By Joe Pendergrass
This document is an accounting of the impressions and experiences of the author, and is not intended to tell the complete story of the ‘98 Iditarod sled dog race. It is told from the perspective of a pilot who is flying his first Iditarod.
To fly with the Iditarod Air Force is something I had been looking forward to for 20 years.
I met Eric and Linda Johnson in the early 90’s when we were all involved with the Birchwood Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. In more recent years, they have both been very active in the Iditarod Air Force (IAF), Eric as the Chief Pilot and Linda as the author of the Pilot’s handbook and as a dispatcher for the pilots.
Eric cleared the way for my acceptance by this elite group of volunteers. These pilots spend many hours and many dollars of their own money, to maintain pilot proficiency and to keep their airplanes in top condition. Two of the more obvious reasons; to support the last great race and of course for the love of flying.
A series of meetings were held at the Regal Alaskan hotel on the shores of Lake Hood in Anchorage. The meetings were to introduce the pilots to each other, meet race officials, and spell out the rules, expectations, dos and don’ts of the job at hand. John Norris and Bill Kramer are this years chief pilots and will split the work load. Eric will work this years race as a pilot only, taking a much deserved break from the burdens of being Chief Pilot.
There are 22 pilots signed up this year, three of which are rookies to the IAF. Myself, Frank Pinkerton and Diana Moroney are first year pilots for the IAF. I fly a 1955 Cessna 180 on Fly-Lit 3000 hydraulic wheel skis. Frank is flying a Cessna 172 which has been converted to a tail dragger with straight Landis skis. Diana is flying a Piper Archer (low wing) on wheels. The 19 others are flying 185s, 180s, Super Cubs, and an Aeronica Sedan. Some are on wheels, some penetration wheel skis, some hydraulic wheel skis and some on straight skis. At least two of the pilots are veteran Iditarod mushers, Diana and Bruce Moroney each have mushed to Nome, Diana eight times and Bruce once. Diana’s team is being mushed this year by veteran IAF pilot, Sam Maxwell.
The Pilots come from all walks of life. Of the ones I know of, we have two doctors, a lawyer, construction workers, business owners, professional pilots, executives, retired people, and an aircraft mechanic.
Months were spent in preparing for this long awaited flying opportunity. I picked the brains of veteran pilots like Eric, Jim Kintz, and Danny Davidson for suggestions and read Linda’s handbook three times. I had wanted wheel skis for many years but had never got around to buying any. Not until, that is, it looked like I was going to fly the Iditarod. I located a pair in Kalispell, Montana. After a few phone calls, and sending pictures, etc. we reached an agreement and I got my wheel skis. My 180 had never been fitted for skis and therefore a great deal of work had to be completed first. Lifting eyes were installed, a P-Ponk kit to reinforce the gear was installed, brackets, bushings and all the hydraulic lines, pump and reservoir were installed. A smaller set of tires and wheels were necessary before the installation could take place. Finally in January, it was complete and ready for a test. After the first flight, one of the cables used to activate the ski’s retractable tail wheel had broken due to improper tension. The cable was replaced and I was off and running.
I’ve parked in a hangar since 1985, and therefore didn’t own any of the covers that would be required for the trail. I didn’t have an engine heater, dog tie downs, an adequate cargo net, or even sufficient maps needed to get to Nome. I bought a new set of covers to include; engine cover, wing covers with spoilers, a cover for the horizontal stabilizer and one for the windshield. A 150 watt engine heater was added to the oil pan and two cables, for tying the dogs to, were attached to the floorboards. The cargo net was taken from my suburban and adapted to fit the airplane. The carpet was replaced with cardboard. A one hundred foot extension cord was purchased and a catalytic heater was borrowed. A one and a half amp battery charger was affixed to the battery box. Two maps were purchased from the local vendor and after inputting all the waypoints in the Global Positioning System (GPS), I was ready to go.
Although the race didn’t begin until March 7th, the flying began on Feb. 21st and was staged out of Merrill Field in Anchorage. The mission was to haul supplies to all checkpoints on the south side of the Alaska Range. We were to begin about 9:00 a.m. and would be dispatched from Spernak Airways. The dispatcher is Lin Perry-Plake who has been doing this for several years and is highly regarded in this capacity.
Feb. 21st - Day one
I woke up early from a restless nights sleep in anticipation of the long awaited excitement of flying the Iditarod. After checking the weather, and filing a flight plan to Merrill Field, I departed Anderson Lake (between Palmer and Wasilla) at 7:45 Am.. Since it was early on a Saturday morning, I decided to take off in a westerly direction from the lake. There was little or no wind, which is unusual for this area, and this direction of flight would cause less noise over the residential area surrounding the lake. Arriving 25 minutes later at Merrill, I taxied up to Spernak’s where I met other volunteers who had arrived early. Unloading, sorting and stacking supplies, these dedicated volunteers were working hard to prepare the shipments for distribution to the remote checkpoints. A number of other pilots were there also, Mike Petrie, Jim Kintz, Bill Kramer, Danny Davidson, and Ken Moon were all there. I went inside and met Lin, the dispatcher, and Jack Niggemyer who is the race manager.
Having never flown into most of these checkpoints, I was assigned to follow Mike and Bill into Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Checkpoint) with 300 lbs. of dog food. My load was smaller than the others so I could get familiar with the surroundings and so the officials could check out my abilities in a relatively safe manner.
The weather is great VFR, (good visibility) with only a slight breeze. We left Merrill Field with a "ship creek" departure and set the GPS for Puntilla Lake. After an uneventful flight past the Sleeping Lady (Mt. Susitna) and Beluga Mountain, up the Skwentna and Happy Rivers, there it was.
Puntilla Lake is 113 air miles northwest of Anchorage and sits on the south side of the valley. It has a steep hill that rises on the northwest end of the lake. Rainy Pass lodge is perched on the north bank of the lake along with several cabins and buildings. It is a beautiful setting at about 1900 feet above sea level. The runway has been packed by snow machines with a drag or groomer to make it smooth and sits in a northwest and southeast direction. It is quite long and has an intersection near the center leading to the lodge and drop off point.
As we approach the landing area, we each circled the lake to assess any traffic on or around the lake. Each pilot then calls on the common use frequency to announce his intentions. "Puntilla traffic, this is Cessna 3311 Delta. I’m on a left downwind for landing to the northwest." --------- "Puntilla traffic, this is 11 Delta. I’m on left base turning final for landing to the northwest." After a soft touchdown, I taxied to the intersection and pulled up behind Mike and Bill who were already unloading their cargo.
The supplies are off-loaded and distributed to the appropriate area. The dog teams will be bedded down on the southeast end of the lake near the runway. The dog food will be taken there for the musher whose name is marked on the package. There are volunteer handlers, checkers and trail breakers, all who help unload and distribute the cargo.
After a few pleasantries, we taxied to the intersection and took off to the southeast, the opposite way we came in. The climb out in this direction is much preferred due to the hill on the northwest end of the lake. There was no wind to contend with so the choice was easy.
I made another trip from Merrill Field into Puntilla carrying straw, dog food, and lathing. The lathing is a thin wooden stake about three feet long used to mark the trail. They are placed, by the trail breakers riding snow machines, in locations that will be easily seen by the mushers.
Dispatcher Lin then gave me an assignment to carry a load of straw to Finger Lake. I loaded 5 bales of straw into my 180 finding that it fit better by standing each on end. The passenger seat, along with the rear seat, had been removed for today’s flying due to the fact that we were not scheduled to carry any passengers. I followed Ken Moon on this 92 air mile flight. We over flew the lake for a quick "look see" and entered left downwind for landing to the northeast. The runway is in excellent condition, although somewhat narrow. There was a huge circle carved in the snow to taxi up to the lodge. The runway and taxi ways were marked by spruce boughs stuck in the snow along each side. The turn was gradual enough so that a plane on skis could negotiate the corner rather easily.
The lodge caretaker met us to help unload and introduced himself as Omer. He and his wife Jeanie take care of the lodge and cabins during the winter months and will leave right after the Iditarod is over. The lodge is closed during the winter but was opened up this morning to prepare it for use as an Iditarod checkpoint. Omer and Jeanie live in one of the small cabins that is easier to heat during the winter.
Having never been here before, Ken suggested that I go up and take a look at the lodge. I walked up the snowmachine trail to a beautiful log building with huge windows that look out over the lake. I knocked on the door and entered. I introduced myself to Jeanie and said I’d like to see the lodge. She welcomed me in and began to show me around. The kitchen/dining room is large with lots of tables for the guests. The stove had just been fired up this morning so there is still a slight chill in the place. The front room is gorgeous. Lots of fine wood work has been done and it is much nicer than you would expect of such a remote place. It has a very cozy atmosphere, a place where one could just relax and enjoy both the indoors and the outdoors. I thanked my hosts for the tour and was again on my way.
I taxied out to the southwest end of the runway planning a take-off to the northeast. As I attempted to turn around, it was soon obvious that I hadn’t allowed enough space to turn and line up with the runway. A plane on hydraulic wheel skis doesn’t turn as sharp as one on penetration wheel skis where you can apply one brake to create drag. So I applied some power and taxied out into the deep snow hoping that I would not get stuck. The snow conditions were good and I made a large circle to the right coming around for another attempt at hitting the narrow runway. This time I lined up perfectly with the runway, applied full power and lifted off gently for the one hour flight back to Anchorage.
At Spernak’s, there are cookies, brownies, cake, doughnuts, hot dogs, chili, and lots of hot coffee. This is all provided by the great folks at Spernak’s and is very welcome indeed.
The next load was dog food to Skwentna. Apparently, the warm weather has thawed some of the food and it sure does smell bad. The dogs will probably love it. I landed on the plowed runway at Skwentna and unloaded the cargo. A snow machine pulling two sleds approaches and parked next to the dog food. The driver introduced himself as Joe Delia and explained that his house is the Skwentna checkpoint. He is very well known in Iditarod circles and is proud to say that the Iditarod is close to his heart. He isn’t as happy that snow machines are everywhere now and has ruined his trap line more than once. He has lived here over 50 years and carved the trap lines out of the wilderness, on foot, using snow shoes before the snow machine was ever used. He is a pleasant, friendly man though and is very proud of Skwentna and the "Skwentna Sweeties", a group of women who come out for the Iditarod to do the cooking, cleaning, checking and whatever else needs doing. Sounds like they have a good time in Skwentna.
