Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Published on December 13, 2012 by in Essays

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“Pack a bag and get to McGrath in the morning,” the boss said. As ordered, the next dawn I flew one of our company Cessna 207s from St. Mary’s to McGrath. Fire season always brings lucrative charters to air services in Alaska, and the state needed a single engine Cessna. There was no time to waste while over a million acres of muskeg endangered nothing by burning out in the middle of nowhere.

Noatak Grand Canyon Fire

Wildfires like this one in Noatak National Preserve in the summer of 2012 keep Alaskan fire contract pilots busy all season, shuttling firefighters and gear around the state. (Photo by Dan Stevenson, NPS)

In McGrath, the flight operations people briefed me on the Alaska Department of Natural Resources aviation protocols. After the usual instructions, Mary (the lead dispatcher) asked me if I played a musical instrument. Having been suckered by the same query years before and unsure why she was asking, I lied: “Not really.” She dropped the subject.

The remote wildfires were threatening a lodge and several cabins near a lake southeast of Sleetmute. My job was to shuttle firefighters and gear between McGrath and the lodge’s landing strip. The fire people showed me a photo of the runway, saying it was in good shape.

They were wrong, of course. The airstrip was soft. A tree snag blocked the final approach, forcing me to dive down for landings. During the first landing, the plane came to such an abrupt halt in the soft sand that it felt as if it were equipped with an arrestor hook. On my first takeoff, loaded up with five smokejumpers and their gear, the wheels just about scraped the tree tops. I ended up slapping some extra flaps down, which ballooned us up enough to clear the trees. It turned out that those who said it was a “good” strip had never seen the place; none of them were pilots, either. SOP became the carrier arrival and flap slapping departures.

To complicate things further, a sandpiper lived in the center of the runway. Sandpipers are shore birds that live on the ocean, which was hundreds of miles away. Ours obviously suffered some mental illness, but the firefighters adopted the bird and her egg family. They marveled at my ability to avoid their nest on my takeoffs and landing. But their admiration was unfounded, because I was so focused trying to get airborne or avoid the tree snag that I’d forget about their home during these critical phases of flight. Each time I got out of the plane, I’d check the eggs while their mother ran around screeching obscenities at me, faking like her wing was broken.

If they survived my takeoffs and landings, I hope the eggs hatched into birds that’d have more sense than to squat in the middle of a runway. There are millions of other acres–and 33,000 miles of coastline–Alaska for birds to mate and incubate under government protection without worrying about being crushed under the wheels of private enterprise.

The McGrath charter duty was cakewalk compared to flying the line in St. Mary’s. I was used to flying all day with no breaks, but that summer my duty day started at 10 AM. Dispatch ordered me to stay for dinner before a flight–it was steak night in the galley and they wanted their pilots “well fed.” I’d been assigned a room at the fabulous old Tuskusko House. My wife Kate visited. There was even a bar in downtown McGrath where you could drink a cold beer at the end of the day.

The more I flew for the government, the more I liked global warming and lightning strikes, hoping the state would keep burning well into the winter. As I bombed around in the smoky haze and thundershowers, I pondered the musical instrument question from my initial meeting. Why the heck would anyone care whether I played an instrument when I was doing all this flying?

Sometimes I’d take out a harmonica and play quietly to myself at the B&B or out on the steps of the pilot shack when I was not watching the antics of the smoke jumpers. They were bored young guys, waiting for the next big fire. They played a game of chance called “bad flips,” where a flipped coin picked someone who’d do some sort of troll like act. One loser was forced to walk about all day on six foot long two by fours duct taped to his shoes. Another spent the day lying in a sleeping bag under the small footbridge, shouting out roughly in a voice from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale: “Who is that walking on my bridge?”

The August rains came on heavily. Acre by acre, the fires diminished. The smoke jumpers deployed down south where the western summer fires still raged. My wife went back to Anchorage. The sandpiper eggs hatched, giving life to three very lucky babies. The lodge and cabins were safe, and the time came to pack up.

I turned in my paperwork and sat for a last coffee with Mary and the other dispatchers.

Mary said, “Oh, it’s too bad your wife didn’t come to our jam session the other night. We had a great time singing and playing music.”


