Do what you can to make flights with a bush pilot easier

The woman behind the counter told me she could try to get me over on wheels when the first pilot got back. I was eager to join the rest of my hunting party already in the field, but I hadn't called ahead to confirm my flight and spent the next several hours watching a little wiry white-haired pup named Piper come in and out the door with business.

We watched as a crew unloaded a moose from a floatplane while pilots checked in with the office in the carefree manner of men who spend most of their days in the sky. Finally, and without introduction, a man in a red-and-black flannel shirt asked if I was ready to go. I didn't know whether I was getting kicked out or picked up. I followed him out the door 20 feet to a Super Cub parked next to my truck.

"I've never flown in a plane that small before," I admitted.

"It's only my second time," he said.

Visiting wild places

Once inside the Cub, we sped across the parking lot and scooted up the driveway like we were on a four-wheeler with wings, turned a corner and were airborne. Below, the perfectly mowed lawn and office on the lake turned into an image from Google Earth.

Oil platforms stationed in Cook Inlet appeared below. Mount Redoubt steamed in the distance above the Drift River Valley. The tidal sloughs glowed amber, and the flats were gold with the day's last light. Flying just above sea level, I watched through the passenger window as the Cub carried me to a hunting camp I knew was on the horizon.

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I may be guilty of a few romantic thoughts about flying in Bush planes. After all, it's difficult not to associate Bush planes with the wild places they fly — places where solitude dissolves rudimentary notions of time and space. The rules are based on changing weather, terrain and game plans. You want your pilot to be as close to the pulse of that world as possible and able to react to changing circumstances without any time lost to surprise.

No matter how glamorous the job looks, bush pilots aren't getting rich. Most fly because they love it and can't imagine doing anything else. Flying in numerous Bush planes over the years on hunting and fishing trips has provided lessons in how to be considerate of myriad contingencies concealed behind bush pilots' outwardly cool appearance.

If the air-taxi service says don't bring more than a certain amount of gear, I don't. This request isn't like a commercial airline asking me to fit my carry-on into a prescribed square or asking me what fictional weight is on my driver's license. Over-the-limit payloads in small aircraft are dangerous and illegal.

The smaller the plane, the smaller the area to hold gear. If you haven't flown in a Bush plane before, it's worthwhile to look at the aircraft you're flying to get a frame of reference when you pack. If you have extra-long or extra-heavy gear, ask if it will fit ahead of time.

Even if time allows and you can afford an additional trip for gear transport, weather can close in fast, particularly in mountain passes. No one wants to get stuck in the Alaska Bush lacking items that had to be left behind because you didn't plan well or ignored the air-taxi guidelines.

Passengers wanting to know more about their chosen air taxi before takeoff can search the National Transportation Safety Board aviation database (ntsb.gov) and come up with the company's accident history.

Small waterproof bags

I pack most of my gear in waterproof float bags because there is every chance it will be raining, the ground will be wet, or both. While there is the allure of simplicity to packing one giant duffel bag crammed full of all of my gear, it may not fit in the plane, and it'll be heavy and cumbersome to load.

Few things are harder on an individual's back than lifting heavy gear from awkward positions. Breaking down gear into easily manageable bags and helping to load and unload shows consideration. I remember a flight in a Cessna 208 in which my hunting partner and I were picked up on a remote village airstrip on a rainy, early fall morning.

Our destination was a coastal plain socked in with fog. Rather than burn fuel flying around, the pilot set down on a dirt road as if pulling into a truck stop.

"You OK back there George?" the pilot asked. To our surprise, a small man named George was smiling under the cargo in the back of the plane. The pilot explained George was a regular and didn't mind contributing to the best distribution of weight for the aircraft.

It helps to study the area you're visiting to minimize surprises. Google Earth is a great tool to get the general lay of the land before you go. If the pilot is not also your guide, they are not allowed to help you find game. I'd rather save them the trouble of having to explain why they cannot help and ask questions they can answer — alternate locations and pick up options. Most pilots live by their reputations and are willing to provide helpful tips.

Ideological arguments surround whether — or how much — to tip. When it comes to how to tip, it's a good idea to tip half of your planned tip on the flight out and the other half on the flight back. Often, you may not have the same pilot. I tend to view tipping as the right thing to do rather than just making a good impression when it counts most.

In the case of tipping a bush pilot, I know they are doing what they love to do and may often work for wages much lower than one might expect. I also recognize that fly-in trips are expensive and tipping is customary in food and travel — I am traveling for food, after all.

But, the reason I always tip my pilot is that I enjoy flying in Bush planes more than all other forms of locomotion combined. I think of the pilots who have reached back to scratch my dog's ears during a flight or carried my misbehaving, waterlogged chocolate Lab in their arms. I am guilty of sentimentalizing when greeted by a pilot standing in waders on floats to pick us up at the end of two heavenly weeks of wilderness survival. It's a person I'm darned glad to see.

Christine Cunningham of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter. On alternate weeks, she writes about Alaska hunting. Contact Christine at cunningham@yogaforduckhunters.com

Christine Cunningham

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter.