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A reminder

August 11, 2010

I lived in Alaska for six years and left more than 20 years ago, and with rare exceptions I was not a fan of Ted Steven’s politics. Still, the news of the plane crash that took the lives of Stevens and four others on Monday night has stayed in my mind all morning. Alaskans, by necessity, use small aircraft the way we on the Outside use cars and taxicabs. Maybe, in a sense, this tragedy should feel like losing people in an automobile wreck–terribly shocking and yet not so much, considering all the things that could go wrong every time you start the machine.

My time in Alaska involved six summers of fieldwork and a couple of wintertime forays during which colleagues and I traveled in a wide assortment of small aircraft. We used helicopters a lot, which I preferred because a helicopter can stop and turn around if a mountain pass turns out to be weathered in. On the other hand, you can forget about gliding to safety–a helicopter with no engine has the aerodynamic properties of a rock. (Given enough altitude to start with, auto-rotation can put a chopper on the ground in one piece, but we typically flew too low for that to be an option.)

We logged plenty of hours in fixed-wing craft, too, usually when setting up temporary and seasonal camps. Float planes are especially fun. Taxiing for takeoff feels like a boat ride until suddenly, you’re flying. Coming in for a landing over water feels like a mistake until you touch down and find yourself in a boat again. And you wind up in beautiful, wild places no car or truck (or airliner) could take you.

Small aircraft still feel safer to me than commercial jetliners. In Alaska I learned to like being able to see what the pilot was seeing and  hear what he was saying (and what others were saying back). Even when we hitched rides to the Aleutians on Coast Guard C-130s, we could visit the flight deck sometimes. Strapped into a commercial 747, I can’t see or hear what’s really going on, and I don’t like it.

I don’t remember ever worrying or being reluctant to board a small aircraft. You can’t move around in Alaska unless you’re willing to travel by bush plane. Besides, I was in my 20s, single and childless–not about to turn down any chance for adventure, whether for an afternoon or a whole summer. Weather conditions were often scary–it was the arctic–and I remember a few close calls. Only once, though, do I recall being concerned about the aircraft–ironically, a de Havilland Otter flying out of Dillingham. (Stevens, et al crashed in an Otter north of Dillingham.) We chartered it to haul supplies and equipment to a new camp location and it was heavily loaded. The plane was noticeably old and faded, even for the time and place, and once we began to taxi, it felt pretty rickety. Years later, I happened to read that some pilots think the Otter is underpowered, which probably explains why that one felt like it might not be quite up to the job that day. It was, though.

Ted Stevens was a wartime pilot who became a public figure, and lived and traveled into his 80s; he must have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours in small aircraft over wilderness. Did the law of large numbers finally catch up with him? I don’t think so, because the crash that killed him claimed the lives of four others including a sixteen-year old on a fishing trip with her mother, who was also killed. I think it boils down to something much simpler: life is short and something terrible could happen to any of us at any time.

It doesn’t pay to dwell on it, but it doesn’t pay to forget it, either. I’ll take my reminders where and when they happen.

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