It was getting late and this was my last haul for the day so I returned directly to Anderson Lake. After landing on the ice, I taxied up the hill onto the strip and down to the hangar. I logged a full eight hours of flight time and I was tired. I put the plane to bed and went home. It was a great first day; good weather, good flying, good food and good people. This is a wonderful life.
Feb. 22 - Day two
Since this will be another day of hauling freight only, the passenger seat, as well as the back seat remain stored in the hangar.
I took off from Anderson Lake at 8:10 a.m. in order to meet the 9:00 o-clock schedule. Mike left Birchwood just prior to my flying over and I followed him into Merrill Field. We were cleared for a "straight in" on runway 24.
We loaded bales of straw and boxes of (people) food for Finger Lake checkpoint. Upon landing at Finger, we were met by a couple of the trail breakers who were on their way through. They helped us unload and we were off again. This time, I hit the runway on the first attempt as we took off to the northeast.
As we climb out from Finger Lake and clear the first hill, Mt. McKinley appears larger than life, in front of us. And although it is 85 miles away, the tallest mountain in North America, appears much closer. At 20,320 feet high, its majesty begs us to take its picture. The weather agrees and I take advantage of the opportunity.
Later, some 70 miles to the south while flying over Flathorn Lake, I encountered some icing conditions. Rime ice is a rough frost that sometimes builds on the surface of the airplane, including the windshield and can be very dangerous. In certain conditions, it can build quite rapidly and disrupt the airflow over the wings and restrict the visibility through the windshield. In this particular case, it was very mild and melted off after a few minutes.
While crossing the Knik Arm at 2200 feet, a huge military transport flew directly beneath me. He was on an approach to Elmendorf Air Force base and as he flew below me, it occurred to me how glad I was that I wasn’t beneath him. His wake turbulence could turn me upside down, yet I’m sure he won’t even feel mine.
Skwentna is located at the confluence of the Yentna and the Skwentna Rivers 70 air miles from Anchorage. It is the second remote checkpoint along the trail and is my next destination. The runway is hard packed snow and plowed all year around. It can accommodate planes on either wheels or skis. Being fairly close to Anchorage, it gets a great deal of air traffic during the Iditarod, especially in good weather. The FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) sets up a temporary control tower at Skwentna every year during the Iditarod. This is to accommodate the increased air traffic and to ensure the safety of the flying public who follow the race.
This trip, I’m carrying boxes of food and other supplies needed for the volunteers. Joe Delia, who monitors the common use frequency, knows what time I will arrive and plans his arrival at the airport to coincide with mine. We load the supplies into his sleds and talk for a few minutes. The race weather is forecast to be good this year, so he expects Skwentna to have a lot of air traffic and lots of people from the press.
The checkpoints farthest away from Anchorage (south of the range) are supplied first, just in case the weather does go bad. Puntilla Lake, Finger Lake and Skwentna have now been completed. The last one, which is the closest one to Anchorage, is Yentna Station. It is 45 air miles from Anchorage and is located on the bank of the Yentna River. The runway is located on the river itself, and is even smoother than all the others. The owner of the lodge is reportedly afraid of flying and makes sure that he has a very good runway. His name is Dan and he and his family have lived there for 17 years. They are well known for making a good hamburger and welcomes all comers.
I followed Bill Kramer in with a supply of straw. The straw is used for the dogs to bed down in as they stop at each checkpoint. The musher, after signing in, will decide whether to feed the dogs and rest at the checkpoint or merely pick up their food and proceed up the trail. Some mushers prefer to rest at the checkpoints and others, if there are a lot of teams or a lot of people there, may decide to rest farther up the trail where it’s not so hectic.
John Norris landed a short time later and we all decided to take a few minutes and watch the "Iron Dog" racers go by. They are on snow machines and are racing from Anchorage to Nome two weeks before the Iditarod begins. One of the racers, I found out later, is also one of the IAF pilots. His name is Phil Morgan and he is a professional pilot with one of the major carriers. The winners of this race will travel over 1000 miles on a snow machine in about 28 hours of riding time. Awesome!!
We walked up the bank to the lodge just as a dog team was about to depart. They were on a training run for the Iditarod and the musher had just pulled anchor but the team got all tangled up. There were 29 dogs in the team and two sleds hooked in tandem. This is an extra large team for training purposes only. During the race, they are restricted to 16 dogs. There was a man on the first sled and a woman, who seemed to be the coach, on the trailing sled. We helped untangle the dogs and they pulled anchor again. The lead dogs refused the command and turned around as the rest of the team leaped forward. The result was again a tangled up team. The woman was getting a bit agitated and finally went to the front of the team to switch the place of some of the dogs. "NO SCREWING" she yelled. It seems a couple of females were in heat and the male lead dogs had other things beside leading on their minds. When the females were put in the lead, the whole team was glad to follow and they were on their way. It wasn’t until some weeks later when I met Diana Moroney, that I realized she was the woman musher who was giving some tips to mushing rookie Sam Maxwell in training for his first Iditarod.
While obtaining a clearance to land at Merrill Field, I learned that the north/south runway was closed. That could mean several things but on a Sunday, it was not likely due to maintenance. The controller then cleared a fire truck to cross the runway and as I taxied up to Spernak's, I could see an airplane with its tail sticking straight up in the air. Fortunately, no one was hurt, except in pride and pocket book and it was no one that I knew. The fire engine was there as a precautionary but no fire developed. As they say: Stuff happens.
After making one more round trip to Yentna Station, our flying was done for now. I made a straight out departure on 06 for the trip back to Anderson Lake.
Making a close inspection of the plane, I discovered the other ski’s tail wheel cable was badly frayed and a spring was broken. It was then obvious that the ski’s retractable tail wheels were not going to work the way the previous owner had them rigged. Today, I logged 6.2 hours of flight and decided to put the plane away.
In the next two weeks, I removed the retractable portion of the ski’s tail wheels and mounted them on a fixed axle. On the first test, it worked fine until I landed on bare ice and the weight of the airplane bent the 1/2 inch axle, sheared off the cotter pins on one side and popped the rivets out of the tunnel of the ski. So I was back to the drawing board. I straightened the axle and welded a nut on one end of it to replace the cotter pin and installed cherry max rivets to replace the softer ones. I also restricted my landings on all hard surfaces to a "skis up" position. As long as the skis are in a "down" position, there must be a soft enough surface for the ski’s tail wheel to sink in. That did it and would prove successful for the entire Iditarod.
In the days ahead, it will be determined by race officials what day the checkers will be flown into their respective checkpoints. It depends on the weather. If the weather permits the planes to fly, the checkers need merely to be at their stations the day before the race begins. If, on the other hand, the weather is marginal, we will begin several days ahead of the race to ensure the checkers are in place when the race begins. If, for whatever reason, the checkers are not in place, the race cannot start. The mushers and dog teams can run in much worse weather that the planes can fly, so we must plan ahead.
This year, the weather is perfect for flying. Clear and unlimited visibility as race day approaches. Flying the checkers in will begin Friday, March 6th.
March 6 - Day three
The Iditarod headquarters are at the Regal Alaskan Hotel and that will be our staging area during the race. Generally, the personnel flying to the checkpoints, to include judges, communications people, checkers, etc. will meet us there. All dogs that are dropped on the south side of the range will be flown back to the Regal.
I’m off Anderson Lake at 7:45 A.M. enroute to Lake Hood. I’ve never flown into Lake Hood before so some pre planning was necessary. I studied the Anchorage sectional, the terminal area pilot bulletin and talked to other pilots. Mike Petrie gave me some pointers that were very helpful. The common reporting point, when arriving from the north is the "boat hull" that sits on the north side of the Knik Arm.
The Anchorage airspace is very complex and can be intimidating to those not used to flying in controlled airspace. Within its boundaries are two Military bases, Merrill Field, Lake Hood (lake and strip), International Airport, Campbell Lake, Campbell Airstrip, Sky Harbor, Rabbit Creek, and the Flying Crown. Therefore, flying in the right place at the right altitude is critical to having a safe flight. Lake Hood is noted as the largest base in the world for float planes. Many of the planes are stored during the winter and only fly in the summer. However, there is quite a bit of traffic on skis, particularly during the Iditarod. The traffic areas for Merrill Field, International Airport, Elmendorf Air Force Base and Lake Hood (lake and strip) all cross Cook Inlet and therefore require different altitudes to maintain separation of aircraft. These aircraft range in size from a two seater J-3 to 747s and jet fighters. The radio frequency and altitude depend on the direction of flight and your location usually determines when you change frequencies from Approach Control to the Control Tower.
I flew down the coast of the Knik Arm while talking to Approach Control and was planning an "East Route" arrival. The instructions are to report at the boat hull and fly across the Arm at or below 700 feet above mean sea level (MSL). This means that I would land on the frozen, snow covered lake in an easterly direction. I requested and was granted a clearance to "land long" and taxied up in front of the Regal Alaskan Hotel which sits on the east shore. After parking the airplane, I found my way up to the pilot room, # 4002.
Lin was preparing for a day of dispatching as the checkers and other race officials began to arrive. Yesterday was Lin’s birthday, so she brought in a birthday cake to share with everyone.
My assignment was to take two checkers to their respective checkpoints. Cindy Fritts was going to Skwentna and Sally Hanim to Finger Lake. We loaded the plane with people and their gear for a westerly take off. After listening to the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) to obtain the traffic, wind and any other pertinent information, we got clearance to take off. We climbed to 700 MSL, crossed Knik Arm and then climbed to 1400 until clearing the class C airspace that surrounds the Anchorage area. We then climbed to about 2000 feet for the direct flight to Skwentna. Cindy rode in the front passenger seat where we can talk via intercom. I don’t have an intercom connected for the back seat passengers so in order to talk to them, we have to yell. Cindy is a volunteer who lives in Chugiak and owns a gift shop specializing in stained glass. She has been coming to Skwentna for several years as a checker and used to live there. She is one of the "Skwentna Sweeties".
After dropping Cindy off, Sally moved to the front seat for the short flight to Finger Lake. The weather is beautiful with sunny skies and only a slight breeze. As we flew along the trail, the sun reflected off the markers placed by the trail breakers. They appeared as bright lights coming through the woods and highlighted the trail, even from the air.
