The news that two float planes collided in the air and crashed, near Ketchikan, Alaska, took me back to my own exposure to bush flying on the north coast. (Funny how that happens more and more as I grow older.) For about four years in the 1950s and ‘60s, I got flown around northern B.C. by some of the best pilots in the world – which is why I’m still here to write about the experience.
Bush flying in the Coast Mountains differs dramatically from commercial aviation. Most of the planet’s land surfaces are relatively level. Along the north coast, there’s more vertical than horizontal. The only level thing is water: sea, lake, or sometimes river. Which is why the planes wear floats.
Bush flyers also do without many navigational aids that others depend on. No air traffic control, for example. No software programs for automated flight. Very little instrument flying. Sometimes, not even radio contact.
Neither of the two planes that crashed was required to carry a “black box,” a flight data recorder. Or a cockpit voice recorder.
So the cause of the mid-air collision may never be known.
The two planes had taken cruise ship passengers from Ketchikan, a city on an island in the Alaska panhandle, to view the Misty Fjords National Monument on the mainland.
The two planes collided, about 3000 feet up, and crashed into the ocean. Six people died, including one pilot; ten were injured. (Because the accident happened in American airspace, I’m using feet and miles, not metric.)
The risks of bush flying
Since the accident, flight companies in Ketchikan have been deluged by people calling to cancel bookings. Or seeking assurances about safety.
In bush flying, there is no assurance of safety. Never.
Safety depends on the quality of the plane and the skill of the pilot.
In the Misty Fjords National Monument, the cliffs rise 3000 ft sheer from the water, and keep going another 1500 ft below the surface. It’s spectacular. But the terrain leaves no room at all for mistakes.
The fact that there are so few crashes attests to the caution most pilots take. They simply don’t take chances. No pilot ever goes out saying, “I think that aileron might last long enough to get me home.”
But they always have to live with a risk factor. Sea fog rolls in, blanketing the inlets. Thunderstorms form over mountain peaks. Passes vanish in cloud.
The planes they fly
There’s also a mechanical risk. Bush planes, by and large, are much older than their pilots.
One of the planes that crashed was a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. The Beaver first flew in 1947. The second plane was a single-engine DHC-3 Otter, introduced in 1952. Both planes have been the workhorses of bush flying ever since – great power, huge payloads, short take-off and landing capabilities…
They’re still in use because no one has invented anything better. Bush flying will never attract Boeing’s billions in development.
But unless you have sat behind one of those massive radial engines, you have no idea how much it can restrict your vision. (The legendary Twin Otter, with two engines mounted out on the wings, didn’t appear until 1965.) There’s little view forward; not much upwards, because of the overhead wing; none at all downwards.
I can understand how two planes might collide, with neither aware of the other’s presence.
No “ho hum” days
As a couple of pilots explained to me, you navigate by knowing your terrain. Not by GPS. You know which river takes you to which inlet, which tributary flows down to which river, which valley leads to a pass, and which valley leads to a dead end, literally.
You position yourself by the landmarks you can recognize.
I remember one pilot who sometimes terrified his passengers by flying straight at a cliff. But he knew from experience that the prevailing west wind, blowing unobstructed across 4000 miles of open Pacific, would not be thwarted by a mere mountain ridge. The ridge forced the wind to flow upward, an irresistible river of air that lifted us soaring hundreds of feet above the ridge.
He had a sense of humour. But he wasn’t taking chances.
Why do they do it? Certainly not for the money. A sense of pride in their own ability, probably. Adventure. A sense of being useful, even necessary. Many isolated communities are accessible only by air.
But I doubt if bush pilots ever go to work thinking, “Ho hum, another routine day.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column about the death of Jean Vanier came from the heart, and your letters suggest he affected you the same way. I also got several letters continuing both sides of the debate about guns, gun control, and the NRA. I’ve chosen not to include them, so that there was more space for letters about Jean Vanier.
Ray Shaver resonated with Jean Vanier’s views on caring for a person with disabilities: “What a profound article about Jean Vanier! So well done! And your reference to beauty and final years -- to which I can relate, thinking of Queenie’s last 16 years of illness and my undying love of her and care for her. It was a blessing and privilege for me to have been fit and able to provide the care she needed.”
Rachel Prichard: Thank you for that eulogy on our friend Jean. I too wept again for him as I read it and I have only known him through recorded interviews -- but I can't get enough of hearing about him now. He too was beautiful as was his dear friend Henri Nouwen. May their legacy live on for ever in the hearts of the faithful.
Wayne Irwin (who manages my webpage: see note about his services below) wrote, “Thank you, Jim. Your tribute moved me to tears also.”
Isabel Gibson liked my quotation from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ““Finally, dear friends, whateveris true, whateveris noble…” She added, “Good advice for all of us. Thank God for people like Jean Vanier who actually follow it.”
Stephanie McClellan took the eulogy as a call to action: “Thank you for this lovely tribute for Jean Vanier and your vulnerability in sharing his importance in your own heart as you loved your beautiful son.
“I see the end of your eulogy as a call to live like him in this world. I, too, met him a few times in my life as a disability advocate and his gentleness evoked emotion, passion, and devotion to the people who inspired him. I learned much about advocacy and the quiet power that can be even more respected than brash yelling protests, though there is place for both.
“He has long been a hero of mine, whose ways and writings have guided my soul. He will be missed. Thanks for honouring him.”
So did Clare Neufeld: “I met Jean Vanier a couple of times. Having also read some of his books, I concur with much of your analysis, and your emotive response to his passing.
“I would add, that not only mighthe“qualify as Jesus embodied for our time,” I dare say that this is a worthy calling or pursuit of excellence, for us all, inour time.”
Quite a few of you felt moved to tears, apparently. “You had me crying too,” Hanny Kooyman wrote. “I treasure Jean Vanier’s writing as well. I treasure his wise words. The world will miss Jean Vanier, big time.”
Margaret McLachlan: “It brought tears to my eyes too. I have heard him speak twice, and I have read several of his books, and his presence just stays with you forever. What a man of selfless LOVE.
Margaret endorsed my comments about Vanier’s clothes:“I saw a picture of him sitting with his legs crossed, and you could see the sole of his shoe worn bare!”
Finally, Alan Reynolds, for many ears a mentor of mine, struggled with his own disability (Parkinson’s – he had to give up doing his own blog because of it) to peck out, “Thanks, Jim.” You have no idea how much those two words meant to me.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The website for this project has closed but you can continue to order the DVDs by writing info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet
And the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive