By Michael W. Williams
The Piper PA-14 ski plane sets down gracefully onto the winter airstrip and taxis to the front door of our Bush Alaskan homestead. We recognize the plane and pilot. It’s Carl, a frequent visitor in the winter. In the back seat though, is an unexpected passenger. Out steps Santa Claus with a sack full of presents. Our four children are surprised and excited. Santa has come to visit in a most untraditional mode of transport. Untraditional maybe, but not unusual for a family that depends on small planes the way most families depend on their minivan.
In 1993 I was wrapping up a 20-year military career in Anchorage, Alaska. A friend of mine offered to fly my wife and me out to look over a semi-abandoned backcountry homestead that was for sale. It was located some 40 road-less miles northwest of Anchorage at a place called Trail Lake. The terrain is heavily forested and mountainous and floatplane is the only summer access. One pristine Alaskan summer morning we loaded into his Maule on floats and headed out to take a look. This was the birth of our dream “EagleSong Lodge” and the cultivation of our relationship between small planes and their pilots.
When retiring from the military you are authorized a retirement move at government expense. In the spring of 1994 my family and I chose Trail Lake as that move. How do you move couches, appliances and other household items to a lake so far from river, road and runway? The answer was a DeHavilland Turbine Otter on floats. Twelve loads by an Anchorage air taxi had us in the throws of developing our remote lodge in a matter of days.
Our relationship with small plane aviation has grown strong over the years since. We live year round at EagleSong so transportation is always a top priority. In the summer floatplanes bring lodge guests, supplies and mail to our door. If it won’t fit on a floatplane it doesn’t come until winter.
Winters are long and cold in this part of the world. Trail Lake will develop 3-5 feet of ice by winters end and we average 10-12 feet of snow. As soon as there is 6 inches of consistent, solid ice I build a winter airstrip on the lake. After years of refinement we now build and maintain a 1500-foot airstrip in the form of an oval. This essentially gives us a runway/taxiway setup right out our front door. It is meticulously lined with approximately 25 – six-foot tall scrub spruce trees for depth perception on the featureless snow. Unlike many parts of the U. S. that has been carved into geometric shapes by roads and towns; a straight line of spruce trees draws the attention of passing pilots. Few straight lines occur in nature. If you see one in Bush Alaska, chances are it’s man-made. A commercial windsock is located in the center of the oval. What started as an airstrip for our personal needs has gained a reputation as being a reliable winter airstrip in an area where few exist. The oval shape reduces time spent grooming by eliminating needless overlapping of the groomer. We groom the airstrip continuously throughout the winter. Over time it has attracted a number of instructor pilots conducting ski-plane instruction.
EagleSong caters to pilots, x-country skiers, dog mushers and snowmachiners in the winter. It is the latter that demands a steady supply of fuel. Over the years we have learned flying in fuel is the most reliable, cost effective and timely way to re-supply our tanks. A variety of planes have been used to do the job. An AgCat and AgTruck were used for a few years and met our demands. Built with 300-gallon internal tanks they carried a decent payload and were cost effective. Unfortunately, these crop dusters were designed to take off with a load, but not land with it. A crop duster on skis fully loaded was, over time, asking too much. Neither plane remains operational today. We are now supplied by the workhorses of Bush Alaska, the DeHavilland Beavers with a slide-in 220-gallon tank, or Cessna 206 with 165-gallon fuel bladder. Not as cost effective, but you go with the options available to you.
Alaskan pilots are similar to the bald eagles we see overhead each day in the summer. Both, when they see something of interest, will drop from the sky to investigate. That trait has resulted in dozens of new friends. You never know who or what type of airplane will show up. From the smallest of planes such as Taylorcrafts, Super Cubs, and Huskys to DeHavilland Beavers and Otters, all types of Cessnas, and even amphibians like the Grumman Widgeon, flutter from the sky. Coffee and conversation are always available at EagleSong. Alaskan small plane pilots are a generous lot too. They often arrive with the day’s newspaper, a bag of fresh fruit or vegetables, and occasionally a hot pizza. There have been a few occasions when a much needed repair part has mysteriously fallen from the sky when neither float nor ski plane could safely land. I suspect those stories are best left for another time and place.