Returning to Anchorage for another assignment I was running low on fuel. Merrill Field has an easier access to the fuel pumps so I went to Spernak's to "top it off". The flight from Merrill to Lake Hood is very short, yet busy. I was cleared to take off from runway 15 for a direct flight to Lake Hood. Immediately after take off, I receive permission to change frequencies to the Lake Hood Tower. At the same time, I’m pumping the skis down for a landing on the snow covered lake. "Lake Hood Tower, this is Cessna 3311 Delta" --- "3311 Delta, this is Lake Hood Tower" --- "11 Delta on a direct from Merrill, request landing West Route" --- "11 Delta, cleared to land as requested" --- "Lake Hood ground, 11 Delta request permission to taxi to the Regal" --- "11 Delta, taxi to the Regal"
There is quite a few pilots flying today so the people are moved quickly and efficiently. There is only one more flight today and it’s a pick up in Wasilla at 3:00 o-clock. There will be 6 people and all their gear going to Yentna Station. Bill Kramer, Bill Meyer and I are dispatched to meet them.
Since there is still several hours before we are scheduled to be in Wasilla, I decided to fly to the Palmer Elks Lodge for a cup of coffee. Bill Davis, the secretary is the only one there but he always has the coffee on. I pumped the skis up for a landing on wheels since there is no snow on Finger Lake (different Finger Lake than the checkpoint). After touchdown, I taxied up to the dock.
Arrived at Wasilla Airport at 2:50 P.M. and as I entered the pattern, I heard my friend, John Glass on the radio. I landed and taxied up to where he was parked and we visited for a few minutes. He was flying the State Trooper’s Cub and was about to depart for the Shell Lake area.
Our passengers arrived and there are only 5 but they have a lot of gear. We distributed the people and the gear and took off. I had two passengers, Bill Kramer had two passengers, and Bill Meyer had one passenger and the gear. Renee and her daughter, Cindy were with me for the 28 minute flight to Yentna Station. They thanked me for the ride and commented on what a great ride it was.
Returned to Anderson Lake and was home by 4:45 P.M. This was another great day of flying and I accumulated 4.2 hours of flight time today.
March 7th - The Race Begins
On start day, the activities (for the mushers, dogs and the public) begin on 4th Avenue in Anchorage. The start is largely ceremonial with lots of picture taking opportunities, and even a chance to buy a dog sled ride. The teams mush to Eagle River and then load up in trucks to be transported to the "Restart". The restart is held in Wasilla when there is a sufficient amount of snow. This year, however, there is not enough snow in Wasilla and therefore, the restart is scheduled to be held in Willow.
Today, my flying began at 7:10 A.M. as I departed Anderson Lake enroute to Merrill. I needed fuel and after touching down on runway 24, taxied up to Spernak’s. They don’t normally open until 8:00 and I arrived at 7:30. So, after waiting for about 15 minutes, Mike came in and graciously offered to fuel me up. And I was off to Lake Hood. The customary busy flight takes place lasting about 3 or 4 minutes. The skis are pumped down (by hand) for landing on snow, frequencies changed, clearance obtained, while maintaining traffic separation and flying the airplane.
I found my way to the Pilot room, only to discover that I was early and no one else was there. After wandering around the lobby and having a cup of coffee, the others began to drift in. By 9:00 o-clock, the schedule had been developed to take four people and lots of gear to Finger Lake. There were 3 airplanes and pilots ready to go, Frank Pinkerton, Mike Petrie and me. On paper, the people and cargo had been divided up for loading into the 3 aircraft. By flight time, the fourth person had not arrived and the loads had to be redistributed. I was given a load of two people and Mike would take the third person and all the gear. Frank was reassigned to take some one else on to Rainy Pass instead.
We loaded up and took off for what would be a beautiful, smooth flight to the Finger Lake checkpoint. Howard is a big man who works in the communications area. He carries a lot of gear, to include antennas, radios, receivers and I don’t know what else. He is well over six feet tall and sits in the front passenger seat. Kathy is a veterinarian and is much smaller and therefore sits in the back seat. The heavier passenger is placed in the front for the best weight and balance of the airplane. The vets also carry a lot of gear that is necessary for their work with the dogs. On this trip, only the passengers are in my plane and their gear is in Mikes.
We dropped off our passengers and unloaded their gear. The weather, again is spectacular with little or no wind. We returned to Lake Hood and I decided not to refuel since I could make another round trip to either Skwentna or Yentna Station and be able to carry a little more weight.
A trip to Skwentna was scheduled to take a checker and some supplies. Susan Westland, the checker, invited me to the checkpoint for some coffee. I agreed and Joe Delia arrived on his Skandic wide track, pulling his sleds. We loaded the freight into the sleds, Susan got on the snow machine behind Joe and I got on the back of the trailing sled. The ride to his house is about 1/4 mile to the other side of the river. There are several houses perched high on the bank of the river and one is the Post office, and two belong to Joe and Norma Delia. One is the their old house and the checkpoint, and the other is their new house. We went into the checkpoint where many people were congregated. The coffee was to the left as we entered and I was invited to help myself. Susan introduced me to the others, some of whom I had also flown to Skwentna. There were vets and checkers and of course, some were also members of the Skwentna Sweeties. Norma is a very pleasant woman who seems to have everything organized.
I poured a cup of coffee and put in some powdered creamer, it seemed to curdle. I took a small sip and it had a very sweet, sickening taste. I slowly wandered toward the sink while not saying anything about the coffee. At an opportune moment, I dumped it out and went back to try again. This time, I didn’t put any creamer in it and took a taste. It was just as bad as the first one. About that time, one of the vets came through the door and said, "I smell vinegar". Someone else said "Yes, I’m cleaning the coffee pot" and everyone turned and looked at me as if to say "and you’re drinking it?". I was very relieved and explained that I didn’t want to say what BAD coffee they had. Everyone had a good laugh as I was directed to the other house for a good cup of coffee. At the other house, the coffee was great and I swiped a cookie too. I thanked the Delia’s and caught a ride back to the airport.
After landing long on the West Route at Hood, I taxied up to the Public ramp for fuel. To get the fuel truck to come out requires the pilot to contact Signature Flight Support on 122.95. It took them about 30 minutes to arrive and then I had to move the airplane in order for the driver to reach the plane with the fuel hose. I also discovered that if I begin to raise the wheel skis, one will always retract before the other. By allowing one tire to be in the snow and the other on the ski only, makes turning in a tight circle a breeze. With re-fueling complete, I taxied back to the other end of the lake and the Regal Alaskan Hotel. Met Glen Hanson and Roger Sires for coffee before checking with Lin. The flying is finished for the day and we are to be back at 8:30 tomorrow.
Flew to Crystal Lake where my brother, John and his wife, Sharon have a cabin. I landed only to find they were not there and were out playing on their snow machines. I left a note and returned to Anderson Lake after compiling 4.8 hours of flight time. Had a great day, met lots of people, the weather was beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
March 8th - Day Five - restart at Willow
A "Peanut Farm" arrival brought me into Lake Hood landing in a westerly direction and I taxied up to the Regal. My passengers hadn’t arrived yet so put the engine cover on the plane to hold in the engine’s heat. The wind was blowing from the north about 10 knots and would rob the heat very quickly without the cover.
The gas tanks were about 3/4 full (adequate) as my passengers got on board. Larry Carroll and Ian Ives were both checkers who were scheduled to work the Rainy Pass check point. We checked ATIS (automatic terminal information service) and got clearance for a west route departure. We took off and turned north just past the Lake Hood strip and prior to International runway 32, climbed to 700 feet and crossed Turnagain Arm. We set the GPS for Puntilla Lake and after crossing the Arm, climbed to 1400 feet until we cleared the Class C airspace surrounding the Anchorage area. Another climb brought us to 4500 feet for a smooth flight to PTI. One hour and one minute from departure, we touched down at the Rainy Pass Lodge. The passengers got out and I took off to the east and pumped the skis up for a little more speed back to Merrill. Approach control handed me off to Merrill tower and I was instructed to report over West High. I complied and was cleared to land on runway 33. Spernak’s filled the plane with fuel and I checked the oil, it was OK and I was ready for a direct flight to Lake Hood.
My next assignment wouldn’t be until the restart at Willow was finished. Lin said I was then to find Andy Anderson, a race judge, and take him to Rainy Pass. The restart was scheduled to begin at 11:00 A.M. and it was now 11:30. There were 63 teams to begin at 3 minute intervals and that would take about 3 hours.
So I flew to Willow to watch some of the restart. There were people everywhere, around the starting chute, in the pits, all over the lake, and down the trail. I looked for a landing spot on the lake in order to get closer to the starting chute, but with snow machines, people and a helicopter on the lake, I decided to land at the airport instead. It was quite a walk to the chute but there was plenty of time and it was a lot safer. The airport was crowded with airplanes, people and cars. After landing on 13, I taxied to the parking and walked down to the pits. There were lots of food vendors set up to accommodate the hungry. I bought a Mexican dinner and headed toward the chute.
Joe Garnie was just leaving as I approached the starting chute. As the last team departed, I found my passenger in the gate. He hadn’t eaten lunch yet and it was now about 1:10 P.M. We agreed to meet at the airport at 2:00. Since I had nearly an hour to kill, I decided to walk back to the airport. The rush was on and the crowd was now trying to leave all at the same time. There were people walking, snow machines and four wheelers hauling others and vehicle traffic was moving at a snails pace. Back at the airport, I met three other I-rod pilots, each who were waiting for their next trip. Glen Hanson was to take two people to Finger Lake, Roger Sires was picking up the race marshal, and George Murphy was off duty today.
Andy met me right on time and we took off for Puntilla Lake. The crowds were somewhat thinned out by now in Willow as the action moved on down the trail. We landed west on Puntilla Lake and having plenty of time, I decided to walk up to the lodge with Andy.
The lodge is very nice with a prow front overlooking the lake. A beautiful Moose head and a full body mount of a Mountain Goat adorn the front room. The caretaker, Brian and his wife are very nice people and the cook, Linda is loving Alaska. She plans to move here from the southern 48 real soon.
On the return trip the excitement is building below as the teams race up the Yentna River. As I fly over Yentna Station, there are about 30 airplanes parked on the river with people crowded along the trail to watch as the race progresses. There are snow machines running along side of some of the teams and that’s not likely popular with the mushers. It occurred to me as I flew over at 3,000 feet how glad I was not to have to fight that crowd for airspace.
