The news that two float planes collided in the air and crashed, near Ketchikan, Alaska, took me back to my own exposure to bush flying on the north coast. (Funny how that happens more and more as I grow older.)
For about four years in the 1950s and ‘60s, I got flown around northern B.C. by some of the best pilots in the world — which is why I’m still here to write about the experience.
Bush flying in the Coast Mountains differs dramatically from commercial aviation. Most of the planet’s land surfaces are relatively level. Along the north coast, there’s more vertical than horizontal. The only level thing is water: sea, lake, or sometimes river. Which is why the planes wear floats.
Bush flyers also do without many navigational aids others depend on. No air traffic control, for example. No software programs for automated flight. Sometimes, not even radio contact.
Neither plane was required to carry a “black box,” a flight data recorder. Or a cockpit voice recorder.
So, the cause of the mid-air collision may never be known.
The two planes had taken cruise ship passengers from Ketchikan, a city on an island in the Alaska panhandle, to view the Misty Fjords National Monument on the mainland.
The two planes collided, about 3,000 feet up, and crashed into the ocean. Six people died, including one pilot; 10 were injured. (Because the accident happened in American airspace, I’m using feet and miles, not metric.)
Since the accident, flight companies in Ketchikan have been deluged by people calling to cancel bookings. Or seeking assurances about safety.
In bush flying, there is no assurance of safety. Never. Just as there’s no such thing as guaranteed privacy on social media.
Safety depends on the plane, and the skill of the pilot.
In the Misty Fjords National Monument, the cliffs rise 3,000 feet sheer from the water, and keep going another 1,500 feet below the surface. It’s spectacular. But, the terrain leaves no room at all for mistakes.
The fact that there are so few crashes attests to the caution most pilots take. They simply don’t take chances. No pilot ever goes out saying, “I think that aileron might last long enough to get me home again.”
But, they always have to live with a risk factor. Sea fog rolls in, blanketing the inlets. Thunderstorms form over mountain peaks. Passes vanish in cloud.
There’s also a mechanical risk. Bush planes, by and large, are much older than their pilots.
One of the planes that crashed was a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. The Beaver first flew in 1947. The second plane was a single-engine DHC-3 Otter, introduced in 1952. Both planes have been the workhorses of bush flying ever since — great power, huge payloads, short take-off and landing capabilities …
They’re still in use because no one has invented anything better. Bush flying will never attract Boeing’s billions in development.
But, unless you have sat behind one of those massive radial engines, you have no idea how much it can restrict your vision. (The legendary Twin Otter, with two engines mounted out on the wings, didn’t appear until 1965.) There’s little view forward; not much upwards, because of the overhead wing; none at all downwards.
I can understand how two planes might collide, with neither aware of the other’s presence.
As a couple of pilots explained to me, you navigate by knowing your terrain. Not by GPS. You know which valley leads to a pass and which valley leads to a literal dead end; which tributary flows down to which river; which river takes you to which inlet….
You position yourself by the landmarks you can recognize.
I remember one pilot who sometimes terrified his passengers by flying straight at a cliff. But, he knew from experience that the prevailing west wind, blowing unobstructed for 4,000 miles across the open Pacific, would not be thwarted by a mere mountain ridge. The ridge forced the wind to flow upward; an irresistible river of air lifted us soaring hundreds of feet above the ridge.
He had a sense of humour. But, he wasn’t taking chances.
Why do they do it? Certainly not for the money. A sense of pride in their own ability, probably. Adventure. A sense of being useful, even necessary. Many isolated communities are accessible only by air.
But, I doubt if bush pilots ever go to work thinking, “Ho hum, another routine day.”
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a regular Okanagan Weekend column.