aerial survey crew, 1920s (USFS-Juneau) Image025.jpg

From my article on the survey of Southeast Alaska up at Alaska Dispatch News:

In 1926 Alaska’s aviation industry had barely been born. Ben Eielson had flown and lost the first air mail contract in 1924. Russ Merrill and Roy Davis made the first flight over the Gulf of Alaska only one year before. And future famous pilots like Bob Reeve, Joe Crosson, Bob Ellis and Shel Simmons had yet to make their marks. But as reported in the 1929 publication “Aerial Photographic Surveys in Southeastern Alaska,” using aircraft to survey the territory was a logical choice. Although topographic mapping of Alaska had been conducted by the Geological Survey for nearly 30 years, progress remained slow-going and extremely hazardous with some regions still stubbornly inaccessible. Photographing by aircraft presented endless possibilities; it just needed to be tested.

It’s just amazing when you think of what they accomplished with such crude equipment and poor weather reporting information. I’m always so surprised when I come across stories like this–so much history just waiting to be discovered.

[Post pic courtesy US Forestry Service]

Mount Bona:

“Finally, to the northwest, some two hundred miles off, a conical peak soared up….apparently of even greater height than the other two [Lucania and Bear]. This was christened the Bona, after a racing yacht then belonging to H.R.H.”

(Excerpt from the The Ascent of Mount St. Elias by H.R.H. Prince Luigi Amedeo Di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi, 1900, p.160. by Filippo de Filippi)

And that my friends is how a mountain in Alaska ends up with the name of an Italian prince’s yacht. At least the Duke of Abruzzi was a real mountaineer and not just some prominent guy who never climbed a mountain in his life but got a permanent memorial (I’m looking at you William McKinley).

I learned about the history of Mt. Bona’s name from The American Alpine Journal Vol. XI, Number 2, 1959 which contained the delightful article “Naming Alaska’s Mountains” by Francis Farquhar. I have fallen madly in love with the AAJ which is primarily comprised of first hand accounts of climbing and other mountaineering topics that are delightfully not about posing but being prepared. There is also a lot of science which makes me especially happy.

I found this volume while sitting on the floor of a great used bookstore with a massive selection of mountaineering and Alaska books. I wandered through a couple of dozen old issues looking for Alaska articles but never thought I would find one this cool. It fit so perfectly into something I wanted to write about but didn’t even think I could properly research. Call it kismet.

This is why I love bookstores – you never know what you might find.

[Post pic of a title held in The American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall library collection of the 469-year-old book called ‘On the Appreciation of Mountains’. OH HOW I COVET THIS.)

Over past couple of weeks I’ve been working on this article about the Idiarod Air Force (IAF) for Alaska Dispatch. Just as it was about to go up on the site a privately owned aircraft that was not affiliated with the IAF went missing on Monday. I was up late that night working on that article with my editor and then Tuesday the wreckage was found – no survivors. So Tuesday I worked on an article about the previous dangerous aviation history in that area.

All of this necessitated reading a lot of old accident reports and weather reports and studying maps (I always want to study the maps – it helps me figure out what I’m writing about). None of it is anything new for me; the recent accident is very sad but I’ve been here before. They are always sad. While I’ve been doing this aviation stuff, I’ve been writing about mountain climbing (in 1910) and in both cases there has been a lot of wondering why men do the things they do. (I have not encountered many women in these particular questions lately, but I will ask the questions of women when they show up in my archival wanderings as well.)

Every accident happens for a very specific set of reasons. Weather might be a factor, or mechanical difficulties. The same can be said of mountain climbing (though the mechanical bits are not so dramatic). But while you can say a pilot continued into bad weather or a climber failed to turn around in the face of fading daylight (they hardly ever turn back when the summit is close), what you can’t answer is why they were there in the first place. If they don’t survive then you can’t know what those thoughts were that propelled them to that certain place in that certain time. Just like all of us have our own reasons for marriage or school or jobs, so do pilots and mountain climbers.