After the trip home, it was time to change oil. Parked in the hangar and put the drain hose and bucket in place. I opened the spigot to let it drain over night and went home after another great day on the Iditarod.
March 9th - Day six
Had to wait for Glacier Air-parts to open in order to get a new oil filter. With fresh oil and a new filter, I left Anderson Lake at about 8:35 enroute to Merrill. Topped off the fuel and on to Lake Hood.
By this time, the teams were all through Yentna Station and the mission was to clear out the people we had taken there only a short time ago. My job was to take all five people and their gear back to Wasilla. It took three trips to complete and I was somewhat surprised that each time I landed on the river, I had to walk to the lodge to collect the people. I thought they would hear me coming and be ready, but out there, no one’s in a hurry. Just relax and enjoy the time, I told myself and that I did.
Back to Merrill for fuel and on to Hood. I’m done for the day and Lin said to call in the morning and I could be dispatched directly from Anderson Lake. There will likely be dogs to pick up at Finger Lake and the plane is full of go juice and I’ll be ready to go.
March 10th - Day seven
At 6:00 A.M., I’m out of bed and had time to watch a little news and scan the paper. The race leaders are out of Rohn and may be in Nikolai by now.
Called Lin and was dispatched directly to Puntilla Lake to pick up 9 dogs. This is exciting because I’ve never hauled dogs and haven’t yet come out of PTI loaded. Going into the checkpoints with a load is one thing, but coming out is a whole different story. The runways, while being in excellent condition, do offer a bit of concern when you have a full load and everyone watching. The International press is there taking pictures of everything and everyone. This is not the place to have something go wrong, the whole world is watching. The focus is on the dog teams but a mishap could cause a change very quickly in what’s considered newsworthy . Eric and Linda assured me that all the I-rod pilots will also be watching the new kid to ensure the safety of all parties involved.
Each dog must have the appropriate paper to accompany them on the trip home. The Vets complete the paperwork and include any special instructions required for the dog’s health and safety. A dog with a red collar has top priority for transportation as it’s life may be in jeopardy. The blue collar is next and may require medication. The rest are usually just tired and in need of a trip home.
I was met by Vets, checkers and dog handlers. There were people taking pictures and several mushers were there resting their teams. I loaded nine dogs and clipped them each to the cable attached to the floor board of the plane. In order to get the full use of the runway, I taxied to the west end for an easterly departure. Half way down the runway, we lifted off gently and were on our way for the one hour trip back to Anchorage. The dogs mostly just slept on the trip and there was no fighting or stirring at all.
Back at Lake Hood, we were met by dog handlers whose job it is to tend to the dogs until they are transported to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. Once at HMCC, the dogs are cared for by the prisoners until they can be picked up by either their owner or handler. Some will stay there until after the race is over and the musher gets back to Anchorage. So the joke is that if a dog can’t cut it in the race, they have to go to jail. But they are well cared for and the prisoners enjoy the change of pace.
I learned that Signature would come to the Regal with their fuel truck if they were called. That proved to be much more convenient for me since it required no additional taxi and wait time.
Next trip was also to PTI to pick up Linda, the cook and some gear. After arriving, I was met by Bob Elliot, another I-rod pilot. He asked to change passengers with me since his weighed 270 lbs. Bob’s plane is a 180 on Landis 3600 penetration wheel skis which have quite a lot of drag. He did have the tail wheels removed from the skis for maximum performance. I agreed and watched as he departed with the smaller passenger. He appeared to struggle, even with the lighter load. He told me later that he almost aborted the take off because he was using up a lot of the strip. I then taxied out for take off with Mark, his gear and some Vet gear. I was confident since I had just hauled out nine dogs with no trouble. I applied full throttle with two notches of flaps (recommended with the Sportsman STOL kit) and again lifted off with no trouble at all. I like this airplane, these skis and the STOL kit. My plane is an early model, which is lighter than Bob’s, has a float plane prop, and along with the STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) kit and skis with less drag, all help make it a very good performer.
I climbed up high for a straight flight over the mountains back to Anchorage and thought maybe I could catch up and pass Bob. But, although his plane has more drag on the ground, it goes through the air faster than mine and he still beat me flying the slightly longer route around the mountains.
The next trip was to Finger Lake to pick up trash. I wasn’t sure if it would be obvious what was supposed to be picked up. Danny Davidson was on his way from there with some trash already so I asked Lin to find out if I would have any trouble locating it. He answered on the radio by saying "Stevie Wonder could find that trash". We got the message, and I realized how much he reminds me of my brother-in-law, Jerry Ellis. He is really a funny guy as well as being the longest Iditarod pilot.
No need to re-fuel since I figured that I would have an hours worth left upon my return. The passenger seat was removed to allow as much room as possible.
As predicted, I had no trouble locating the trash. It was four very large bags and a smaller one. They had to be literally stuffed into the plane. It was a good thing that I had also removed the yoke from the passenger’s side as the bags were pushed right up to the instrument panel.
By my calculations, I had plenty of fuel left and the weather was not a factor. However, the fuel gauges read dangerously close to the "E" and I don’t like that very much. I remained at 2500 feet as I crossed Turnagain Arm and asked for a "straight in" on runway 06 at Merrill. It was granted with no questions asked and I taxied up to Spernak’s. It took 46 gallons which meant that there was nine gallons left of useable fuel. That’s a lot more than was indicated by the gauges. The book says I can go 4 1/2 hours before needing fuel, but after about 3 1/2, the gauges make me nervous. It seems that every time the gauges get close to "E", I have to fly over a large body of water before getting to the pumps, so that adds to my anxiety. But each time I’ve done that, I find out there was more fuel left than I thought.
Flew direct to Hood to drop off the trash and pick up my passenger seat. It was getting late and I landed at Anderson Lake just as darkness was settling in. Another good day.
March 11th - Day eight
Today’s first assignment was to go to Rohn and pick up 7 dogs for the trip to Anchorage. I had never been into Rohn and it has a poor reputation. They say that the wind blows the opposite way at each end of the runway. One of the pilots has already broken a tail wheel there this year and another 180 is parked there after being wrecked a couple weeks ago.
I climbed to 6500 feet for a direct flight to Rohn. The weather is sunny with very little wind on this side of the range. The flight was through Rainy Pass and it was the first time I’d ever flown through there where I could tell for sure where the pass was. The trail was easy to see where the dog teams had been through on the way to the Dalzell Gorge. I dropped down after crossing Rainy and approached the Rohn river runway. The wind appeared to be blowing about 6 knots from the southeast. After circling twice to get the lay of the land, I set up for approach. The runway was hard packed and I bounced three times on landing. The only airplane there was the damaged one parked off in the trees. The runway is narrow and sits among tall trees on all sides, somewhat similar to Anderson Lake’s gravel strip. The wind burbling over the trees makes the approach turbulent, again like Anderson Lake. The parking area is small and is difficult to get the plane off the runway. Shortly after landing and parking my plane, Dave Mersereau landed. He said my plane was too close to the runway and I should move it. I explained that I tried but needed help to push it. With his help and a couple from the checkpoint, I finally got it pushed back far enough. A few days earlier at Rohn, another pilot had his plane too close to the runway for another’s comfort. After a few harsh words were exchanged a scuffle ensued between the two. Tim Skala ended up with a few scrapes and a bruised ego. Not sure who the other one was, Tim didn’t get his name.
Two more planes landed from McGrath, to break down the checkpoint. Reagan, Dave and Frank came in much the same as I did, with three bounces. Al, Jasper and Lisa were working there in one capacity or another.
Seven dogs were brought from the checkpoint, which is down the trail in the woods, and clipped to my ski cables. Al laid the clipboard with the paperwork on it, down on the right ski while taking care of other things. When he went to retrieve it, we saw that one of the dogs had peed all over the ski and the paperwork as well. Another lesson learned. It reminded me of the time when Martin Buser was presented the winners trophy at the awards banquet in Nome. He brought his lead dog to the banquet, which is customary, and had placed the trophy on the floor. The lead dog then proceeded to hike his leg and peed all over the trophy right in front of the audience. A real Kodak moment.
We loaded the dogs and took off to the east. While on the ground, the dogs were growling and snarling at one another but seemed to settle down once we were airborne. I decided to circle once to grab some altitude before crossing the pass. I did have to "float" my passengers a couple times during the flight to settle them down. When the dogs get unruly or begin to fight, a quick push and pull on the control yoke will cause them to float for a second, in the air. It worked well until we were on the ground at Hood when they began to act up again. They didn’t fight but looked like they were getting close. Got them unloaded OK and that was the last load of dogs out of Rohn. All the checkpoints are closed now on the south side of the range. The one flight today was three hours by the time I got home. Tomorrow, it’s off to Unalakleet.
March 12th - Day nine
I was up at 6:00 a.m. and had my morning coffee. After packing what I think I’ll need in Unalakleet (UNK), I drove to the hangar and installed a new oil filter on the plane. Called Lin about 8:10 to see if she needed me to haul anything with me when I go north. She said to call back later, so went to the 7-11 for another cup of coffee and a doughnut. Called her again 45 minutes later. She said I would be going alone but since I planned a stop in McGrath, to see Linda Johnson for any further instructions. I finished loading the plane and took off for McGrath. I climbed to 9,500 feet to get over the clouds that were covering much of the Alaska Range and its passes. Once on the other side, the clouds dispersed and it was clear sailing on to McGrath. I landed on runway 07 and taxied to Woods’ for fuel. There was no-one there, so went to the bunkhouse-cafe-pilot room to find someone to give me some gas. Also found Linda Johnson and met several others there. Jim Kintz, Roger Sires, Jack Niggemyer, Frank Pinkerton, Tim Skala, and others were there.
Linda asked if I could haul some gear to Ruby and I said "Sure". Roger had some equipment that he couldn’t carry in the cub, so I loaded it into the 180. There were also some Vet supplies that needed to go. I loaded it all into my Cessna and took off on runway 25. The tower operator called and chewed me out for taking off too early. It seems that, although I had passed all the airplanes parked on the side of the field before taking off, I was supposed to wait until I passed the intersection. I apologized and said that it wouldn’t happen again, while hoping that Grant (FAA) wasn’t watching. I didn’t go back and never heard about it again.
