Impressive episode on the Interior including sound and silence in Denali, the saga of “the Fairbanks Four” and life at Crazy Dog Kennels. You can hear my “Letter to Fairbanks” at the 47 minute mark. For the record, I have never been a bush pilot, I am a former aircraft dispatcher who worked for a bush commuter (and wrote about it) based in Fairbanks. I suppose “bush pilot” sounds a lot sexier though.

You can read my full letter (it got edited just a bit) here.

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.”

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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:

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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:

Non-fiction:

Narrative

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.

YEA!!!

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.

It’s hard to explain sometimes how a good pilot can crash because unless you have an unrecoverable spontaneous catastrophic mechanical failure (and I’ve only known of one flight where that happened), then the accident pretty much always contains an element of pilot error which means the pilot screwed up. But a friend of mine was a good pilot. Right up until the day he crashed he was one of the best. It is hard for me to believe that it has been seven years since he flew and his life since that day has not been what he hoped. Crashing derailed him for far more than a day and far beyond his career.

From The Map of My Dead Pilots:

My friend Adam was a good pilot. One day he was flying into Bethel on a routine cargo run and he crashed. He had this moment he said afterwards, a split second when he realized that the plane was bouncing off the tundra and he realized he was no longer flying but just along for the ride. “The weather had turned to shit,” he said, but it wasn’t really bad; it wasn’t the worst he’d ever seen. “I was bringing it down, shooting the approach just like I knew it and then that was it, I wasn’t flying anymore.”

“You crashed,” I said.

“I was crashing,” he corrected. It wasn’t until the plane stopped moving that he believed he wasn’t going to die. In that sudden stillness after so much chaos, he and his co-pilot sat there, stunned, both of them breathing like there wasn’t enough air left in the world. It was quiet he remembered later, but the noise in his head filled up everything, the noise in his head was enough sound to fill the world.

That moment when Adam realized he survived was the last good thing to happen in his life for a long time.

I think it was hardest for him now just to be the guy he is – the guy who crashed. He is one of those guys. Once he was past the accident part of it and all the responsibility and the first inkling of the impact on his career, then some guys would be okay. But not him – he was just too good of a pilot for that.

“I still don’t know how it happened,” he says. “I mean, I know I fucked up and it was my fault and I should have just gone around. But I didn’t think we were that close. I don’t know how we got there.”

He thinks about that a lot; how you can be flying one minute and hitting the ground the next; how a crash can surprise you. How you can be so wrong without knowing it.

“You know the worst part though…the real bitch of it?” he says. “Now I’m one of those guys that I always used to laugh at; another asshole who couldn’t keep his plane in the air.”

But he’s not; he’s never going to be one of those guys. And that makes it even harder. Because he knows he was better and he still crashed anyway. Even though he was the best on the line, he still destroyed a five million dollar airplane anyway.

And there was this part as well:

“Nobody was flying that airplane,” Adam told me. “I listened to the two of us on the CVR and we were shooting the shit like we were up at 15,000 feet and didn’t have a care in the world and there was nothing to do. I don’t get it – I was there, it’s my voice and I still don’t get it. If somebody told me they did this I wouldn’t understand how it could happen; it doesn’t make it any easier trying to figure that out just because it happened to me.”

That’s the question dead pilots never have to answer: how did this happen to me?

I have dissected this crash endlessly, poured over the accident report, analyzed every line, talked to him again and again and again. The reasons behind it are complicated and all of them pilot error. He was tired, he was distracted over a fight with his wife, his co-pilot followed his lead and didn’t ask any questions and more than anything, he really just wanted that day to be done. And maybe he was so sure that he was so good that it didn’t occur to him to take it easy, not to push it. Good pilots never think about taking it easy but then again, good pilots never have to.

“I was the best pilot at that company,” he told me and I believed him. And when he said he was still one of the best I believed that too. Crashing didn’t make Adam a bad pilot; it was just learning to live with knowing he crashed that was so damn hard. Everybody has a fight sometimes; everybody gets tired; everybody tries too long to be a company man. But what you can get away with on the ground and in the air are two different things – they’re worlds apart and that’s the biggest part of what makes flying so hard. There’s no room for all those little human faults up there, not when the weather can go to shit so quickly, not when you and the co-pilot aren’t talking enough about flying, not when neither one of you can see the ground. There’s only room for doing the right thing on final approach in a snow shower with a gusting crosswind; there’s only room for knowing that you have to do the right thing.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he said. “How could I do that? How could I crash?”

“Would it matter?” I asked. “If you could explain it, would it matter?”