The crash on Monday was about a dangerous pass and bad weather. The questions are why he chose that pass instead of the safer long way around and why he didn’t turn back when it started getting bad. There are a lot of tried and true reasons that come to mind (arrogance, self-induced pressure, bush pilot syndrome, fear of failure, general obliviousness, etc.) but really, we will never know. A thousand things happened before he got in that plane to bring that pilot to that place and that crash. Even the people that know him best might not know all of his reasons. But every single time, every single crash report I read no matter how old, the question of why is what leaps to my mind.

I always want to know what I can never know. It should be frustrating but instead, it just makes me want to read and write more.

From the December 2012/January 2013 issue currently on the newsstands:

“There are two ways to tell a flying story: the truth and what everyone wants to hear,” Colleen Mondor writes in The Map of My Dead Pilots. “You can’t have it both ways.”

In describing commercial flying in Alaska, instead of the story you want to hear, she rivets you with compelling non-fiction. Mondor spent four years in the 1990s as an operations dispatcher at one of the small indie airlines tethering the state’s remote towns and villages to civilization. Map provides an artful and contemplative recounting of the experience in language as terse as a cockpit voice recording.

Pick any thankless, dead-end gig you ever worked in the Lower 48. Add under-maintained aircraft, double-digit sub-zero temperatures, plus the occasional need to brandish a handgun on the company chief pilot next to you in the cockpit. There are no 9 a.m. conferences in H.R. here. Mondor’s world consists of the Bosses, the Owners, and the Company: the “saggy chairs, scratched desks, timed-out airplanes and pissed-off agents.” Pilots desperate to move on and those with nothing to come back for. Most of all, there’s weather.

The narrative is inhabited by ghosts: a new hire at the dead end of a box canyon, “the good pilot” who flew a Navajo into the Yukon River, and many others. Mondor pores over the cartography of pilot error, overdue flights and “probable cause unknown.” Nobody gets closure, nothing emerges unscathed – not the romantic image of Alaskan bush flying, not the writer’s own job description: Dispatchers “always lied about the load,” she writes of signing off on cargo planes hundreds of pounds over takeoff weight.

At intervals, corpses pop out of caskets in transit, obstinate nuns try to bump a teenage overdose victim off a medevac flight, and sled dogs make just awful air freight. And the time clock ticks on us all.

Writers are frequently advised not to quit their day jobs. Be grateful Colleen Mondor did, then wrote about it.”


My friend John Hitz was twenty-eight when he died, nearly twenty years ago, in a snow machine accident. I don’t always tell people this when I show his picture because the part of his story I’m telling then is about flying out of Fairbanks up to Liberator Lake in a Cessna 206. I tell the part of his flying story that fits with the larger narrative of Alaska aviation I am sharing. I wrote a book, I put together a slide show, I talk to people about the “dangerous game of flying in Alaska”. I show this picture of my friend John and the 206 he flew one beautiful winter afternoon and every time I show it, I miss John all over again.

But I rarely tell anyone that.

John was working as a co-pilot for a company called Brooks Airfuel when the picture was taken. They flew fuel in DC3s, DC4s and a DC6 to villages across Alaska. The planes were new during World War II but durable fifty years later in a way that few other aircraft are; they still fly all over the world. John used to talk about the switches and levers in the cockpit, the complexity of operating the huge radial engines. The job was dirty and the hours were long and in the cold it could be miserable but John enjoyed flying for Brooks just like he enjoyed flying at the Company which is when we met.

The flight to Liberator Lake was about a mine operation in need of fuel. The lake was the landing strip and the DC4 weighed 40,000 pounds empty. John was sent out in the 206 to test the ice and make sure it was strong enough to handle the big plane. He told this story to us later always aware of the absurdity of the flight, the danger, and its immense appeal. “Of course the ice was strong enough!” he always said. “Of course!” And the weather was good and the plane flew well and sitting on the wing, gassing up to go home, someone took his picture. We found it later, packing up his apartment for his parents. We made a dozen copies, one for each of us, so we would never forget him.

As if any of us could.

John’s picture is at the end of my slide show, part of a group of pictures of friends on the job that I click through while reading from my book about why we all come north, why we ended up at the Company, why we stayed. I’m 43 now and when I tell these stories they are about who I was then, my distant wayward youth. But John is forever 28 and smiling back at me as only he could; as only he ever will.