After flying direct to Ruby, I circled a couple times to check things out. Several other planes were parked on the (Yukon) River in front of the village, so I decided that looked pretty good and landed up river and parked behind two others. One of the trail breakers helped unload the gear and put it in his sled. I got on behind him and we hauled it up the hill to the checkpoint. The checkpoint is at the community center that lies in the middle of the village. Met several other volunteers, had a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Caught a ride back down the hill to the river and was asked if I could haul some lathing to Galena. Since it was on my way to UNK and I had plenty of time before dark, I agreed. We loaded the two bundles of lathing and I took off for the 44 mile flight to Galena. The trail breaker had said that I could land on the river in front of the checkpoint in Galena. After making several low passes over the village, I think I found the checkpoint but the river close by, did not look like any place I wanted to land. So I went to the far end of the village and found a place on the river that looked a lot more user friendly, and landed. I walked about a mile and a half into the village and got directions to the checkpoint. Met several people who were very happy to help and took me back to the plane in a pick-up. They loaded the bundles of lathing into their pick-up and I was again on my way to UNK. Headed down river to Nulato and turned toward Kaltag. After passing Kaltag, I followed the trail past Old Woman cabin and on to Unalakleet. The wind was blowing hard and I circled a couple of times while waiting for Penn Air and Bering Air to land. After watching which way the dust blew upon their landings, I decided to follow Bering in on runway 08.
Phil Morgan met me and directed me where to park. He had already made arrangements for the IAF tie downs and electric hook-ups. He also got us a pick-up truck to use to haul our gear to the "Shafter House" where we were to stay. Shortly after I got my plane all tucked in, Tim arrived and we tied him down and he rode with us to the Shafter house.
Jack Niggemyer came into the bunk house and took us all to dinner at the cafe. Jack is planning to ride with the trail breakers on from here to Nome. Diana Moroney came in later, while we were eating and is also one of the I-Rod pilots. Our room at the bunk house has six beds in it and right now there is only one left. Tomorrow, there will likely be people sleeping on the floor.
Another great day with great people in a great land.
March 13th - Day ten
Had a good nights sleep in spite of Jack and Tim snoring all night. Woke up at 6:00 A.M. and couldn’t go back to sleep so got up and decided to make some coffee. The coffee pot was brand new and still in the box, complete with directions. But how complicated can a coffee pot be? I put an ample supply of grounds in, filled it with water and turned it on. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. My Dad always said, "when all else fails, read the directions." I hate it when that happens but the coffee pot had won and I was now nearly out of coffee grounds. So, I read the directions, followed them carefully and it worked just fine. Although the coffee was a bit on the weak side, it will do.
After downing a cup of the weak stuff, got on my gear and headed for the airport. I found the plane had fared very well. Last night, I had plugged it in and put the engine cover on. The battery charger and engine oil pan heater are wired into one plug that seemed to work well. The engine is warm and the battery is fully charged. It started easily and I taxied over to fill it with fuel. The Fixed Base Operator has a large fuel tank on a trailer that we fuel our planes from.
Got my first assignment for the day, 30 cases of HEET and two bags of dog food for Elim. Took off on runway 08 into a direct head wind and was airborne before reaching the intersection. It was a bit bumpy as I turned north and set the GPS (Global Positioning System) for a direct flight to Shaktoolik. A straight flight to Elim would have taken me over the open water of Norton Sound, so I decided to fly the coast instead. However, much of the Sound is covered with sea ice beneath a layer of snow. It is therefore very difficult to determine exactly where the sea ends and the coast begins. Hence, the GPS. This wonderful invention, with its moving map, actually shows a picture of the coast with a depiction of the airplane and its exact location on that map.
Shaktoolik sits in, what appears to be, the middle of nowhere. It has snow and ice surrounding it with no vegetation what so ever. The village sits on the coast in two long rows of houses. The airport is at the northwest end of the village and is blown completely free of snow. A slough runs parallel to the rows of houses on the north and is the preferred landing spot for the IAF.
I passed over Shaktoolik and proceeded to the north. After swinging around to the east in order to follow the actual coast, I arrived over Koyuk, which lies on the northeast corner of Norton Sound. It sits on the side of a hill covered with trees and has a runway perched on a hill above the village. However, there is what appears to be about a two mile runway plowed out on the sea ice to accommodate larger aircraft. Now turning to a westerly heading, I proceed to Moses Point. This is an abandoned village or maybe just a summer fish camp with no winter activity at all. The snow is blown from the north and is drifted high on the south sides of all the houses and is undisturbed by man or machine. There is a VOR (VHF Omni Range) navigation site here that is still in use. Then on to Elim which sits higher on the hill and has a large, nice runway. I landed on runway 01 and taxied up to the apron. A man who works for the FAA had just arrived on an Arctic Cat snow machine. He works at Moses Point on the VOR site as a technician and was hoping to catch a ride to Nome. He made some calls for me to notify the people at the checkpoint that I was dropping off their supplies at the airport. They said to just leave them there and they would be along to pick them up after lunch. I unloaded the HEET and dog food and was again on my way. I flew the reverse route in about one hour and 8 minutes. Crossing over Koyuk, I noticed a DC 6 parked on the sea ice in front of the village. Apparently there are some advantages to landing on the sea ice as opposed to the runway. Maybe the runway wasn’t long enough or the wind wasn’t favorable. In any case, its cargo was much closer to the main part of the village than it would have been had he landed on the runway.
Landed at UNK and the wind there had not let up. Apparently it seldom does. Fueled the plane up and installed the engine cover. There were no more assignments today, so plugged the plane in and put it to bed.
Upon returning to the Shafter house, I discovered that a lot more volunteers had arrived today. Met John Berdner, Jill Kramer, and Jennifer. They are all dog handlers and work hard at getting things set up, the food put away and Jill and Jennifer even cooked lunch and dinner. Of course, there are no dogs here yet. Dee Dee Jonrow got into Galena today at 6:15 P.M. so should be here in Unalakleet early Sunday morning. The mushers seem to prefer to run at night in the cooler temperatures. During the day, lately, it has been in the 30’s (above 0). The sky has been clear and no hint of a storm so far, at least not before the leaders are likely to get to Nome.
Walked around the village with Roger after dinner. There are lots of 4 wheelers, snow machines, and pick-up trucks here. The roads are all gravel and there is a lot of huge snow drifts in town. There is a lot of wind and the people are very friendly. Another great day on the last great race in the great land.
March 14th - Day eleven
Woke up at 5:30 and took a shower and shaved. These are nice accommodations compared to where I stayed while working for AVEC in the villages. All the niceties of home. Kathy got up at 6:30 and began cooking breakfast. We had sausage and blueberry pancakes. The food is great, I’m not going to lose weight here.
The first flight today was set after Penn Air arrived with people to distribute to the various check points. Put my rear seat back in to carry passengers. My assignment was to take Catrina Jackson to Shaktoolik and Jan Polosky to Koyuk. Spoke to Tim about landing at Shak and he said the wind usually favors the slough and it’s closer to the checkpoint. He is landing there on wheels in the slough. I loaded up my passengers and their gear and took off for Shaktoolik. After circling the area to scope it out and assess the wind, I set up to land on the hard packed snow in the slough. I had my skis pumped up to land on the wheels and as I touched down, soon realized that skis would have been a better option. The tires dug in a bit as I applied power and kept the flaps extended. After turning around and unloading my passenger and her gear, decided to pump the skis down for take off. That worked much better and would be the choice for me on all future slough landings.
Up the coast at Koyuk, we landed on the sea ice in front of the village. Upon landing, an Eskimo met us riding a snow machine and pulling a dog sled. After loading all of Jan’s gear into the sled and instructing her to stand on the back of it, he drove away toward the village. I took off for UNK for another assignment.
My next job was to go to Galena to pick up Stu Nelson and two dogs. After the one hour and 25 minute flight, I found Stu sleeping next to the fence close to several dogs. Stu, the chief veterinarian, is a big man who has a lot of gear. We loaded his gear and the dogs into the plane and buckled up ourselves. It was a heavy load actually but the plane didn’t seem to mind and we had a good flight along the trail to UNK. We flew down low in order for him to view the trail and the mushers. The two dogs we brought with us were a red tag and a blue tag. Both are in need of medical attention, the red being more severe.
The weather, so far, for the entire race has been spectacular. However while flying from Galena to UNK, the setting sun did make it difficult to see at times. Got in 4.3 hours of flight time today. Had fried chicken with mashed potatoes for dinner and a beer. Had red wine the other night. Unalakleet is a damp village, meaning you can bring alcohol in but cannot sell it. Don’t know who had it but they shared.
March 15th - Day twelve
Slept until 6:35 this morning, had breakfast and got my first assignment. I was assigned to haul 40 gallons of snow machine fuel to Koyuk. However, we could only find 20 gallons, so John Norris decided I should take it and go. I landed in a northeast direction on the sea ice at Koyuk and taxied up toward the village. A man by the name of "Ray" met me on his snow machine pulling a freight sled and picked up the gas. I guess the trail breakers needed the gas pretty bad. On the return trip to UNK, I saw two dog teams about a mile apart. They were about 15 miles out of UNK and should be Dee Dee Jonrow and Jeff King. I couldn’t tell who was who though. I saw Dee Dee last night in UNK and she sure did look tired. She is holding onto the lead, so far. There are about 10 or 11 teams that are way out ahead of everyone else.
Next, I was dispatched to Nulato to pick up five dogs and a race judge. The dogs were to be brought back to UNK and the judge was to be dropped off at Kaltag. Someone recommended that I land on the river at Nulato in order to be closer to the village. One dog was reported to be red tag, two blue tags and two white tags.
