It Must Have Been the Fish

Published on July 31, 2013 by in Essays

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About a week into my two week shift flying in rural Alaska, my awesome wife sent me a cooler holding fresh salmon, chocolate and a paper. She’d raved about the fish she’d purchased in Anchorage at a high end grocery store and wanted to share some with me. Never mind the fact that I was flying out of St. Mary’s located right along the Yukon River, home to the fabulous Yukon King. We pilots were too busy flying to spend much time fishing, so the care package from home was much appreciated.

That night I chowed down with another pilot on the fresh fish and read through the current newspaper, which was a rare thing out in the boonies. For dessert we ate the chocolate. Life was good … until after midnight, when something went terribly wrong.

I woke up in a cold sweat accompanied by the shakes and an internal desire to erupt. As I ran to the bathroom, I knew I wouldn’t make it. Luckily some Alaskan bush Samsonite was handy and I projectile vomited not once, but five times into a Glad Heavy Duty trash bag. Fortunately no pilot’s clothes were in the bag. No one bothered to check on me, as vomiting was not such an unusual sound in a pilot house in the middle of the night during this phase of aviation history. I went back to sleep.

In the morning, I felt good enough to fly. I decided to wear some Carhartt coveralls because I was chilled. It was a gray day carrying a full flight schedule.

Departing St. Mary’s with no passengers, I had been assigned a trip through the village of Pilot Station and then onto Bethel. I re-thought my not calling in sick scheme on takeoff—when my belch turned into a minor barf. Then I thought, “What the heck. Knock out this Pilot Station/Bethel run and come home to the pilot house.”

Of course, nothing went as planned. The people were late at Pilot Station, then the weather paid no attention to the forecast. As I proceeded to Bethel in the Cessna 207 the visibility dropped. Soon I could only see the flat tundra below the plane and Bethel Airport was clogged up with IFR traffic, so I planned to hold outside the airspace and enter under Special VFR rules.

Bethel Hold

“Maintain VFR outside the Bethel surface area. Standby for clearance …”

Flying around in the Special VFR hold pattern, I knew I’d made the wrong decision to even attempt flying this day. I should have stayed in bed and used my sick leave. Then this event happened involving the southern end of my alimentary canal.

This occurrence I am writing about has happened to everyone, though no one usually admits it (especially on the Internet to 8 million people). It may be funny when a small baby does it. People gush over the kid and say lovingly, “Junior or Sissy had an accident!” Then they change the Pampers. Maybe in those cases it’s even cute. But it’s definitely not cute or hilarious when you’re a balding fortyish man flying a plane single pilot in bad weather and such an “accident” occurs.

Thank God for those zip up Carhartts! I zipped them up to my headset and sat in my personal stockyard while flying a perfect standard hold off of a Bethel VOR radial. The planes we flew were sort of dirty, smelly and drafty anyways, so no one seemed to notice anything unusual about the cockpit. I just stared at the instruments while the Old MacDonald farm song kept running through my mind. The revelation came too, that this flying in remote Alaska is not nearly as glamorous or romantic as people thought or think.

After what seemed like several thousand hours of flying in circles, we were cleared into the airport. I brought the 207 in for a smooth landing, then got on the radio and asked for an escort for my pax upon my arrival at the ramp. Once the people were taken care of, I set a new world sprint record to the maintenance hangar. Enroute, I briefly considered a monk-like self-immolation at the fuel pumps on the tarmac as a protest to the cards handed to me on this horrible day, but my hopeful nature resisted the impulse. Plus, the owners were concerned about rising fuel costs.

You know that Orange scented hand cleaner? It can be used for lots more than cleaning hands! Thank God again for those Carhartts too. They were all I had left that were usable. I hurled my clothes in the dumpster, and I was naked but clean underneath the one piece coveralls.

When I checked in with the base dispatcher, he sniffed the air around me curiously and asked if I’d been eating oranges. He told me the good news that I’d be staying in Bethel all day helping out. That’s when I took a hard line like the kook Kim Jong and refused to fly any extras. The only trip I would fly was to take a load of people back up to St. Mary’s. Company management could kill me if they didn’t like my plan as far as I was concerned.

I spent the rest of the day lying on an old van seat above the pilot lounge. The worn out seat springs dug into my back, and I felt like one of those yogis who take a healing nap on a bed of nails. In time I went into the sort of trance that death row or solitary confinement prisoners use to pass time. Maybe the junkyard springs acupressure helped.

When I awoke to a kick from the dispatcher, things were looking up. I felt fine. The weather had cleared, and I could return to the Yukon. As I cruised north, still naked under my Carhartts, the beauty of Alaska spread out below my plane’s wings and I forgot about the traumatic morning. I got that good feeling we all get when we are doing what we are put on this earth to do. I decided I’d stick around and fly some more for this outfit. But Salmon sure as hell would never touch my lips again for a long, long, time.


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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2 Responses to “It Must Have Been the Fish”

  1. Glenn says:

    A true Alaskan pilot.

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks for publication! It’s very true and talently written story, tragic and funny (for others!) at the same time. Almost every old pilot experienced ” an accident” one or more times through his life. I know a lot of such kind stories. Really, our life is no glamorous at all but we wouldn’t change it for any other job

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