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.]