After over-flying the village and the river, I found a suitable landing spot on the north side of the village. The landing spot was right on the Iditarod trail as it heads down the Yukon river. I landed and waited but no one showed up. I walked down the trail and met a skier who didn’t know where the checkpoint was (and didn’t seem to care). I went back to the plane and decided to fly up to the airport and see if anyone was waiting there. The runway sits high on a hill about two or three miles from the village. There was no one there either, so I waited and waited. After sitting there about 10 minutes, I figured if I had to walk into the village to find the checkpoint, it would be shorter to start from the river. I took off from the runway and landed on the river south of the village, this time, and began walking. Soon I was approached by two people on a snow machine pulling a sled. The driver said "this is your ride, come on, I’ll take you to the checkpoint." I got in the sled and we proceeded to wind our way through the village to the north end toward the airport. We finally arrived at the checkpoint where I met the judge, Terry Hensley. The dog handlers told me to fly to the runway and they would deliver the dogs and judge to me there. Now there is six dogs as one more has been dropped. So I caught a ride back to the river. I took off, pumped my skis up and landed on the gravel runway, again. This time everything went smooth as the truck pulled right up to my plane. We loaded the dogs, the judge got in and we took off for Kaltag. Terry wanted to land on the river in front of the checkpoint at Kaltag so he wouldn’t have to walk so far. I agreed to check it out. After flying down low to assess the landing conditions on the river at Kaltag, I discovered that there was a direct crosswind to the best landing spot. I told Terry he would have to get out at the airport. The weather was sunny and warm so didn’t feel bad at dropping him there and making him walk. The dogs and I took off enroute to UNK.
The dispatcher here in UNK is Dorothea Taylor. We try to keep her up to date on our location and time of arrival. She can then arrange to have Dog Drop John meet us at the airport to pick up the dogs. I was not able to contact her via radio. I unloaded the dogs and tied them to the cables attached to my skis. After locating Dog Drop, they were loaded into the pick up for the drive into town and the comforts of those much caring handlers. John’s services are called upon for many functions, not the least of which is to provide transportation back and forth between the airport, the Shafter house and the checkpoint.
Put the plane away since there are no more assignments for today. The snow is melting and there are puddles everywhere. Walked around the village and down to the slough where the ski planes park. The snow drifts are 8 to 10 feet high and are getting soft with the warm weather. It is now a mix of rain and snow falling, making sloppy conditions throughout the area.
The slough is where the mushers enter the village on the way to the checkpoint. The checkpoint is located downstairs in the old gym. Outside the gym is where the "Dodge Lodge" is set up. The Dodge Lodge is a temporary structure made of vinyl stretched over a steel frame in a Quonset hut shape. (Sponsored by Anchorage Dodge) It serves as the doggy hospital where those needing the most care are taken. The dog handlers and vets pull around the clock shifts to provide the best care possible for any injured or sick dogs.
There are lots of tourists who hire pilots to fly them along the Iditarod trail. They follow the race progress and they come from all over the world. There are domestic and foreign film crews as well who provide coverage for the world wide media. The veterinarians mostly come from the lower 48 with a few from other countries. "John and Barbara Dog Drop" (as they are referred to) come from Grass Valley, Ca. They come up every year to help co-ordinate the handling of the dropped dogs in McGrath, Unalakleet and Nome. Dorothea Taylor is from Willow and her significant other is George Murphy. George flies paying customers along the trail and often has time to fly for the IAF, as well. Kathy is the camp cook and is also from Willow. Her husband is one of the mushers and her son plans to race next year, too.
The weather is supposed to drop tonight with a storm coming in, but the locals say it won’t be much to worry about. They are usually pretty good at forecasting the weather. Today was another good day of flying, did have to buy 2 quarts of oil at $5.25 each, but that‘s OK, I had fun again. I love this stuff.
March 16th - Day thirteen
.It seems that I sleep later each day I’m here. Got up at about 6:45 this morning. We all had a scheduled flight and left pretty much together. We planned to pick up dropped dogs at Ruby, Galena, Nulato and Kaltag. We also had people (vets, checkers and communication people) to pick up and move up the trail. We headed east toward Kaltag as the weather began to deteriorate. Tim Skala was the "penguin" and would scope out the conditions ahead of us and let us know what to expect. He was flying low and Bob Elliot was second and a bit higher. The ceilings were low and it was snowing. The forward visibility was poor for Tim as he kept us advised from his observation point. Bob went IFR (instrument flight rules) and climbed to 3500 feet and headed back toward UNK. Tim turned around and advised us to do the same. Bob broke out into clear skies after several minutes in the soup. John Norris, Phil Morgan, Dave Mersereau, Diana Moroney and I all turned around and returned to UNK
By 3:30 in the afternoon, the weather had improved significantly and we all launched again. Four planes were sent to Galena, two (including me) were sent to Ruby, and one to Nulato. The 1.3 hour flight to Ruby was uneventful and I landed on the river. John Norris opted for the runway and we both picked up dogs. I caught a ride on a snow machine going up the hill to the checkpoint. We loaded my 5 dogs into a pickup truck and hauled them toward the river. The native man who was driving the truck gave me a quick tour of the village explaining, with obvious pride, his contributions to the changes that have taken place in the village. He told me to bring the plane down to the lower end and we could load the dogs right from the truck. I moved the plane as he suggested and introduced myself. He said "I’m Emit Peters". I hadn’t recognized him but he was the 1976 winner of the Iditarod sled dog race and I was very pleased to meet him. We loaded the dogs and I took off in a northeast direction and turned back toward the west. I flew a direct route until passing Kaltag, where I flew low along the right side of the trail. There were two teams parked at Old Woman cabin and four more between there and UNK. We (the IAF planes) all landed fairly close together and unloaded our dogs. There are now about 70 dogs that have been either brought in or dropped here. Tomorrow, there will be 60 of them sent to Anchorage on Northwest Cargo. There are now eight teams resting here in UNK.
I met an elderly white man who has lived here for 40 years. He was sent here in the Navy, met his wife to be and has lived here ever since. His name is Hogi Bear (nick name) and he owns a trucking company. He is about 70 years old and enjoys helping the Iditarod Trail Committee. It’s nearly 11:00 p.m. so I’m ready to hit the sack.
March 17th - Day fourteen
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I had breakfast and checked the weather. It calls for low ceilings, snow and lots of wind and turbulence. However, we did get in the air after noon and I went to Nulato to pick up two people and some gear. Steve is a checker and Lee is a vet. I landed on the airstrip right behind Bob Elliot. I didn’t have room for all the gear but Phil will stop on his way back from Galena and pick up the rest of it. I left two boxes and some vet gear. As it turned out, Phil couldn’t get it all either so Diana was sent back to Nulato for the remainder.
Tim found a fuel leak in his plane and took it into a hangar for repair. After taking the cowling off, they also found two cracks in the exhaust system. They fixed it all up but the day was shot for him and he didn’t get to fly.
Dee Dee Jonrow, who was many peoples favorite, arrived in Nome in 2nd place today after Jeff King’s 1st place. This is Jeff’s 3rd Iditarod win and is now tied with Martin Buser. Only Susan Butcher and Rick Swensen have more wins. Susan with four and Rick with five.
Only flew for 2.1 hours today but it was a good flight to Nulato and back to UNK.
There were 60 dogs sent out this morning on Northwest Cargo and another 60 will probably go out tomorrow. Jill and Jennifer are two of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. No matter what time I go by the dog drop area, they are both there taking care of the dogs. Others seem to drift in and out but these two are always there. Always pleasant and cheerful, they seem to really like what they are doing.
March 18th - Day fifteen
Woke up at 3:30 A.M. so got up and took a shower while there was no competition for the bathroom. I shaved and went back to bed and slept until 6:35. Had a light breakfast and launched at 8:15 for Kaltag. Followed Tim through the pass, although he left right after me (His plane is much faster than mine). The visibility got real bad, I was down to minimums and the windscreen was picking up a lot of ice. Tim radioed to say he was on the ground at Kaltag as the rain turned to snow. I began making shallow S turns in order to see where I was going. Thank goodness for the GPS. Suddenly, a light appeared next to a large clearing. It was the runway. I buzzed the town to make sure they knew we were there and landed at the airport.
A rider drove up on a snow machine, pulling an empty sled. We told him to bring the passengers with their gear to the runway because when the window of opportunity opened, we wanted to launch right away. The ceiling then came down and it was snowing heavy. We couldn’t even see across the runway.
Our passengers arrived and by the time we loaded everyone and everything into the planes, it was time to go. I was transporting Matt Hall and his gear. The pass was now wide open and we took off. We shot through the pass with a tail wind and before we got to Old Woman cabin, the ceiling had come down. I was again flying in marginal conditions and it was snowing heavy. Then suddenly up above, there was blue sky and from Old Woman cabin all the way to UNK, it was CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited). We flew over a herd of about 25 Caribou that were right on the trail.
I landed on runway 08 and put the plane away. That was my only flight for the day.
The last musher should be in tomorrow and then we can pick up and go to Nome. Tim and Diana were sent on to Nome today while John, Dave and I stayed here. Dave is planning one trip to Nome tomorrow and then will go home to Anchorage. Mike Petrie and Reagan Russey stopped today at UNK to refuel enroute to Anchorage. However, they came back due to weather. Al Lewis and Rob also came back after being unable to get through to Anchorage. So the evening we expected to be very quiet turned out to be full of people. Bob Elliot, Ken Moon, Mike Petrie, and Dave Mersereau all plan to head for Anchorage tomorrow along with Al Lewis (not with IAF) and Rob (also not with IAF). The weather is forecast to be IFR but will just have to wait and see.
March 19th - Day Sixteen
Got up and had a light breakfast, one sausage and one waffle. Went to the airport to remove the back seat since my assignment was to get dogs from Shaktoolik. The flight over was a bit rough due to high winds. The wind was blowing right down the slough so landed to the east. Was supposed to pick up 4 dogs but one was given away to someone in the village, so returned with the other three. Took off to the east, the snow is soft due to the warm temperatures. Another rough ride back to UNK but otherwise uneventful. Took the route over the Blueberry Hills which wasn’t quite as bad as along the cliffs next to the sea ice.
When I got back and landed, the battery was dead and the engine wouldn’t start. I was supposed to make two more trips to Shak but John Norris had to take them for me. I took over the dispatcher duties as Dorothea has already gone to Nome and John has been the dispatcher. Vern, a native mechanic at ATS checked out the generator and said it needs to be replaced. The battery is also old having been installed in 1990. John Norris ordered a new generator from Anchorage and I hope it’s the right one. The generator was new two years ago, I think. I’ve had a lot of trouble with the generator over the years. Have the battery charging and if necessary, will fly to Nome without the generator working. Should be able to get it fixed there.
Went back to the bunk house, washed clothes and took a shower.
Dave, Mike, Reagan, Ken and Bob all left today for Anchorage. I hope they have a good flight and all get home safe.
