Flowers are blooming, the spring breeze is blowing and the snow is melting in Unalakleet during the month of May on this week’s episode of “Flying Wild Alaska,” the Discovery Channel’s show about Bush pilots working for Era Alaska.
That means that the residents of Unalakleet can get out and enjoy their new roads, paved for the first time in 2010. Pilot John Ponts is particularly excited, as in a past life, Ponts was a professional skateboarder in California. He got into the flying business as a way to spot abandoned swimming pools that would be good for skateboarding.
Now, in his role as a pilot for Era Alaska, Ponts gets a call from an old skateboarding friend, Sam Hitz. Hitz tells him that a group of pro skateboarders sponsored by the skater brand Creature are planning a trip to Unlakleet, at Ponts’ invitation, to build some ramps and hold a skateboarding workshop for the village kids.
“These kids are gonna be so hyped,” Ponts says. They’re apparently not the only ones.
“I’m so hyped right now!” He says.
Meanwhile, pilot Ben Pedersen calls Ariel and Ferno Tweto in the Unalakleet terminal.
“I’ve got a little surprise for you,” Ben tells Ariel, daughter of Era COO Jim Tweto. Ariel goes outside to meet him, beaming as he rolls up in a little two-seater Cessna 150.
“That’s so cute!” Ariel shouts. “It’s such an Ariel plane!”
Ariel, who’s been working on getting her pilot’s license over the last two seasons, has been having some trouble with the larger Cessna 207 she had been practicing in. The 150 is smaller and supposedly easier to control.
As Ariel, all smiles, looks around the new plane, Jim Tweto comes to check out the little craft. “What is that, a little Tonka toy?” he jokes.
“I’m pretty sure you’re gonna get this down right away,” Ben tells Ariel. “This one’s so simple.”
Flour bombs and nosedives
Every year, one of the largest Alaska aviation events is the Valdez Fly-in, where hundreds of pilots converge for several days of aviation-related competitions and seminars. Era pilot Sarah Fraher is there. “It’s a big play day for all the pilots in Alaska,” she says.
Fraher is there to compete in the flour bombing competition, which entails dropping a bag of flour out of a moving airplane onto a target below. Closest to the target wins. The competition is intended to simulate dropping gear out of an airplane, as one would for a remote hunting trip.
Sarah’s passenger Aaron is the one dropping the flour bombs, and they take off in the little Cub. Aaron’s ears flap in the wind as he leans out to check the location of the target and direct Sarah overhead.
Their first bag falls 31 feet from the target; the second lands a mere 20 feet. Fraher says she heard the winner last year was 18 feet from the bullseye, so they like their chances.
While she’s waiting for the results, Fraher visits pilot Marcus Paine, who specializes in stall/spin recovery and was hosting a workshop at the fly-in. Paine says Alaska is prime territory for stalls.
“The kind of flying we do -- low, slow -- it’s the environment for stall/spin accidents,” Paine says, noting that accidents caused by stalling or spinning account for half of the aviation fatalities in Alaska.
“These are definitely maneuvers that can save your life,” Fraher says.
In the air, Paine lets Fraher take the plane way up and force a stall. The plane nosedives toward the ground, spinning in a gut-churning circle. Fraher, a pro, recovers like a champ and halts the spin before leveling out.
Even in a controlled scenario like this, it’s a scary thing to see a plane spinning, diving toward the ground. They do a couple more spins before touching back down safely.
On the ground, Fraher checks the flour bomb results. This year’s winner came within 18 inches of the bullseye. Fraher’s 20 feet was good for third place.
Low visibility, ruined birthdays
Bad weather highlights a couple of other segments on this week’s episode. Ben Pedersen battles low cloud ceilings and bad visibility during a run from Unalakleet to St. Michael’s and back -- including 45 minutes of slinging rock for fun while grounded in St. Michael’s. Pedersen’s passengers watch him from inside the plane.
“Little do we know,” one passenger jokes, “he’s probably the Olympic gold medal champion of the sling.” Given Ponts’ past as a pro skateboarder, it seems plausible.
Eventually, they get off the ground, but Unalakleet only has a 100 foot ceiling by the time they arrive, making a landing impossible. While Ferno tries to call around and check conditions in other villages, the clouds lift momentarily and Ben goes for it. Even as he lands, fog obscures the runway, wind blowing sideways on the slick tarmac.
Meanwhile, in Bethel, pilot Erik Snuggerud gets a last-minute addition to his cargo -- a birthday cake. It’s sensitive cargo, so they place it behind a net to keep it away from the other, heavier cargo. The winds are light when Snuggerud takes off, so he has high hopes for a safe flight.
So much for that.
Halfway into the flight, Snuggerud looks at his passenger and says they’re going to run into some turbulence -- and run into it they do, as both pilot and passenger go weightless, Snuggerud fighting the controls to stay level. They bounce around and try to clear the patch of rough air, but in the back, a camera trained on the cake catches it slide, then lift off the ground before coming back to the deck -- upside down.
It’s a small tragedy. While it’s unfortunate for the cake’s recipient in Chevak(whose baby, almost on cue, starts crying when they see the cake for the first time), of all the things that could go wrong on a flight, a smashed cake is among the least worrisome.
An inadvertent touch and go
Ariel, eager to get out in the newly-arrived 150, takes Ponts along for a training ride. She tells us she’s been hitting the ground school books pretty hard, but needs 27 more hours of flight time before she can take her solo flight.
They’re going to practice takeoffs and landings, where Ariel has had a bit of trouble in the past, and where the narrator tells us 63 percent of all general aviation accidents occur.
It’s a rough takeoff -- the stall warning goes off as she brings the nose up too sharply. Going off of the show, it seems like long stretches between flights for Ariel, which may contribute to her forgetfulness.
The landing is even rougher, as she touches down briefly then bounces back up and the tip of her right wing takes a dip toward the runway. Even Ponts is a little shaken as they pull back up from the landing.
“It’s probably the worst flight that we’ve ever had,” Ariel says later, her usual perky self muted by the disappointment of botching the landing.
Ponts takes over for a minute, and encourages Ariel to try it again. Ariel furrows her brow as they come back to the ground, and Ponts walks her through it. They touch down safely as Ariel fights to stay in the center of the runway.
“I’ve been watching Ariel fly the 150,” Jim says later in the episode. “She’s having the same problems everyone has to begin with.”
“You have to be confident because you have to take control of the plane,” Ariel says, “you can’t let the plane control you.”
A different kind of flying
Back in Unalakleet, Ponts’ old skateboarding crew touches down and looks around, seemingly confused as they look around the small Alaska village.
“They’re just a bunch of long-haired, hippie type of guys,” Ferno says.
The confusion doesn’t last long though, as the skaters set to work building a launch and landing ramp while the kids of Unalakleet gather around.
“There’s no movie theaters, no restaurants, not hangout places for kids,” Ariel says of Unalakleet. “So you gotta spice things up a little bit.”
And spice them up they do, as they skateboarders put on a demonstration after the ramps are built, doing tricks off the quarter-pipe ramp and launching from one to the other. They push the ramps farther and farther apart, eventually to the point where they can’t push themselves fast enough to bridge the gap.
Enter Ariel and her dirtbike. She tows the skateboarders -- who up until that point had been landing the jumps pretty consistently -- up to the ramp and launches them into the air. Several of them fall, including Ponts, who eats it pretty spectacularly.
Toward the end of the episode, Ponts reflects on his past life as a pro skateboarder.
“I don’t have any regrets of not doing that anymore,” he says. “There’s nothing like flying Bush Alaska.”
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskdispatch.com