“It would be something,” he said, looking around at what he has left now, seeing all that was gone. He works in a cubicle in a place where no one understands what it means to be captain of your own aircraft; what it means to be pilot-in-command. “At least if I knew, when I thought about it there would be something to make it clear.”

“If I knew what to remember, there would be something I could forget.”

I wish I could help him because he’s my friend and because he was one of the best once, and he deserves better than this; he deserves better than being only the final moment in his career.

You can’t imagine what it is like to go from being the senior line pilot, the best on the job, and then just another guy who crashed. What’s most interesting is that the physical crash is really only part of it – there are all the other crashes that follow that are the real surprises. Those are the ones that really get you; the ones that keep you down, the ones that make you realize how much you left behind.

The ones that make a conversation even seven years later hard to take and yet you make the phone call anyway; you still find yourself talking about again.

I didn’t realize until recently just why I wrote my thesis. Lots of people run into problems in grad school – life problems – that delay their thesis. Several of the people I was in class with had been working on theirs for years. (I can’t help but think it was more of a hobby than anything else at that point.) I planned to write mine because it was a requirement to graduate but I’ve come to understand that in 1999, the thesis was really about much more.

From The Map of My Dead Pilots:

By the end of the month I was back in Fairbanks. By then I’d been gone for a couple of months and was way behind on my graduate thesis. It’s been so long now that I can be honest – I was set to graduate in December, the first draft was due in September and I had not written a word, not one single word. All those books I brought with me to Florida, the copies from old newspapers and magazines, had never even left my backpack. I had the chance to postpone my due date, the graduation, everything. But I was afraid that if I didn’t write it then I might never write it; I might not care enough about it to even try anymore. I might not care enough about anything.

You think you are thirty and that means you can handle the loss of a parent; that you’re prepared for it better because you are out of the house and far from home. But I was five years old again that summer, it didn’t take pictures to make me remember; it didn’t take anything. I didn’t want anything to make me remember. I just laid on the couch and saw him again as he was so long ago; as we were so long ago. And I tried to see it perfectly, to keep it all close. What did he say about hockey, about how the boys used to come down from Canada as ringers on the local teams; playing undercover, yelling to each other in French, all of them pretending like they knew each other forever and winning for the home team which was still more like Canada than Rhode Island for all of them who missed what they left behind.

Or catch a wave. He said you had to see it coming, you had to hang out there at the breaker line and choose the wave and start ahead of it, get ahead before it rises up to carry you away. You couldn’t wait for it or it would pass you by. Choose your wave he taught us and I was five years old and riding on his back and I listened and I learned.

You crack an egg on a bowl so you can catch any pieces of shell; do the crossword puzzle one square at a time, left to right, take your time; never be without a good book, never let a day go by without reading.

In all the years since the end of my parents marriage we had never strayed from our commitment to each of them; both of them. Separately they lived their lives but together we continued to be their children; we continued to love them. There was no replacing our father; there was no relief from losing him. I taped his library card to my wall; my brother put his last pouch of pipe tobacco in his truck. We watched the Red Sox play and we mourned him. Neither one of us could bear to go back to his beach.

If I said it all over and over again then I would never forget anything; I would never lose his voice beside me, his hand reaching out for mine. I would never lose who he was no matter how long he was gone; no matter how many days went by. I sat on the couch and I tried to remember and that was all I could bring myself to do. They told me I didn’t have to turn in my thesis; I knew that more than anything, yes I did.

This is from a chapter I’m still tinkering with – one of those I will likely rewrite bits of until it is taken away from me – but this part really struck me the other day. I don’t know how I got off the couch; I really don’t know. Both my brother and I, separately, went into personal tailspins after our father died. We expected to be sad but not so very sad; not so despondent.

It’s odd because you know you’re parents will die and of anyone I should have been readier for death than most – already several of my friends had died suddenly in crashes. I wasn’t expecting anybody I loved to live forever. But still. You just don’t know how sad you can be until you lose someone who helped craft your heart. I remember lying in bed for a month and it wasn’t until I realized that the thesis had to be written fast if I wanted to graduate that I finally got up and got out (meaning I was up for reasons other than mere survival). The oddest thing is that my brother and I told each other all this time that we were okay – not good, but okay. You’d think we knew each other good enough to have guessed we were lying (and we do know each better than just about anyone) but maybe we just didn’t have the strength to save each other at that point. We only had it in us to save ourselves.

And eventually we did. But I don’t know what I would have done without my thesis; without all those pilots to talk to I don’t know if I ever would have gotten off that couch.