March 20th - Day seventeen
Got up this morning and realized that John Norris wasn’t here. First we looked all through the Shafter house and we came to the conclusion that he hadn’t come in last night. We looked at the airport to see if his plane was still there. It was. We looked at the cafe, the checkpoint and the dog drop area. He was no where to be found and we started to worry. Had he met with some traumatic fate? Was he hurt and unable to contact us? We asked around at the airport and someone remembered he was talking computers with one of the employees last night. He called the employee’s house and sure enough, they had talked into the night and John had spent the night there. All is well that ends well. These folks do watch out for one another.
Later in the day, John and Barbara Dog Drop, John Norris and I are the only ones left in UNK with the IAF. I charged my battery all night so it should get us to Nome. The other generator hasn’t come in yet and it’s time to go. My assignment was to take John and Barbara along with their gear to Nome. We loaded everything in around Barbara who sat in the back. She was packed in pretty tight. There were boxes behind her, back packs beside her, other gear under her feet and a rolled up sleeping bag in her lap. John sat in comfort in the right front passenger’s seat. And of course, I had plenty of room to manipulate the controls so we were ready to roll.
We rolled out on runway 08 for take off. As usual, the wind was blowing right down the runway and we lifted off easily and turned north. We followed the coast over Shaktoolik and then kind of cut the corner across Norton Sound over the sea ice to Moses Point. On west to Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Safety and on into Nome. The flight was uneventful and lasted 1 hour and 42 minutes. We landed on runway 09 at 11:44 and taxied through the mud to Olson’s Air Terminal.
I located the generator that had been sent from Anchorage and found a mechanic. He installed it and polarized the regulator. I hope it stays working now.
It has been raining apparently for the last several days and it is a mess. There is mud and slush everywhere. Front street is mostly just wet pavement until you arrive at the finish line. The chute (finish line) is packed with about two feet of snow under the burled arches. The siren just sounded signaling that a musher is on front street --- got to go!!
Went to front street to see two mushers arrive. There was a large turn out and the Mayor was there, as he is when every musher comes in. Sam Maxwell arrived first as people had come out of all the business to welcome whoever it was that was coming in. The officials were there to check his cargo to ensure he had all the required items and the news media is there taking pictures as the announcer reads off his official time to complete the race. The Mayor, John Handeland was accompanied by a large busted woman with lots of cleavage showing. She had a bottle of whiskey lodged right in the middle of her cleavage and the Mayor retrieved it, removed the cap and handed it to Sam Maxwell. Sam took a healthy swig, put the cap back on it and returned it to where the mayor got it. There was a huge roar and lots of applause from the crowd.
45 minutes later, Kim Marie Hanson arrived under the arches, the youngest one yet to finish the Iditarod. Kim is the daughter of Bert and niece of Glenn Hanson, both of whom are pilots for the IAF. Also learned that Bert had mushed to Nome some years back during a previous Iditarod.
Walked through town and had a drink at the Nugget Inn and a beer at the Board of Trade. Went to the headquarters and bought a Van Zyle print since it is honoring the Iditarod air force this year. Maybe I’ll have all the pilots autograph it.
We are being housed at the Methodist Church and the upstairs room is wall to wall people. It reminds me of a homeless shelter with cots and couches and chairs, all with someone sleeping on them. There are others who weren’t so lucky and are sleeping on the floor. I was lucky and got there early enough to get a cot.
March 21st - Day eighteen
While checking in with Iditarod headquarters, I was dispatched to Koyuk to pick up two passengers. There was a lot of freezing rain last night and therefore, upon arriving at Olson’s Air, discovered all the planes were covered with ice. We made a deal with Olson’s to pull several planes into their hangar to de-ice them. This project took about an hour to accomplish and we were ready to go.
The conditions were VFR at Nome as I took off and headed east, along the coast. Around the Solomon area, the weather went to crap with low ceilings, poor visibility and freezing rain. The windshield began to accumulate enough ice that I couldn’t see straight ahead, so decided to turn around and go back. I got back to Safety and met Roger, Monty and Glen heading east. The weather at Safety was much better and I decided to follow them and turned around again. We carefully picked our way toward Rocky Point out over the sea ice while following the coast. When the adjacent land is flat and at the same level as the frozen, snow covered sea, it is difficult to determine where the coast is. The GPS however, with its moving map, shows it very clearly. Farther east, the cliffs punctuate the coastline and provide a good visual reference. I had all my lights on in order to be seen easier by the others. Then my radio quit. My battery was not charging, the new generator had failed. I had passed Roger in his super cub a little ways back but now I had to turn again, back toward Nome. I think Monty and Glen got to Golovin and landed. As I flew past Roger on my return trip, I called him with my intentions but don’t know if he heard me. Now I’ve got to save enough battery to call Nome when I get close enough, for permission to land. I turned off everything except the GPS which uses very little juice. The weather is lousy, I’m flying low above the sea ice and there is occasional rime ice on the windshield. The engine is running fine and the heater works good. As I approach Nome, I turned the radio on and called in, "Nome Flight Service, this is Cessna 3311 Delta" --- "3311 Delta, this is Nome Flight Service, your signal is very weak" --- "11 Delta is 5 miles east for landing" --- "11 Delta, wind calm, ceiling below minimums, special in effect, cleared to land" I landed and taxied up to Olson’s, parked and shut it off. My battery was now totally dead and I couldn’t find a mechanic, guess they don’t work on Saturdays. Put the covers on the plane, plugged it in and called headquarters. Mike (the driver) is on his way to pick me up but is real busy right now taking care of everyone’s transportation needs, so it will take a while. I have plenty of time.
Have called Fred and Jenny Kramer (friends who live in Nome) twice since I’ve been here. The kids answered but said they couldn’t come to the phone either time. Don’t think I’ll call again.
March 22nd - Day nineteen
Did not fly today due to lousy weather, it was blowing and snowing all day. I did change the oil in the wind and put on a new filter. Walked around town and ate lunch at Fat Freddys.
Decided to go by headquarters and see what’s going on. As I was about to walk in, out walked the Lt. Governor, Fran Ulmer with an assistant. She recognized my face but didn’t remember my name, as usual. (I’ve met her several times before and she never remembers my name) We spoke for a few minutes and she assured me that next time, she will remember. I thought to myself "sure you will".
Saturday night is the first mushers banquet and I have a ticket. Every musher that finishes the race, gets a banquet. This year is the first year, ever, that all mushers have arrived in time to attend the first banquet. Therefore, there will be only one this year. It was very well attended and I sat with John and Barbara Dog Drop and one of the mushers. A new one and I don’t remember his name. I also ran into an accountant who lives in Nome, that I had met last year in Gambell while I was working for AVEC... but that’s another story.
I got into one of the chow lines, (a buffet) and was working my way slowly toward the food. Both lines were parallel to each other and right opposite me, in the other line, was Fran Ulmer. I said to her "this is a quiz". She said "what?" I said " what is my name?" She said "your name is Joe Pendergrass, and you retired from Corrections" I told her she passed and she assured me she would, from now on, remember my name. While I was pleased to hear that, I fully expect that with the number of people she meets, that is actually asking quite a lot.
After the banquet, I went with a bunch of other volunteers to the "Bearing Sea" bar for a few drinks. Most of the others were veterinarians who seem to like to buy the drinks. I never got to buy one. John Baker (musher) and his girlfriend (Eva) sat with our group. I also met Tim who is the operations manager at the Red Dog mine, north of Kotzebue. The vets are Caroline Griffiths, Catrina Jackson, Eric ?, Jackie ? and one of the race judges named Jack. It was 1:30 in the morning before I got back to the church and hit the cot.
March 23rd - Day twenty
Got up this morning and met Mike, the driver. He had an errand to run taking passengers to the Alaska Airlines terminal, so decided to tag along. While waiting for Mike to take care of business, I ran into Margaret Pugh (Corrections Commissioner), who was with Senator Al Adams. Margaret greeted me with a hug and introduced me to the Senator. They had just arrived from Anchorage and were to meet with Fran Ulmer and some folks from Nome regarding the establishing of a half-way house here. While we were talking, up walked Joyce Shea, Superintendent of the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, in Nome. She was just leaving as she is on TDY, running the Pt. Mackenzie prison farm. Joyce said if she had known that I was here, I could have stayed at her house since no one was using it. She had just come home for the week-end. Wish I had known cause I’m sure it would beat the church.
Although the race is over for the mushers and most of the volunteers, it’s not over for the IAF until all checkpoints have been cleared out and everyone is home, safe and sound. Went back to the com center (headquarters) and decided to attempt a departure for White Mountain. My battery was fully charged now and I can make it there and back by only using the battery when I have to. There are 6 people and 4 dogs that remain and then, all the work is done. The weather has lifted in Nome and we should be able to make it fine. We loaded into the truck and Mike took us out to the City air strip where George Murphy is parked. The plan was for John Norris, George and Me to each pick up two people and Roger Sires would pick up the dogs. As we approached George’s plane, we drove through several snow drifts and finally got stuck. It was right up to the axles and the truck was high centered. After about an hour of digging and finally finding a state DOT truck to pull us out, we were again on our way. George took off and got as far as Safety and had to turn back due to weather. By this time, I had gotten out to my plane at the other airport and the weather was now IFR. John Norris did get through and told me to wait until he made a pirep (pilot report). So I waited and waited and waited. I finally decided to call Lin at the com center and she relayed the pirep and said John was at White Mountain. I decided to go for it. I obtained a "Special VFR" clearance and took off on runway 20 (two zero). I turned left out over the sea ice and headed down the coast. The ceiling at Nome was low and that was the best I would see all day. I flew out over the sea ice and was still low as I passed Safety . On past Solomon toward Rocky Point the ceiling was still low but had raised a little bit. I could see over the land mass toward Golovin but couldn’t see the coast that I knew was there. Rocky Point is at the end of a peninsula that can be avoided if you can get over the hills and fly direct toward Golovin. There was adequate clearance between the hills and the clouds as I scooted through. On the other side, there was marginally adequate ceilings but not being able to see the coast, I had to rely on the GPS and the map. I followed the GPS coarse directly toward White Mountain. When it indicated that I was about 1 mile away, I became concerned because I still could not see the village. The poor weather and rising terrain were obscuring my visibility. As I rounded a corner in the river, all of a sudden, there it was. I love this GPS.
