviation rules.

Specifically, portions of Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Parts 61 and 119 were in violation. Since 2008, exemptions to those rules have been issued specifically for the Iditarod.

Under FAA guidance, the Iditarod Air Force has developed manuals for operations and training, initiated aircraft maintenance requirements, (proof of annual inspection and additional 100-hour inspections for any aircraft carrying passengers) and established requirements for Iditarod operations mandating use of FAR Part 135, or air taxi-commute operators. In exempting the race's pilots, the FAA specifically noted the transport of film and media crews such as ESPN as requiring certificated Part 135 operators. This is due to the fact that they are considered "non-essential personnel" and thus more like general passengers.

Several of the regular IAF volunteers have undergone the regulatory process to become single-pilot air taxi operators so they can fulfill this requirement for the race. Pilots who fly over the Iditarod must have not only rural experience but off-airport experience as well -- and receive training prior to flying. Special consideration from the FAA – the aviation exemptions for the IAF are Senate-approved and unique to the race – have on whole made the race a lot safer, creating a stable and professional operation that's in line with existing FAA regulations.

"We are a very mature group of pilots," says Davidson, "with a lot of experience on the trail."

Today's race depends heavily on the IAF to effectively manage the race with an invisible touch that doesn't interfere with the competition.

Iditarod's impact on Alaska aviation felt far beyond trail

Today, the IAF pilot ranks include those with dozens of years on the trail and a high degree of familiarity with the race's ins and outs. As a group, the 25 IAF planes fly about 1,400 hours over the course of the race, into and out of 20-odd checkpoints, landing on everything from state maintained runways to snow covered lakes, private ski strips and fields. IAF personnel also spends multiple days on the trail and countless additional hours loading and unloading cargo, checking weather conditions and communicating with FAA inspectors who are on site along the trail.

In fact, pilots across Alaska are involved in the race. Before Martin Buser's team left Willow on Sunday out-front of 65 other teams, tens of thousands of pounds of dog food and straw had already been shipped on commercial air carriers via bypass mail to 13 different villages. Scheduled air carriers haul it to places like McGrath, Anvik and White Mountain as part of their daily operations in an effort does not involve the IAF. And as the race unfolds on the ground and race-related air traffic proceeds from checkpoint to checkpoint, regularly scheduled air service continues in and out of far-flung Alaska towns serviced by a few these commercial carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Era Alaska, Wright Air Service and Bering Air.

Those pilots operate under a strict timetable unaffected by the race, yet they can be held up on their approaches or departures by the additional traffic. For the Iditarod, reliance on air carriers to transport race loads is cost-prohibitive. So change had to come to how aviation contributes to the race. There is now adherence to multiple Part 135 regulations which move the IAF ever closer to air taxi status. Formal records are kept and air force oversight from the FAA continues.

A sight worth seeing

Whoever shows up will take in a spectacle like few others. And through it all, Iditarod Air Force pilots will do their jobs, largely on skis, as they fly into the heart of Alaska's wilderness in support of the Last Great Race.

Jill Burke contributed to this report.

Colleen Mondor covers all-things aviation for Alaska Dispatch's Bush Pilot blog. She's the author of 'The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska' and a licensed pilot. Contact her at bushpilot(at)alaskadispatch.com