Tales from an Iditarod Air Force Pilot
It was an interesting year on the Air Force. After doing this for 15 years, I shouldn’t be surprised with the fact that every year throws something new at you. We had sunshine to zero-zero blowing snow. Warm (20s F) and calm to -20F with 40 KT winds.
This was our first year with a more structured and regimented operation and went pretty well. Most adjusted to its limitations readily. It was interesting for me to face my own demons. Despite logic, I believe most pilots feel the need to prove themselves by “getting the job done” even, and maybe especially, when the going is tuff. I can remember how hard it was this year to turn back when conditions dropped below minimums and I “knew” I could do it anyway. This was even more difficult when we really “needed” to get people into checkpoints before the mushers got there (and the weather wasn’t cooperating).
I enjoyed working with a couple of the new (first year) pilots. It was rewarding to pass on some experience (mistakes I’ve made) and realize how different IAF flying is. All new pilots are very experience before they join the Iditarod Air Force but flying into unimproved locations, on skis in all kinds of weather, deep snow to icy landing conditions, in the middle of nowhere is truly a different experience for almost every pilot. The normal operation for many IAF flights would be a big NO-GO for the uninitiated.
After my first flight onto the Yukon River, I stepped off my skis and sunk to my waist in snow. I kept trying to push snow into the whole so I could get high enough to unload the airplane but it kept disappearing. I finally gave up and reached over my head to pull straw bales and dog food bags out of the plane.
This year was a first, in my experience, for so many rescues. I can only remember one other in my 14 previous years. This year we had 4! We had 2 days of 30 to 40 KT winds at -20F. Can you imagine mushing a dogsled into 30 KT winds at -20F? If you have the tinniest bit of exposed skin it will frost bite almost immediately. Even with expedition clothing the wind takes its toll. I was honored to take part in a rescue off a hill top between the Iditarod and Shageluk checkpoints and one off the Yukon River.
On the Yukon River rescue, we had to land across the River in order to find smooth enough landing conditions. The 2 days of high winds had created snow berms and “tombstones” (ice projections) on the River. Since the musher couldn’t get across the River, I had to taxi for a mile through a “minefield” of snow berms and tombstones to reach the team. With a 20 KT cross wind I had to fight the airplane that wanted to weathervane into the wind. Using enough power to keep it going straight resulted in too much speed (no brakes on skis) in the “minefield.” Too little power and I’d weathervane into the wind.
Finally, I made it to them and helped the musher load his team (9 dogs) into my plane along with his gear. This was the first time I could remember that dogs really wanted to get in the plane. I told him to try and walk across the River and if he couldn’t I’d taxi back for him – I really didn’t want to. After reaching the other side, I unloaded the dogs and gear into 2 other planes. I watched the musher walk, fall, get up and walk, fall… After a while he was taking longer and longer to get up. So I “bit the bullet” and taxied to him. His outer shell was so frozen on him, I had to rip it off and help him out of his frozen parker. Flying home he allowed that the night before when he went to sleep, in the snow, he didn’t know if he was going to wake up in the morning.