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'The Flying North' a testament to glory of Alaska bush flying

Colleen Mondor
Cameron Rogers / cc via flickr

HAINES -- The last week of September was spent in lovely Haines, Alaska, where I enjoyed hours at the Chilkat Center, the lobby of the Halsingland Inn, the Lighthouse Restaurant, the Sheldon Museum and many other places talking about aviation. A joint conference was held there by the Museums of Alaska and Alaska Historical Society. I spoke to attendees about rediscovering a long-lost bush flying classic.

Haines is a town that takes it plane talk seriously. The Flying North discussion struck a deep chord with just about everyone within hearing distance.

Originally published in 1945, The Flying North was written by Jean Potter after she flew across the Alaska Territory with the likes of Noel Wien, Jack Jefford, Joe Crosson and Bob Reeve. It covers the earliest days of Alaska aviation through the World War II era. Recently reissued by Shorefast Editions*, it will be in bookstores and gift shops and available for online ordering in November.

In talking about the book I discussed its relevance to my own experiences working for a Fairbanks-based commuter in the mid-1990s and how it has influenced my writing on the subject. Along with pictures from the 1930s and '40s, I showed photos from modern times which illustrated perfectly how little the job of Alaska flying has changed. (Snow machines and four-wheelers have replaced sled dogs but otherwise, the photographs were hard to tell apart.)

In the days and hours that followed my presentation, dozens of people sought me out to share their flying stories. They wanted to talk about times they have been scared while flying, or pilots who took unnecessary risks or companies that seemed oblivious to safety concerns. Everyone had flown in bad weather, everyone had bounced down a runway, many of them has survived crashes. All of them had opinions about the pervasiveness of the bush pilot myth. 

I engaged in conversations about scheduled commuters, seasonal lodge and tourist operators, and general aviation pilots who ran into trouble on sunny days during hunting season or brutal winter flights through mountain passes. I talked about pressure from passengers and owners in commercial aviation as well as pilot attitudes about risk-taking and recklessness. There was universal agreement that far too many pilots crash and die in Alaska and also acute frustration over how little flight safety has changed in the past decade. The numbers support this impression, as annual accident rates have remained largely consistent since the late 1990s. We seemed to have reached a tipping point where technology can not be relied upon entirely to fix the accident problem and it is Alaskan attitudes about what constitutes acceptable flying conditions that are going to have to change.

Clearly there is more than can be done to modernize weather-reporting and navigational systems in the state. But upgrades on the scale Alaskan pilots want will cost an enormous amount of money. In the meantime, there is something quite positive to be said for having open conversations like we did in Haines about the good and bad in the aviation environment. Also, it is clear that many Alaskan passengers are prepared to acknowledge that they are a critical part of any change that must come. 

*I am a partner in Shorefast Editions which is responsible for reissuing The Flying North

Colleen Mondor is a licensed pilot who worked for years as lead dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based bush commuter, coordinating flights of everything from prisoners to sled dogs to snowmachines. She has degrees in aviation, history and northern studies is author of The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska. Contact her at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com