The Kaltag Key

By Ernie Borjon

Today was March 17, 2009, the 10th day of the 2009 Iditarod Sled Dog Race, sometime late in the morning. I was on standby for a flying assignment. The chief Pilot at Unalakleet, Bert Hanson, assigned me the mission of flying to Eagle Island Checkpoint on the Yukon River and delivering two bales of straw, 3 quarts of snow-machine oil, a bow saw and a key. Then he said, emphatically, “Ernie, this is the only key to the school-house in Kaltag, after you leave Eagle Island, fly north on the river to Kaltag and deliver this key.” The schoolhouse at Kaltag was to be the next checkpoint past Eagle Island. I took the key which was attached to a small pear shaped carabineer with about five inches of bright orange, surveyor’s tape attached to it and put it in my pocket. Bert then said, “When you get to Kaltag, call on the radio and circle the village before you land and someone will come out on a snowmachine and take the key.” I said ok and walked down the stairs and out the door to my airplane.

I pre-flighted and took off towards Eagle Island, about 30 miles to the east. I loaded a pre-programmed route to Eagle Island into my GPS. The wind was blowing in the high teens when I took off; the weather was clear with blue sky all around. With the good weather and sun shining brightly in my face, I decided to go direct to Eagle Island and setup the GPS to do that. Just as I was approaching the halfway point to the Yukon River, I overheard Dave Beckett on the radio; he had just taken off from Eagle Island. He was reporting to Bert that it had become very windy there and that others may not want to land. I broke into the conversation and stated that if ok, I would proceed to Eagle Island and asses the situation. Bert re-emphasized what the Iditarod Air Force continuously hammers, especially at the new guys, “If you don’t feel good about it, don’t do it.” I answered that if the situation didn’t favor me, I wouldn’t land. Bert came back on the radio and told me to airdrop the oil and saw out the window if I decided not to land because they needed the oil for the snowmachines the trailbreakers were using.

As I descended to the Yukon River and located the checkpoint, I checked in on the radio. I could see giant plumes of snow being blown off the river and the moderate turbulence increased. I flew downwind and then turned base and final to the strip on which I had landed in recent days. It seemed that the closer to the ground I descended, the greater the intensity of the turbulence. Several times, I was stop to stop, on the ailerons trying to keep the airplane at a decent attitude but I wasn’t always successful. On final, fighting the turbulence, I could see that I was being blown too close to the trees on my left so I stopped my descent and went around. On my second go-around, I decided not too land at all and that I would drop the oil and bow saw, so on the third approach after advising on the radio of my intentions, I grabbed two quarts of oil since I couldn’t hold three in my right hand and after opening the co-pilot’s window at about abreast of the tent city that makes up the checkpoint, I dropped the two quarts of oil well over the river away from the checkpoint and tents. On the fourth pass, I again opened the window and tossed out the remaining quart of oil and then the saw. I figured the oil being heavy would drop straight away, but the saw, I wanted to make sure that it cleared the tail of the airplane and gave it a good downward throw and I didn’t hear any objects striking the airplane and felt good about that. I dropped the stuff well before I arrived at the folks on the ground and never heard that anyone was endangered.

I must have been a source of great entertainment to the folks at the checkpoint because I had an audience in front of their tents as some were out gathering the oil I had just dropped. The checkpoint is on the west bank of the Yukon and I had been trying to land south to north. The oil was needed for the snow machines that were setting and marking the trail out ahead of most of the racers.

With the first part of the mission semi-accomplished me and my uncomplaining passengers, the two bales of hay, proceeded north along the river. Bert had also asked me to check for mushers between Eagle Island and Kaltag, which several had passed Eagle Island, but they hadn’t been heard from since. I decided to fly at about 800 to 1000 feet, which would give me some terrain clearance and a reasonable view of the river. About five miles north of Eagle Island, I saw tracks going into the trees and thought, “Aha, someone has taken shelter in the trees so I dropped down to a few hundred feet and followed the tracks away from the river only to find nothing, so I assumed the tracks were from moose and continued north. Just a little further north of this I found my first musher, the team was stopped, right on the trail. Within five more miles I spotted six other teams, all moving into the very strong and very cold north wind. It was impossible to judge their speed but it seemed that they were making a reasonable pace.

During all this time I was flying into the wind in severe turbulence, sometimes only a few hundred feet off the ground. When I turned around to circle the mushers, I would at times be flying sideways, bounced unmercifully up and down and sideways and just all over the place. As I headed back upriver, I glanced at my instruments and found it hard to believe the information I was receiving. I cross checked the airspeed indicator with the GPS for groundspeed information and determined that I was doing 110 knots on the airspeed indicator, but only about 50 knots groundspeed, sometimes the groundspeed dropped into the high 40’s. That gave me a headwind of 60+ knots. I tuned in the weather for Kaltag and found that it was reporting a crosswind of 22 kts with gusts to 41 knots per hour. A little voice, way back in the dark recesses of what used to be a sound mind, says, “I don’t think so……”

I felt I had to at least make a feeble attempt to get the schoolhouse key to the checkpoint folks at Kaltag, so I followed a vague plan. At one point the river made a large turn to the right and I decided to follow the direct line on the GPS and turned to fly overland. I thought that the turbulence could get worse because I could see that my route would take me downwind of some hills before getting to Kaltag. The bumps didn’t get any worse and at least this route would shorten the wild ride, had I stayed over the river. As I approached Kaltag and checked in with them on the radio, I lost the very bumpy altitude I had gained to clear the hills and arrived at the south end of the airport. I dropped further down to overfly the village, to let them know I was there, then turned to the west and then south still being very uncomfortably bounced around.

After I passed the airport, I turned around and flew over the runway at about 200 feet and knew there was absolutely no way I would try to, or could safely land the airplane. I proceeded towards the village again and advised the checkpoint folks of my intention to drop the key from the airplane. Right after this I saw a snowmachine pulling a trailer heading towards the center of the airstrip but well on the east side, along a tree line and he seemed to slow and then stopped. I made another pass over the runway, as the driver of the snowmachine looked at me, I was looking at him. On my final circuit I removed my red I.D. neckband, took my Iditarod I.D. card and some telephone cards off of it and looped it through the carabineer with the key on it. I came around at about 50 feet, heading directly for the snowmachine. When I was about 100 yards from him and over the runway, I popped the window open and threw the key out the window in a downward direction and flew away. I never looked back.

After this I punched a new route into the GPS, gained some altitude and followed the pink line from waypoint to waypoint and bounced my way back to Unalakleet. At least now I had a tailwind and it seemed like I was back in no time. I landed in a 19-knot headwind on the long runway.

Before I landed, I had contacted Bert, as is standard procedure and told him that I had thrown the key out the window at Kaltag. He evenly said, “You know that was the only key to the schoolhouse don’t you?” I responded, “Yes, I do.” Bert’s response was, “We’ll talk about it when you get back.”

After I parked and tied the airplane down, I walked upstairs to the communications office where Bert worked out of. I opened the door and saw that Bert was in normal operating mode, he had a microphone in his right hand talking to an airplane, he had a telephone in his left ear talking to somebody and there seemed to be about three or four people in the office, in mid-conversation with him. I made eye contact and quickly pulled my head out of the office and closed the door. I got a cup of coffee and was shooting the bull with whomever walked by, until after a very long time, Bernadette came out of the office and with that bright, beaming smile of hers she said, “Ernie, great news, Kaltag got the key to the schoolhouse.” Whew, vindication! Dumb, hopeful act on my part succeeded…