Nine months before he died, John bought a brand new Nissan pickup, fire engine red; he called it Roy. When his parents came up from Nebraska to claim him, the truck posed a problem. Getting it out of Fairbanks in January was difficult and expensive. So in the days after we met in the worst possible circumstances, I bought John’s truck from his parents. Through nearly fifteen years of marriage, through four dogs, a son and now a book, John’s truck has been as constant as his photo. Last week my husband, who knew John before me and carries his own memories, told me it looks like the transmission might be shot*. This is long overdue; at twenty years old and with 130,000+ miles, John’s truck is long past this sort of expensive repair. The rear bumper was damaged years ago when I was in Florida and the bed is rusted through in areas where John loaded his snow machine on the day he bought it. The truck is no longer shiny and new, yet I can not imagine my life without it. It’s mine, but still it’s his and together it’s every moment we all had in Alaska.

John would have sold the truck long ago I’m sure, purchased something newer with room maybe for a family. He might even have lost the snapshot of Liberator Lake. Putting a small part of John’s story in my book and keeping his picture in my slide show are, I know, quiet little acts of futility. I can not bring back my friend. Let me write that again so I believe it – I can not bring him back. John Hitz is gone on the Mitchell Expressway in Fairbanks, in a snowstorm, in a collision with a truck and a driver who never saw him. He’s gone. I know this; he’s gone.

But, here I am, like always, writing about him again.

When I show this slide and tell the Liberator Lake story everyone laughs. It is, in many ways, the quintessential Alaska flying story. John thus continues to be part of the larger tale I’m telling, about pilots and planes and the myths that often keep both in the air in the face of a harsh aviation environment. I do not always tell an audience John is gone and so together we can believe that he is up there still, north of the Brooks Range, looking for ice thick enough to bear a heavy load. We all live happily ever after that way and most importantly, the legend of John Hitz continues. Maybe more than any other reason that is why I wrote my book – so all of them would live forever. Or maybe it’s just for a moment like this, where I have an excuse to talk about my friend John one more time.

If you knew him, you would write about him too.

*He was wrong! It wasn’t the transmission but the clutch that needed work. He did the whole thing in an afternoon and for less than $100. Roy lives!

Since it’s up at amazon, I think I can finally share it here:


And the catalog copy:

“Northern Exposure meets Air America in this expose of the daily life and death insanity of commercial flying in Alaska

The Map of My Dead Pilots is about flying, pilots, and Alaska—and, more specifically, about those pilots who take death-defying risks in the Last Frontier and sometimes pay the price. Colleen Mondor spent four years running dispatch operations for a Fairbanks-based commuter and charter airline—and she knows all too well the gap between the romance and reality of small plane piloting in the wildest territory of the United States. From overloaded aircraft to wings covered in ice, from flying sled dogs and dead bodies, piloting in Alaska is about living hard and working harder. What Mondor witnessed day to day would make anyone’s hair stand on end.

Ultimately, it is the pilots themselves laced with ice and whiskey, death and camaraderie, silence and engine roars who capture her imagination. In fine detail, Mondor reveals the technical side of flying, the history of Alaskan aviation, and a world that demands a close communion with extreme physical danger and emotional toughness. The Map of My Dead Pilots is an engrossing narrative whose gritty, no-holds-barred style is reminiscent of the works of Ken Kesey and Tim O’Brien.”

From Publishers Marketplace:



Journalist and reviewer Colleen Mondor’s THE MAP OF DEAD PILOTS, about Alaskan pilots navigating a world that demands a close communion with extreme physical danger and emotional toughness, to Holly Rubino at Lyons Press, by Michele Rubin at Writers House (NA).

More to come.


A bit from the manuscript – this is from the chapter “The Truth About Flying” and explains how it was, and how it came to be that way.