As we chatted, I realized that the locals got together and played music. In bush Alaska, making live music is a prime activity. Charter pilots got screened for their musical abilities, not necessarily their flying skills. You were a “made man” in McGrath if you could fly and play an instrument. I hung my head in shame. I could play several instruments just fine, but had a strange phobia about admitting to playing music to any government official.

Years before, I’d entered the US Navy. After being bussed to the Training Center in San Diego, the authorities questioned us about our abilities with musical instruments. I bragged on my piano and harmonica playing and even told the officers I‘d dabbled with bagpipes in a band, but denied the kilt part. How I wished I’d kept my mouth shut!

We musicians found ourselves with bald heads and uniforms looking like members of Heaven’s Gate just before the mother ship landed. For several weeks we were in limbo waiting for 90 musicians to gather, so the Navy could form a Drill Company. Until 90 fools admitted to playing musical instruments, we could not begin our military training. So I shined the same brass bell for four straight days, then capped and labeled urine sample bottles. I prepared so many urine bottles that the Navy still uses them for its drug program and that brass bell can be seen shining from outer space. I picked up so many cigarette butts that my fingers became nicotine stained. I didn’t smoke.

Finally, we began training. But once some Naval Academy graduate figured out that pianists, bagpipers, and harmonica players didn’t fit into marching bands, I got assigned permanent barracks watch. I spent most of the three months walking in circles and talking to myself, making sure the barracks stayed secure, while the real musicians practiced their music and marching. After all of that, I became a welder in the famous Seabees–and I made damned sure I kept my big mouth shut. You don’t tell guys with the heritage of running bulldozers into Japanese gun emplacements that you dabbled with bagpipes.

In the 1990’s, President Clinton stole my idea of silence, changed a few things around and called it Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Mary and the other dispatchers heard my story and laughed. It felt good to come clean. We agreed if the state burned again the next year, I’d return and we’d rock. Maybe I’d do some flying too. Rains completely cleansed the skies of the smoky haze the morning of my flight back to St. Mary’s. Fire service flying was a great gig, I thought to myself.

Looking down on the land I helped protect from fire, I flew along towards the mighty Yukon River and played on my harmonica. Playing music and flying in Alaska are pretty cool things to do, I thought. Let the truth be known.


Contributing writer Ross Nixon recently began flying right seat in the Dash 8 for Era Alaska. He only flies tricycle geared aircraft if he is paid. Before flying commercially he was a police officer and a commercial harvest diver in Puget Sound. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska now. For fun he flies a Piper PA-20 and is restoring a Cessna 195. His writing has been published in Alaska Magazine. He recently finished a book on the Carla Corbus air crash tragedy that led to the development of the ELT. The book, Finding Carla, will be published in 2013. 

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6 Responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

  1. Ross Engle says:

    Nice story, Ross. I like hearing about the communities of the bush and their “prime activities.” It sounded, no pun intended, like a great way to see a community communing.

  2. Joe Black says:

    I appreciate all third world flying adventures from the source. Most commercial outback flying tends to be a bit routine. I’ll take a Shrike as rural as it gets, even though sometimes HIGE and HOGE are in effect with unexpected headwinds.

  3. TJH says:

    Great story.

    Was the fire you spoke of with the sandpiper on the strip during the 2009 fire season. If so, I think I was on that same air strip recovering equipment from that fire and the pilot about put his caravan into the trees on takeoff!! There was a sandpiper with a nest right on the runway not far from the fuel tanks.

    Mcgrath is always a great place to work out of.

  4. Ross Nixon says:

    Thanks Gents, This occurred quite some time ago, long before 2009. Wonder if the birds of 2009 were related to the ones in the story? They seemed about as sharp!

  5. Don Todd says:

    I enjoyed your account of your tour. It has been eleven years plus since I’ve been to McGrath but the memories I have of seasons based there flying a shrike commander or caravan will stay with me. My guitar playing was quite rudimentary but the music makers welcomed me. The people at the camp were like family. One year I flew fuel barrels for a helicopter fuel cashe into a miniscule village named Telida, about eighty miles northeast of town, the runway was 1900 feet with hard packed red dirt on the north half followed by a swale resembling a sand trap on a golf course and then reasonably firm sand. After that first early season trip I thought, “I’m glad that’s over”. Later there was a fire at Telida resulting in me making twenty more trips to that strip, but the caravan could land and take off on that first 900 or so feet of good runway.

  6. Renae Hunt says:

    Enjoyed your story.

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