“Four shirts, four pairs of pants, a snow machine suit, and I’m still cold.” Thus began my journal, on this this day in 2000. I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, flying a 1946 McDonald Douglas DC-4 delivering fuel to remote villages. This contract pilot stent may very well be the craziest thing I’ve ever done and sometimes I still can’t believe I actually did it.
Why was I in Alaska? Money. Insanity. Opportunity. Adventure. I already had a class date with Netjets of February 8, 2000. I had sold my flight school and would finally get the airline job I had coveted for 30 years, and I really had nothing to do. A month in Alaska would help me cover the gap.
I got my DC-4 experience flying night freight for Custom Air Charter out of Hampton, GA. Not many people want to fly 60 year old airplanes, at night, without radar and at fairly low altitudes. Bob McSwiggan’s attitude was that radar “only scares the pilots.” He was the owner, and besides owning a freight airline he is a tap dancer! But that’s a story for another day. The photo is not the DC-4 that I flew, but you get the idea. In Atlanta, I flew the Carvair conversion, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FfOmlb4SAU.
Flying a DC-4 was romantic and exciting, but it was hard work and sometimes dirty work. The radial engines leaked oil and sometimes quit unexpectedly, but I loved those R-2000 engines. On the ground, you had to climb on the wing and put a stick in the fuel tanks to confirm the fuel levels. In the air, you had to keep your eyes on the gauges and periodically pump oil to the engines. The instruments in the cockpit were appropriate for the 1940s. It was just plain fun.
I got a call from a pilot friend in December to fill in for one of the pilots for Brooks Fuel in Fairbanks. There aren’t a lot of qualified DC-4 pilots and initially I said no. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – I would be guaranteed 8 hours a day flying time, a ridiculous hourly rate, a generous per diem, plus a place to stay. Off I went.
The place they gave me was so dirty that I washed my feet in the sink after I took a shower. I lived off chicken pot pies that I could heat in the microwave. The high one day was a whopping -17 degrees and another was -20, but I saw spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis and I went to places you won’t see on an Alaskan cruise. Cruises won’t take you to Beaver, Kobuk, or Alakaket. We flew kerosene, gasoline, and propane. When we weren’t flying fuel, we’d fly snow machines to these same remote villages.
I learned a lot on that trip, and will now summarize a few of those lessons:
- There are no words to describe the beauty of the Northern Lights, especially when you are that far north and that far away from civilization.
- Boots certified to 40 below don’t really work that well past -10.
- Always take shower shoes. If you can’t eat in the kitchen, you really don’t want to put your bare feet in the shower, either.
- People who live in remote villages work on a different timetable than those of us who like cities. They won’t accept fuel during lunch hour or on weekends, but they’ll take a snow machine whenever you can get it there.
- When you’re in a different place with a different culture, don’t expect to feel perfectly at home. It takes an effort and you need to respect them. When a native decides to give you a baseball cap, accept it with kindness and treasure it.
- A 2300’runway, covered in snow with mountains on either side, is a challenge when empty, but even more when the aircraft weighs about 50,000 pounds.
- Appreciate your ground crew. They are the ones who get to the airport at 0400 to put heating blankets on the engines. Without them, you wouldn’t fly. You don’t like to get up that early and you know you don’t like being that cold.
- To expand on #7, appreciate everyone and everything around you. We’re all in this world together so let us work together to make it a better place. Together, we can.
- Remember this. Whatever it is, you can do this. Whatever your situation, it is not worse than -27 and no ladies restroom (actually, no restroom) in Anektuvuk Pass, Alaska. It will get better. You will get to warmer weather.
- Look at life as an adventure. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and experience life and to meet new people. Maybe you’ll learn something and maybe you will gain a new perspective.
Finding these pages from my journal was a tremendous treat. Sitting here warm and safe in our home in Macon, Georgia, I can’t believe I actually did it. Am I the same person who took off that day for the trip of a lifetime? Would I do it again?
I just don’t know.