Some members of the famed Iditarod Air Force are within our newfound circle of friends. A few years ago EagleSong became a checkpoint for the Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Iditarod pilots bring race officials, trail markers, and supplies to us in support of the race, and back haul dropped sled dogs. During the race dozens of ski planes loaded with spectators come to watch the race pass through. For a few brief hours EagleSong becomes one of the busiest winter airstrips in Alaska.
Small plane traffic is critical to our survival at EagleSong and we hold these pilots and planes in high esteem. They are business associates, guests and friends. In return we have developed EagleSong into a destination for recreational pilots with a groomed airstrip, tie downs, engine pre-heaters, float docks and emergency fuel.
We are proud to be here when a pilot needs a “port in the storm”. When traveling northwest of Anchorage the closest weather reports come from the village of Skwentna some 65 miles away. Roughly halfway between Anchorage and Skwentna is EagleSong and Mt. Susitna. Often weather reports from Anchorage and Skwentna do not depict conditions being generated by the mountain. Snow squalls, thunderstorms, and fog can spawn from the mountain and be very localized.
One chilly day in late September a few years ago you could step outside and just feel it was going to be one of those days. A large fog bank was forming about 3 miles to the east of us and seemed to stop its advance over the top of EagleSong. We watched as plane after plane, heading for the Anchorage area flew over, prodded the fog bank and then retreated. Late in the afternoon we could hear the distinct sound of a radial engine only a few hundred feet overhead. For 30 minutes we listened to it; circling, then fading away, and shortly after returning. Finally, a DeHavilland Beaver landed and taxied to our float dock. It was a young air taxi pilot ferrying hunting gear back to Anchorage from west Alaska, where he had been working the summer flying a Cessna 206. Looking to move up to the Beaver, his chief pilot felt that since the run to Anchorage was without passengers it might be a good opportunity for him to log some solo time on the Beaver. So, for over two hours he flew over remote backcountry and mountains only to end up 40 miles from his destination staring into the face of our growing fog bank. Low on fuel and loosing daylight he sought shelter at EagleSong. He was obviously relieved to find a warm cabin and hot meal, but at the same time a little uneasy about having to land short of his destination on his solo flight with the Beaver. Of course there was no question he had made the right decision. A short time later another Beaver flown by a seasoned old timer from another air taxi landed after facing the same unyielding fog bank. It was gratifying to observe the two pilots size up the days events later that evening. It would be two more days before the fog bank would lift. Sometimes, there’s nothing more pitiful than two pilots standing around waiting for the weather to break.
Over the years, we’ve seen the ominous side of aviation too. A Cessna 206 with an electrical fire, a Helio Courier with a disintegrated engine valve, a TaylorCraft with an iced up fuel vent tube, and an Aeronca Sedan with a cracked cylinder have all sought sanctuary at EagleSong. All very tense situations, but handled successfully by experienced and well-trained pilots.
Never has our dependence on small planes been so obvious as during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We watched in disbelief as Air Force F-15s intercepted a Super Cub and Cessna 206 destined for Anchorage. The seriousness of the day was briefly broken by the sight of the two F-15s trying to slow down enough to signal the Super Cub, traveling at 60 knots, to land. I could only imagine what was going through the cub pilot’s mind. Like eagles on a sparrow, they were diverted, and like all air traffic in the U.S., were grounded. At that moment we knew no matter how serious the illness, injury or other emergency; we were truly isolated.
In contrast to today’s world of jumbo jets and high tech airports the need for small plane aviation in Bush Alaska has changed little in the past 75 years. Although I’m not a pilot, my life, livelihood, and life’s dream would be markedly diminished were it not for the small plane aviators of Bush Alaska.