Slowly, without realizing it, their comfort zones began to slide. They learned to navigate through the shifts, accept a new set of personal standards. At first it was about limits, like when Bob only wanted to take one flight a day and Casey wanted to verify the weight of his load before he would launch. They considered these necessary rules during training, standards they were unwilling to relinquish. Then they were put on the line and immediately everything changed. You had to be fast and you had to be ready or you weren’t going to get the hours. Before they knew it each of them was taking off in conditions that seemed unacceptable just a few weeks before. And then, somehow, those conditions became comfortable, familiar. The zone shifted and scary became a fluid term, dangerous a gray area that was always getting grayer.

They flew in ceilings below 800 feet, then below 500 and then dropped down so low over the Yukon River that water splashed onto their wings. Their wheels brushed the treetops on more than one occasion and they found themselves having to climb to clear islands or the houses at the end of a runway while on final approach. The ceiling mixed in with the trees and began to look like fog rather than clouds, like it came from the bottom up instead of the top down. Their visibility requirements dropped from three miles to one to maybe 3,000 feet and still they said it was flyable. Ice built up on their wings to a half-inch and they kept flying. They flew with an inch and then collected two, all the while trying to boot it off but knowing the equipment was struggling and the deice boots were covered in ice as well. Scott hit a high point when he brought one of the Navajos in with three solid inches. Fortunately it was too cold for the Feds that day and no one was waiting to ramp him. If the planes could handle it, then they discovered that they could as well. It was never easy, but they could do it and after doing it for a while they forgot all the reasons why it had seemed wrong once, why it had ever seemed impossible.

They forgot everything but the last flight, the last day.

They flew fifty pounds overweight the first time and were angry about it. Then they took 100 pounds more and 200. In the single-engines they routinely went 300 over and in the twins, 500. One summer day on a charter in a Navajo, Tony blew everyone’s mind when he brought 3,000 pounds of salmon roe back from Kaltag plus a single passenger who weighed in easily at 300 pounds himself. The Company wasn’t thrilled because if Tony split the load and flew it legally as two flights it would have cost the customer double. The customer gave him a $100 tip though, worth two hours of flight time and the plane could handle it anyway so why not do it? Why not see just how heavy you could go? There was no reason not to do it again once it worked the first time. And then after awhile, once everyone did it over and over, there was no reason to ever stop.

There is also this, from a later chapter, which explains how we see it all now:

Sam and I talk sometimes. We start with his job; he’s flying in the Lower 48 now. We talk about our families, the people and places we know together. And then finally we talk about the Company which is what we wanted to talk about all along but never know how to start.

Lately he is asking about what I’m writing, how I’m planning to fit his story into it. He’s worried about parts of it, about late night phone calls when he thought he was losing it, about showing up at my door one day after too long in the Bush with no end in sight, about all the times I know he almost crashed.

“Don’t make me sound weak,” he says and I have to shake my head. How could anyone who flew those kinds of hours in that kind of weather ever look weak?

“You’re the hero of the whole thing,” I say and we laugh.

“The guy still standing at the end,” he says.

“Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.”

“He didn’t get out though,” says Sam.

“But he lived,” I remind him.

“And he didn’t go crazy,” he adds, and then looks at me shaking his head. “I don’t know how you’re going to write this book.”

[Post pic of Frontier Flying Service 1900 – I know a lot of folks who did time in these aircraft.]

I’ve been busy the past few days editing an article long distance for the Anchorage Press, a weekly newspaper in AK. The editor contacted me a little while ago (after finding my blog) and asked if my manuscript could be excerpted for the paper. The final product is up now as the cover story (with a fantastic illustration of one of the aircraft I wrote about) in this week’s issue. The paper edition hits the streets shortly. ETA: Here is the direct link to the story (now archived.)

This particular chapter of the book, “The Other Side of the Mountains”, (slightly altered for length and so it could standalone), is about a real historic event when two of AK’s most famous bush pilots were feared lost while enroute to Barrow in 1928. I wrote about similarities between that flight and modern times and how insignificant maps can be when you don’t know where you are. It gives you a good idea of the book’s overall feel – the combination of history, memoir and fiction. In this case everything in the article is true – only one modern name was changed. I really did spend weeks in 2007 reading old newspapers in the UAF library, and I still can not believe how difficult it must have been for the pilots and their families during those long weeks of not knowing in 1928.