Monday, June 20, 2011

Cloudly with a chance of...

People everywhere talk about the weather. It's lazy, and fairly uninteresting conversation, but it's a guaranteed go-to. I might not know you well enough to tell if you want to talk about airplanes or ice cream, or if you hate the Yankees, or if you think Mark Twain is the greatest writer of all time, but all these topics aside, I can assume that you, in your short or long life, have experienced weather. Weather: the great leveler.

In Alaskan air taxi business, people lie about the weather. Specifically: clients lie about the weather. Oftentimes, flying in Alaska is prohibited or delayed by the weather.  If people really want to get somewhere, or, more often, really want to be picked up from the wilderness where you left them, the weather miraculously becomes beautiful, by the mere power of their words.

This was the case this last week. We had dropped off a guy to camp for four days. He had 350 pounds of gear.  I just rode along as the copilot, in order to check out the logistics of the area and the drop off, and to be an extra set of hands, in the rare case they were needed. I was so into my spectator role, I didn't even wear hip waders. I was in Chucks and Carharrts, not even wearing aviator shades. This wardrobe guaranteed that I would get wet. I ended up jumping off the plane and standing in waist-deep, freezing cold water to hold the plane upright in the swell rolling into the beach.

When it was time to return for the pickup, the client would call with a weather report on his satellite phone. I told him that if the water was not calmer than on the drop off, he would have to hike his gear to the nearby lake and get picked up there.  Of course, his report the morning of was calm seas and beautiful outlook. On the other line, the local surfers were requesting a charter to the same beach because of rumored swell. But we decided to believe the guy on the ground with eyes on the beach. The one that wanted to get out of the wilderness. Amateur call on our part.

I was riding co-pilot again, this time in fly-fishing chest waders, and we took off over the icefield. The swell was visible from the air, and we landed anyway to explore a way through the waves to the beach. The client had his mound of gear stacked where the breaking waves were smallest, but they were still breaking... not something to which a Cessna 206 takes kindly. We taxied as close as we could and just pointed towards the lake... over a mile away.

We landed on calm waters in front of a glacier and decided to start hiking through the woods looking for this guy and helping him pack his gear. We pulled the GPS out of the plane to use for land navigation to the spot where we had seen him in the surf.  Miraculously, in the spiderweb of trails, we had both picked the same one and met up within a half hour. Even more miraculously, he found an old timer with a cabin and a four wheeler who would shuttle his stuff to the plane (Alaskan Bush motto: "If your neighbor needs help, help him. If he doesn't, leave him alone.")

The client was dripping sweat and a little exhausted from hauling his gear all day-- first to his "calm" spot on the beach, and then to the lake. I believe that you don't learn to pack light until you carry your own gear far enough, and I sincerely hope the angelic four-wheeler didn't stunt that lesson. We loaded the plane without incident and had a perfect take off and beautiful flight home from a pristine, safe lake.

My question is this: is it not obvious that weather minimums exist for small planes for safety reasons? We are not just worried about breaking the plane, we are worried about breaking the plane with you in it.  This should be something most people are adverse to, but surprisingly, they are not.

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