Second Wind

Published on July 8, 2014 by in Essays

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I persevered and followed my dream of becoming an Alaskan pilot. I savored each minute of flying in the north.

To fly, I needed a medical clearance. A strange heart beat started one day after a hard run where I’d really pushed myself into my second wind. I actually felt fine; the thing just skipped a beat here and there and I hoped it would calm down. Finally, I faced the fact I’d better get checked out, fearing I’d be on the ground for a long time. It turned out I had an anomaly of a minor nature.

Dutifully, I reported the ER visit to the FAA and they did their job. I was grounded. An impersonal letter outlined the steps for re-qualifying me for a medical clearance. To pass the time I ran even more. It was strange: I could run like the wind but not fly in it.

My company asked me to take a medical leave. They needed a pilot right away and I could not fly. I looked into other careers while I waited for the FAA doctors to re-approve me.

Out of the blue, an offer came for a job at a small, growing company. When the new boss said that if I was “intelligent” enough to fly a plane I could certainly learn this new job, I burst into laughter. This new job was in a growing field where I could work less and earn more. For some reason I took the job, though my medical clearance was in the bag.

At first it was not so bad. I was home again full time and I could fly once again too. So I flew around south central Alaska for fun in my Piper Pacer; but it was not the work flying I’d grown to love. In truth I found I missed the bush. I really just wanted to get dirt on my hands and give my passengers a good flight.

In the Pacer it was lonely. There was no one to talk with on the company channel. No one to share the challenges of the day with, no one at the other end of the radio to announce: “Tie down, you’re done for the day!” when I taxied in. Flying for fun seemed frivolous after work flying too.

Pilots allow rural Alaska to work by delivering food, freight and moving people. In the bush we flew in some nasty weather and at night debriefed at the pilot house while chomping moose meat, swapping tales, joking, and sometimes having a snort or two of whiskey. Stuck in the city now, I recalled sights only a flyer saw: the northern lights from the air on a clear night without any city lights around. The breakup of the Yukon River after a long winter with the truck-sized ice chunks floating downriver like ice cubes. Or flying over the musk ox herds and seeing them form a defensive circle. Scenes most could only imagine or see in pictures.

At the new job, when a villager came in and found I’d been a pilot to their village, I became a trusted friend. I remembered their genuine ways and humility. We talked about rural life: the salmon runs, the hunts, or about eating traditional Native foods.

There really is nothing like a salmon strip from a drying rack on the Yukon River, or some fresh muktuk from a Beluga whale, to make you feel primal and real. I never felt primal or real anymore working indoors. I could be doing this new job anywhere. I did not live in Alaska anymore. Real Alaska was somewhere out past the sunset, unreachable now. “Naw, I don’t miss flying much,” I’d lie to the villagers.

Alaska is a big state with a small population. Some clients even recognized me as a former pilot. “What happened to you? We liked flying with you. We need pilots like you out there,” they’d say. Yeah, it was nice to be needed. But I made good money here and was home more now.

In bad weather I’d look outside and be grateful to be in the safe cocoon of indoor work. Thinking of my old friends grinding it out in whiteouts and ice clouds, flying at night over mountains, doing big things with small aircraft. When one of them plunged her craft into the Chukchi Sea I found out about it through the TV news, not the pilot grapevine. I was far out of the flock by now.

I was healthy but did not feel right. That ache in the heart from being off course doesn’t show up medically. By year two I got a raise. A financial counselor explained my company’s retirement plan. Follow his financial plan and someday I won’t have to work! Strange how my thinking changed. When I flew, I never thought about retirement. I actually liked my work in the bush and hoped I could do it more, lots more. There was still a lot of country to cover by air.

Sometimes a pilot was a client and we spoke of Alaska flying. Of course I’d say I did not miss making crosswind landings on icy strips in high winds. I was glad I did not have to do anymore of those marginal takeoffs from short strips with heavy loads. No, I did not miss the long hot days of flying fire charters. Flying around in all that smoke trying to land on some short air strip with water or firefighters certainly is for loonies isn’t it?

Sometimes I’d see one of the guys I flew with and they’d ask, “When are you coming back?” I’d look at my feet and mumble about how good I had it. They’d say, “Sounds like you’re doing great!” They knew the real truth. They could tell but were too polite to say much.

Camaraderie was unknown where I now worked. There were no shared burdens, only backstabbing. We did not hang out together after work like I did with my pilot buddies. But really, who liked to hang out with pilots anyway? Pilots were slobs. Thinking back, our quarters were always dirty. Now my job paid to dry clean my work clothes and we had classy company parties where people drank a lot. It was all high end booze too, not cheap bush whiskey. But there were no interesting tall tales being told and there were no quarrels, no truth.

I made more money than as a pilot and worked less. I was home far more than when I flew the bush. I had to be monitored in the hospital one day–there’d been a complication. A pilot friend visited me and talked about my old air service and how badly it needed pilots. I had nothing to do that day but watch the planes flying patterns around Merrill Field, one of the state’s busiest airport.

The truth became quite clear, the major one being about how far from I’d strayed from my passions. Changes were to come I resolved, when I was OK.

I took another job where I could even see my Piper tied down from the office window, and I was healthy. When planes landed I dropped my tasks and watched, knowing I’d return to the flock soon. Then one day my hours were cut in half. “Corporate losses from Hurricane Katrina, you know,” they told me when they explained the cut. So really I was just a number; my life something for an accountant to crunch when money got tight.

