A Day in the Life of an Iditarod Air Force Pilot

Or

Yes, We Love To Do This

By Bob Elliott, March 15, 2001 

The weather improved to an indefinite ceiling and 3 miles visibility with only 17 knots of wind – clam for Unalakleet, Alaska where the wind often blows 30 + knots.  Unalakleet is located in Norton Sound on the west coast of Alaska.  The weather had been “on its face” for the last couple days, often with visibilities below 1 mile.  The pressure was on us to move some critical race personnel and pick up some dropped dogs. 

Yesterday, we tried to get Claudia, a veterinarian from Germany, to Koyuk and made it to within 5 miles before encountering a whiteout and having to return.  Today the weather was much better, although still not great, with some areas of 1-mile visibility.  One advantage of poor weather is you are close to the ground and have a good view of Alaska fauna.  Today, we were rewarded with many caribou on the Shaktoolik Peninsula.  At Koyuk, I dropped off Claudia and picked up 3 dogs. As I was loading one of the dogs, the Koyuk vet said: “You’re lucky, this dog had diarrhea but it is better now.” Our standard procedure to fly a dog with diarrhea is to place the entire dog, except his/her head, in a large garbage bag. 

On the way back to Unalakleet, I was contacted by radio relay (base talking to another Iditarod airplane who talked to me) to stop into Shaktoolik and pick up some more dropped dogs, including a red tag dog. A red tag dog is one that needs immediate medical attention and receives more priority than anything but a medical human emergency. 

I was within about 10 miles of Shaktoolik, feeling pretty good about how things were going, when a protesting male Alaskan Husky started trying to crawl into my lap.  My first thought was: “I’ll never let someone else snap-in a dog again.”  The “Drop Dog” person at Koyuk had helpfully attached the lead of the dog to my retaining line around the baggage compartment.  I later found that I was the culprit -- the entire line had come untied and I was lucky to not have had all 3 dogs in my lap.

 I really didn’t want to be wrestling with a dog while landing on the frozen slough behind Shaktoolik in a 20-knot wind.  So while I was at a comfortable 500’ altitude and had at least 2 miles visibility, I grabbed the snap-eye on the dog’s lead in my right hand.  (We require all dogs to have a short lead with a snap-eye on it.)  While flying with my left hand, I was trying to overcome the strength of the dog and find a place to secure the snap.  My adrenaline kicked in and I connected with a tie-down eye I have on the seat rail behind me.  While I was wondering how I managed to achieve that feat, I noticed blood all over the controls. 

While securing the dog, I must have poked the end of my middle finger because it was spouting blood.  I couldn’t figure out what to use to stop the flow of blood so I just put on a glove. If you can’t deal with dirty, chapped and often bleeding hands, then the Iditarod Air Force isn’t the place for you.  I guess the cold numbs the hands and you don’t notice when you scrape and gouge them.  As I got this small emergency under control, I began to notice a terrible smell.

 Now, I can tell you for a fact that there is something about flying that makes sled dogs make gas but this smell was different.  Craning my neck to examine the back of the plane, I notice a large pile of dog feces (I used another word at the time) under the dog I had just snapped down.  No wonder he was trying to crawl in the front -- he was trying to tell me: “Let me out, I need to go.”  I began a little prayer asking that this dog hold still for just a few more minutes – until I landed at Shaktoolik.  Let me just say that my prayer was only partially answered because a lot of his gift was spread on my engine cover and parts of the airplane. 

The gusty 20-knot cross wind landing on the Shaktoolik Slough went reasonably well. While I was helping my canine friend from the back of the plane, I pondered how to scoop the feces out of the plane.  I couldn’t come up with anything at the time and only gazed at my dirty and bloody hand for a few moments before I started using it to scoop out the poop with my hands.  For my next trick, I attempted to rub the feces off my engine cover in the snow on the slough.  This wasn’t the best idea.  It didn’t remove the feces but it did freeze it in place on my engine cover nicely.  Later back in Unalakleet, I discovered that the metal flag on the control lock worked pretty well for scraping the engine cover, carpet and rear seat belts.  For days I kept finding little surprises around the plane and on my cold weather gear.  Fortunately, the cold minimizes the smell. 

Although I didn’t have the presence of mind to properly enjoy it, while loading the dropped dogs at Shaktoolik, Palmer Sagoonick and his dog team left.  Palmer is from Shaktoolik, a long time Iditarod volunteer and wonderful man that believes in Joe Redington Senior’s idea to bring dog mushing back to the villages.  It looked like the entire village was lined up on the bank of the slough.  One of the vets said: “This is nothing; you should have seen it when he came in.”  

On the way to Unalakleet a couple dogs became upset with each other – growling, barking and showing their teeth.  After repeated attempts at yelling them into submission, with only temporary results, I pulled the old zero-G trick (nosing over to gently lift the dogs off the floor of the plane for a moment) that quieted them down.  The rest of the trip went well, like most Iditarod Air Force flights do.  The little pooper didn’t have another accident and the Penn Air Caravan was waiting to pick up the red tag dog and whisk him to Town (Anchorage).  Just after I gingerly unloaded and snapped the red tag dog to my ski wire, he let loose with the most incredible ugly black diarrhea – see some things do work out