George told me that the river was a good landing spot and it is much closer to the check point. Since time was of the essence, I circled the village and set up an approach to land on the river. There were a lot of snowmobile tracks and it appeared to be a good landing spot right in front of the village. As I touched down on the surface, it was immediately obvious that I was in overflow. I kept the speed up as I taxied though it without stopping . The slush splashed up and got all over the airplane. The temperature was about 20 degrees above zero and the slush immediately froze as it came into contact with the surface of the airplane. I kept going until I had come to dry snow, stopped and shut off the engine. Howard, an Eskimo volunteer, arrived within minutes on his snow machine, pulling a dog sled. He explained that I should have landed on the other side of the trail markers. Of course, by this time, I was well aware of that. After discussing the passengers, their gear and the river, I decided to take off and land at the airport before loading up. Howard then returned to the checkpoint to pick up my passengers and their gear and take them up to the airport.
The airport at White Mountain sits on top of a ridge overlooking the village. I took off down river and circled the village as I pumped the skis up for a landing on the gravel runway. The runway was in good condition and was plenty long. I taxied up to the apron, shut the engine off and got out. A few minutes went by before Howard arrived with my load. Two vets by the names of Nee Nee and Kathleen, along with their gear, were packed into his sled and on his snow machine. I put them to work and with plastic credit cards, we began scraping ice from the airplane. There was ice on the under side of the fuselage, wings, tail and of course, all over the skies and landing gear. The job took about 30 minutes as the ice came off rather easily. Soon, we were ready and loaded up. Since I had now shut the engine off two times and restarted it since leaving Nome with a fully charged battery, I was very aware of the possibility that it didn’t have much life left in it. However, it started once again and we taxied down to the far end of the runway. My load was fairly heavy, so I wanted all the runway at my disposal. I had my map, folded to the appropriate location, placed in my lap. I firewalled it (pushed the throttle all the way in) and we rolled up the runway. We soon lifted off and I began pumping the skis back down. I prefer to cruise with the skis down in the event I have to make an emergency landing, that’s one less thing to worry about while looking for a place to land. As we flew over the village, my electric system failed and I lost all navigational instruments to include the GPS. As we flew toward the coast, that I couldn’t see without the GPS, I handed the map to Nee Nee who was in the seat beside me. I told her that her job was to follow on the map with her finger and keep track of where we were. I pointed to the spot where we were at and showed her where we wanted to go. She said "OK, I’m good at following maps." I didn’t really feel that I needed her to do that but wanted to have something for her to do while I looked for the short cut back across the hills. There were several spots that looked like it could be the one where I had come through about a hour before. I picked one and figured that if it wasn’t it, there was still plenty of room to turn around and find the next one. We got just about as far as I dared go when suddenly, I saw through to the coast. We sailed through and dropped down over the sea ice with lots of room to the ceiling. We flew along at a low altitude for a while and then were forced lower as the weather deteriorated. The visibility was poor and the ceiling getting lower. Now we are flying along and the cliffs on our right are the only reference point. As we approached the Solomon area, the cliffs gave way to the flat low terrain where you cannot tell the land from the sea ice. We held a steady compass course toward Safety as we picked up the trail markers and followed them from Topkok to Cape Nome. As we crossed over Safety, I picked out several spots that looked like we could land right on the Iditarod trail if necessary. After passing Cape Nome and figuring we were about seven miles from Nome, I turned the radio back on and called the Flight Service. The weather was worse now than when I left and I worried that they would not hear my request for a Special VFR clearance to land. I got good news and bad news. They had heard my call but they said: "11 Delta, do not enter the airport traffic area due to arriving IFR traffic." I entered a holding pattern and hoped that my battery would last a little longer. South of Nome, there are several steel towers that are more than two hundred feet high. We were doing a holding pattern out over the sea ice. As we turned toward the sea, all ground reference was lost. As we turned back toward land, we could see houses on shore and when in closer, we could see all the towers. We made one full circle in the holding pattern when the Flight Service operator came back on the radio. "11 Delta, you are cleared to enter the airport traffic area and land on the runway of your choice." We followed the edge of town until the runway was in sight. Landing that day on 09, Nome never looked so good. I don’t think my passengers knew how nervous I was on that trip. We unloaded everything and everyone and put the plane to bed. This was the last trip hauling passengers and supplies for the ‘98 Iditarod. Jack Niggemyer was there with transportation for everyone. John Norris showed up with one of the volunteers, and they took off for Anchorage.
Everyone was gone from the church now as I gathered my things together. Mark Nordman (Race Marshall) decided that Roger and I should have a room. He rented one for us at the Nugget Inn. It’s great, a TV, shower, phone and two real beds. We’re livin’ good. A day that ends well, is a great day indeed.
March 24th - Day twenty one
Woke up this morning at 6:00 A.M. and had breakfast at Fat Freddy’s with Roger. We had trouble locating Diana and finally, she came into the com center. We wanted to all leave together for the trip back to Anchorage. Roger, Diana, Mike (who wanted to ride along), and I all decided to leave about 10:00 o-clock with the first stop at Unalakleet. The plan was to then go on to McGrath and back to the Anchorage area. We would need to check the weather in the passes along the way to determine whether to go through Rainy via McGrath or through Windy via Fairbanks.
Diana is flying on a ferry permit which allows a passenger to go along, only if they are also a pilot. Mike is not a pilot and therefore will ride with me. Diana damaged her prop shortly after arriving at Nome while taxiing through the mud near Olson’s Air Service. They shipped a new prop in but, a prop strike requires further checking of the crankshaft before it can be restored to airworthiness status. Hence, the ferry permit.
Roger, in his Super Cub, left about an hour before we did since it flies so much slower. Diana and I left about 10:50 A.M. after filing flight plans, and doing all the other essential things. The weather had lifted and no "Special" clearances were required. We bucked head winds all the way down the coast. Upon reaching Moses Point, I decided that I would cut across the frozen sea ice and shave about 15 minutes off my flight. I later learned that Diana had done the same thing. Roger cut straight across from Nome over the open water and still only arrived in UNK about 30 minutes ahead of us. Personally, I don’t like the open water for long distances and usually stay within reach of land, or at least, frozen water.
We landed for fuel in Unalakleet and I picked up the gear that I had left there. The plan, after checking the weather again, was to get to the Yukon River via a pass to Eagle Island and then fly direct to McGrath. Diana, whose plane is the fastest, left first followed by me and then Roger, who is the slowest. By leaving in that order, no one had to worry about passing someone in poor visibility. We talked to each other as needed, but I kept my transmitting to a minimum, in order to save my battery. I had all my lights turned off and we could hear Roger and Diana talk about the "stealth 180" that was between them. As we entered the pass, the forward visibility was adequate but the ceiling was low. I lost sight of Diana and did not see which valley she went into and they were all very narrow. The visibility and ceiling was deteriorating very fast. Instead of entering any valleys, I decided to circle and wait for a report from Diana and I told her and Roger of my intentions. She soon turned around, which I was glad to see since I didn’t see any valley that I wanted to go into. Roger also turned around and we all headed back to the big valley and up toward Kaltag. About 20 miles from Kaltag, the weather was again on the ground. Diana checked up high while I checked another valley in hopes of getting through to the Yukon. All efforts failed and we returned to UNK.
We landed, refueled and parked. The weather looked like we were going to have to stay the night at UNK and Diana and Mike had to get home. They decided to take the Penn Air flight to Anchorage and Diana will return later to get her plane. Her husband is an airline pilot and she has worked for several air services and can fly "jump seat". Mike had to buy a ticket.
Roger and I neither have a deadline to be home and didn’t like the idea of leaving our planes here so we got a room at the Unalakleet Lodge. So... here we sit waiting for weather. We flew for 3.4 hours today and only got from Nome to UNK. But, that’s life in the Alaska Bush and a great life it is. We each called home to give an up-date, as we settled in for the night.
March 25th - Day twenty two
Took off at 7:50 A.M. from UNK and climbed to 3500 feet for a straight shot to Galena. Rainy Pass is reported to be MVFR and occasionally IFR, so we opted for Fairbanks and Windy Pass. Roger arrived at Galena about half an hour after me and we refueled. He said not to wait for him since he would take an hour longer to fly to Fairbanks. I climbed to 5500 feet and plotted a course direct to Fairbanks. It took 2.4 hours and arrived with my battery nearly dead. While approaching Fairbanks, I was looking at the Eielson Air Force Base runway when I realized that I was nearly on top of the Fairbanks Airport. I had been talking to Fairbanks, while looking at Eielson. I was cleared (by Fairbanks) to land on runway 19L and taxied to Northland Aviation for fuel. I plugged in the battery charger while I filled the fuel tanks and put in a quart of oil.
The weather was CAVU, so far, and I was cleared for take off. Just after lifting off, I heard 9528 Bravo (John Norris) receive a take-off clearance. I tried several time to contact him on 120.6 but apparently my transmission was too weak, for he never answered. I once again climbed to 5500 feet and flew a direct route to Healy. The weather was real good all the way past Healy, McKinley Park and through Windy Pass. As I approached Igloo, I could see a wall of weather that appeared to touch the ground. As I got closer, it seemed to be thinner on the west side, so I deviated in that direction. Had to fly quite a bit lower and to the west, but was able to scoot right on through with only a few drops of rain and snow mixed. As I passed over Talkeetna, I heard John on the radio once again. He was "getting the numbers" for a landing.
Climbed back up to 5200 feet and shot a straight course to Anderson Lake. Landed at 3:30 P.M. and taxied onto the taxiway only to find it filled with mud. The unseasonably warm weather had thawed the ground and it was very soft. I parked the plane in front of a neighbor’s hangar and walked down to mine. Got into my truck and went home... Iditarod ‘98 is over.
The plane’s battery was dead since I didn’t have anywhere to plug it in last night. The ground is frozen in the early morning hours and now I can travel down to my hangar without leaving ruts in the ground and spraying mud all over the plane. I pulled the plane into the hangar with the truck and ... all is well... that ends well.
I had a wonderful time and hope to do it all again next year. Some modifications that I plan to make on the airplane are as follows: (1) convert to an alternator. (2) Change the airspeed indicator to one that reads in knots as well as miles per hour. (3) Install a pull handle in the tail. (4) Install a set of Atlee Dodge jump seats in the rear. (5) Install an extended baggage compartment. (6) Install a new digital exhaust gas temperature gauge. (7) Purchase an insulated prop cover. And (8) Install a new cylinder head temperature gauge. It only takes money!!