I went home feeling like the punch line in a weird cosmic joke. How could I pay my bills? What would I do now? At home the cosmic joker belly laughed with me as I heard a message on the answering machine from my old chief pilot: “We need a pilot in St. Mary’s immediately, would you like to come back?”

One ground school and a check ride later and I was back flying along the Yukon River in my jeans, ball cap, and polar fleece. It was all just as I had left it a few years before. The cold crosswinds over icy runways which blew right through Arctic coveralls. The adventures in miserable weather. The dirty old pilot quarters and the late passengers. Old worn planes with crummy heaters. The good smell of the cockpit after warming it up. Our great passengers: the Yupik people. The moose, caribou, bears and wolves running free below the wings. The sunrises and sunsets and the real northern lights. Moose meat in the crock pot at the day’s end. Even the conversations on our company channel were the same as before: pilots complaining of dispatchers, passengers, and the general conditions of the world. People everywhere welcomed me back like Lazarus; affirming to me I was a man, not a number.

On the last day of my two week shift, an old cargo-hauling Douglas DC-6 landed and my boss says if I can hitch a ride, I can go home. Walking out to the dented old plane with the huge round engines I shout up to the cargo door to the crew, asking for a ride to Anchorage. The captain yells down to me while unloading snow machines: “You bet!” I’m in the flock again. I have jump seat benefits and can travel anywhere for free. Quickly I show my licenses and sign some papers. Then I put my headset on and take the jump seat.

After takeoff the flight engineer and captain talk about oil dripping from an engine. They decide it’s normal. I want to see the oil leak so I walk into the big empty fuselage to see the engine better. Her engines may drip oil, but to me they sing like the holiest choir.

Outside through the round old windows I see the Kuskokwim River winding up north to McGrath. I know those river bends well. Ahead I see the Revelation Mountains, embedded on the west side of the Alaska Range. These bends and peaks were just features on maps for some, but for me they were like seeing my old friends.

I walk the empty, vibrating fuselage and I think of the thousands of souls who flew in this gorgeous airliner when she was the queen of the skies in the 1950s. Most of her sister ships have long been scrapped and most who flew in her are probably dust, but what a great second wind she has flying cargo in Alaska. Though she can’t talk to me, I know we both know all about second winds.

Getting back into my jump seat and slipping on my headset, the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer crowd the cockpit, looking forward, mesmerized at the scene. There is nothing to see but blue sky and the Alaska Range spread out from one end of the windshield to the other. Led Zeppelin plays over the intercom between calls from Anchorage Center as the towering peaks pass by our silver wings.

Peering straight ahead, the captain asks me my story. I explain the medical complication, the false career, the fake people, the heart ache, and the return to flying status. The wraparound crow’s feet on his face show he’s no fledgling. He is a veteran of the Alaskan skies and he has heard this story before. He nods slowly and turns, looking back at me, then says, “Welcome back.”

Tears of relief flood my eyes, but my Ray-Bans hide them. “Good to be back,” is all I manage to croak.

DC-6

Contributing writer Ross Nixon flies the Dash 8 for Ravn 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.

DC-6 photo by jama1100, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

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13 Responses to “Second Wind”

  1. Eric Greener says:

    That was a great article. You put into words all of my fears if I were to leave western Alaska and fly elsewhere.

  2. Good words, Ross. Love your writing style.

  3. Wendy Svarny-Hawthorne says:

    I’m glad you’re back doing what you love, Ross. I knew you were a pilot, but had no clue that you’re an amazing writer as well. Bravo!

  4. Geri says:

    Ross, I’m so happy that your heart and soul is in this article. It is so refreshing to read about your journey and what it did for you and finding your joy! Oh how I wish I could just see your world. A bucket list item for sure! Hugs my dear, sweet and OLD friend!

  5. Nancy Larson-Kichak says:

    Awesome as usual. Keep writing!!!

  6. BARBARA WEIL says:

    ROSS-YOUR STORY BROUGHT BACK SO MANY THOUGHTS ABOUT MY SON REMY WHEN HE FLEW FOR MARK AIR EXPRESS.

    YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR GIFT OF WRITING AND LOVE FOR ALASKAN AVIATION.

  7. Herschel says:

    Wonderfully written, Ross, as usual!

  8. Glenn Herbst says:

    Exceptionally well written, your heart may have skipped a few beats at one time or another but your heart is truly where it belongs now. Great story,
    far more enjoyable then reading your reports back when.

  9. Juliette Vries says:

    Ross, I knew parts of the story. It is good reading it in your own words. I can see the sights before my minds eye. I would like to read more of your flying and people stories.

  10. Damian Miller says:

    Hey Ross. We only met a couple of times but talked a bunch on the radio out of BRW. Glad to hear you got the medical back and living the dream again. While I still fly commercially in the lower 48, not nearly as fun and fulfilling as the experiences you mention!! I miss the AK way of life. Nice story. Cheers!!

  11. Jennifer Shockley says:

    Beautifully written story, Ross – and maybe I can fly with you again some day!

  12. JR Beans says:

    Nicely written article. I can only imagine what you going through. While you were enduring your brief sit down away from flying, I was getting some flying in. Thanks for the article. Climb high and enjoy the blue skies.

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