Where Bush Planes Crash
Flying out into the bush, at a couple thousand feet, a pilot is directing his plane into a corridor between mountains. Out the window he points to the wreckage of five or six other small single prop bush planes. He tells me, with the static tone that comes from the ear-boxing and ear-pinching flight headsets, to watch out for fast moving clouds. In this corridor there’s only one way out. The way we came and if we’re caught in it we’ll more than likely end up like those poor souls. In some ways he is serious, he is constantly worried for our safety. Out here, there’s no fire trucks to come rescue you. In another way though, he is not that concerned. Happy and energetic to be flying and living life on his own terms. The possibilities of death avoided are exhilarating.
This pilot’s name is, well, we’ll call him Scooter, for a goof. Scooter is (I’m assuming still, even considering the FAA investigation after any airplane incident) Scooter is an Alaskan Bush pilot. Scooter is in his late 40’s. He is five foot five and has a mess of graying curls for a haircut. You wouldn’t think this would stand out, here in the bush. He flies for a remote hunting lodge in the interior of Alaska, but it’s a unique Christian themed lodge where the hunting guides are almost exclusively young men under 30, with clean cut hairdos and a belief in the word of God. The patriarch and owner of the hunting lodge is another character. There is enough there that were I to get into it, this would turn novel-like very quickly, so I’m gonna ignore him and say simply he hired Scooter to be his pilot cause they have something in common. A link to the Alaska of the past. Other than that they are polar opposites. Scooter smirks through the Sunday sermon which the patriarch preaches, though upon investigation of his beliefs, he maintains that he does think there is a God. (But who is man to speak of him).
Scooter likes his job. It is relatively simple. It includes two parts. Firstly, is to fly necessary provisions to the lodge from a little ‘suburb’ of Anchorage called Big Lake. This is where his wife lives. He comes home to a casserole and she helps him pick up the propane and chicken and machine parts to pack in the plane. With all the seats in, the plane can hold six passengers. This is the second portion of his job. To fly in hunting clients to the lodge from whatever airport. Usually Aniak. But conditions change rapidly in the bush. You deal with the situation presented. You don’t take unnecessary risk. That’s rule #1. The rest of the time Scooter sticks to his room. Watches Paul Newman movies and gets baked. He comes over for meals, bullshits tells stories, waits to fly back to his wife. Or he has to land on a sandbar for a grizzly hunt. The point is he gets to fly and that’s all he has to worry about.
Scooter is an Alaskan native. He makes fun of the kids wearing their high tech camo outdoor gear. He went hunting for elk in jeans. “What” he says, “You gonna order some camouflage underwear too?”
It used to be a lot less cost prohibitive to fly recreationally. As a young man, they would carry around bowling balls in their plane and drop them on the abandoned/seasonal shacks. Scooter has a mischievous young person’s smile.
He told me possibly the funniest story I’ve ever heard. Scooter worked for an oil company flying maintenance in remote areas of their large drilling operation. This was over 25 years ago. Scooter would fly for weeks at a time and then have weeks off. But it was a year of labor shortage. He was being overworked and, yes, he was still young and rambunctious. He decided to not come to work and go on a tear. His boss was calling and pestering. I imagine at some point Scooter blowing a raspberry into the phone. Scooter’s at a hotel with a woman and they’re already in the middle of it, his boss breaks down his door, comes up behind Scooter and grabs him by the scruff of the neck, pulling him off the woman. His boss says, hurling Scooter towards the door, “Come on you little shit, you’re going to work.” I got him to tell me that story a couple times. Imagining the look on that woman’s face never fails to crack me up.
Then, one day, I saw a bush plane crash.
I had been working out at this lodge in the bush for about a month and I badly wanted to get out. I felt little commonality to the people I was around, so young and naive, they clapped and hooted as our patriarch suggested setting up a program with the Chinese. A foreign exchange program where they could come to Alaska and learn English, in rustic bunkhouses, stuck in the middle of nowhere. Dear god, the poor souls, I thought to myself.
It was a rainy week out in the bush, I had been planning my getaway. I was out digging un-professional trenches to keep the makeshift runway free of water. I say makeshift, but plenty of work was put into the runway. The leveling work of heavy duty machines that need to be barged for hundreds of miles up-river. It’s a clay and grass runway, the young brush sprouting at its sides is a thick kind of sapling/brush. Tendrils of tight woodiness, a heavy obstacle if not for machines and will. In my life, I keep wanting will to come into it (come into anything). I feel strongly that I’ve come into the game too late. Our patriarch at the lodge tells us we should be grateful for what we have out in the bush because the people who built all these structures had to suffer to make them. We pull the new young saplings from the runway in a couple hours. It is not pleasant work. It has a point, but it is maintenance. It is not creation against the will of nature. I thought physical suffering would be one of the benefits of Alaska. Will as necessary tool. But no, it’s like everywhere else. There’s really nothing left to do, but you have to pretend like you’re working all the time. You have to think that if you do nothing the world will overtake you. It’s so not true and it bugs me when people pretend like it is.
I find no camaraderie among the boys in the camp, I wonder what the hell I’m doing out here. They’re so young, and I feel 15 again. Contained and responsible for things that have nothing to do with me. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t unhappy, just obsessed with getting out and having this be over (like a 15 year old).
This is a point that I’m trying to make to present the sadness or, desperation, I felt realizing I might be stuck out here, forever. Seeing the wreckage of a bush plane, mix with adrenaline and oddness which happens when odd things happen in odd places. Realizing even our basest contingencies are suspect. Nothing is guaranteed. After a bush plane crashes.
I was washing dishes and it didn’t matter if I did or didn’t I could’ve spent all day on them. I was doing them slowly. One of the boys runs into the lodge and tells me the plane has crashed. I don’t really understand what he’s talking about. Crashed how? They just took off, how do you crash taking off?
When Scooter flew me out of Big Lake, it was just me and him and a load of supplies. We squashed into the front two seats and Scooter was assuring me that he was a very safe pilot. He checked everything before he took off. I didn’t know anything about it so that seemed good to me, but off-hand I had to say; “But it’s not really the take off that matters though, it’s the landing.”
Scooter says (we’re talking through the headsets now), “Well, yes, technically there’s more crashes on landings. But there’s more fatalities on takeoffs.”
With modest bravery, I wonder what he means by that. It has to do with the speed and your inability to change the momentum of thrust. A takeoff involves a pull and speed which when misguided is hard to reverse.
Out in the bush we all start jogging towards the runway. A couple hundred yards from the lodge we can see figures walking towards us. The first person I pass is Scooter who is walking fast and cursing himself, not listening as one of the passengers crowds his heels telling him to calm down. Scooter is saying, “I ruined the man’s season, god dammit I shoulda known when I hit that first puddle, I shoulda stopped right then. Dammit!” It’s clear you will not be able to talk to Scooter rationally for some hours.
Soon after we begin to see the wreckage crumpled into the thick sapling brush that is the runways “walls”. The plane is turned 180 degrees from the direction it took off. Skid marks in mud show a slip of the wheel. The front propeller is mashed in a way you can imagine a plane catching vines in the jungle of the amazon. This sudden catch flipped the plane around into the wall of brush and the tail and end of the fuselage is crunched like an aluminum can. Surprisingly all passengers walk away unharmed. The passenger portion is the only part of the plane that remains intact.
All the workers, young men, we wander around the wreckage aimlessly swatting at mosquitoes. Thinking our own private thoughts about how this was our main transport in and out of here. I’m particularly distressed because I had made up a story about how my aunt died and I was slated to leave in a couple days, but now what? There’s another little plane, but it’s a tiny two seater, and there’s still ongoing business and I’m not a priority. Though how desperately I don’t want to be here anymore, is, to me. We all wander away from the plane in a daze, go about our regular business, kinda. I sit with one of the passengers on our porch and smoke a cigarette and he tells me how fast the whole thing happened.
The passengers are paying tourists and still need to connect to their flights for the mainland. After a couple hours it gets sorted that a bigger plane can pick them up but they’ll have to get boated down river to a larger airstrip.
In a last gasp attempt to hold onto my life as I understand it, I put on my best sympathetic face and knock on the patriarchs door. I say “I know you probably don’t want to think about this right now, but maybe if there’s extra room on that plane you might want to send me now so it’s one less thing to think about.” He says yes, he doesn’t want to think about that right now.
I continue to wash dishes though my heart is so low I wonder if I’ll simply snap. The only thing that engages any thread of empathy is feeling bad for Scooter, who I know is competent, but now has a river of shit flowing his way. In the kitchen the same Johnny Cash song plays on the boombox. At least it wasn’t a boring day, I think.
I walk to my bunk to have something different to do. The passengers are getting prepared for their trip down the river. Suddenly one of the kids runs up to me and tells me the patriarch changed his mind and to get my stuff. Adrenaline kicks in. I rush and forget things but it doesn’t matter.
As we splash down the river in narrow speed boats, I have a permanent grin on my face which I try and hide with my hand sometimes. Off the side of the boat I watch, as if on drugs, the water splash being pushed up the boats siding by our momentum. The water bunches into a multitude of different sized droplets, beautiful and so strangely perfectly round. Spoosh spoosh. I think about what we don’t know about the world we live in. A bush plane crashes and I’m grateful. I shouldn’t be, it’s not good for anyone else, but there’s something in here about plans and humanity. No one died and I’m not any more scared of flying. Bush planes just crash sometimes. Usually, in Alaska.