Gold Rush Legacy and a Small Airplane, Summer 2017, Part I

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It was not love at first sight. She was standing on the short cut grass in front of a one-story building and you could tell that she has been wandering the wild of the Canadian North for a very long time. I did not find much enthusiasm in her look  at me either. And yet, towards the end of our two week romance, I called her Princess with all the passion of my heart.

She was a Cessna 172, born in 1975. The paint was peeling off at places I did not even know existed on an airplane. But, as many bush pilots would be quick to point  out - paint is only an added weight that keeps you from pushing more useful stuff, like fuel, food or game, to the inside (or sometimes on the outside of, for that matter) of an airplane. What was lacking on the exterior was surely not made up for in the interior of the plane. To say her cabin was "ragged" would do a gross injustice to the term. Yet, what is vital for a flying machine in the Canadian wilderness? The way it flies. And fly she did! Her aerial performance was impeccable. The propeller was squeaky clean, not even the tiniest chip, her climbing was fervent, mightily sucking on the air and, as I was later to find out, she was exceptionally humble when it came to drinking gasoline and oil. Princess was simply a marvel to fly and care for.

Before I was given a chance to explore her fine features, I had to get past Eric, her proud owner and devour guardian (hence the name of  Eric’s flying outfit - Guardian Angel). I arrived exhausted in Prince George, where Eric’s office was located, after some thirty hours of travel, shortly before midnight. The trip from Europe reminded me a lot of the famous opening scene of the Dead Man motion picture by Jim Jarmusch. Johnny  Depp is heading West while observing in amazement how the nature of his fellow travellers transforms the further West he gets. The flight from Munich to Toronto was filled with travellers carrying their flawless four-wheeled carry-ons, bags full of ethereal souvenirs, stunning fragrances and fashionable spirits, chatting delightfully on the board of a jazzy jet Boeing 777-300ER. People on the board of the less flashy Airbus A321 from Toronto to Vancouver seemed to be more down to Earth. The last leg from Vancouver to Prince George was to be flown over the jagged Pacific Coast Mountains by an eager turboprop Bombardier Q400. Climbing onboard I was bewildered by the composure and dignity that beamed through the coarseness of my new journey fellows.

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Our approach to Prince George began with a gentle dive into the clouds just as the sun began to sink beyond the horizon. An amazing sight. Before that, I had a nice chat with a girl sitting next to me. It was all about bears, wildfires, First Nation, the sparse yet sufficient pub landscape in Prince George, rising homelessness and drug abuse and we were both taken aback by the beauty of the sunset

Alas, my mind was not really there. It was deeply immersed in the thoughts about the undertaking that I had been dreaming about for the past three years and that seemed even more impossible now when it was about to begin. My original fancy was to rent a small airplane and to fly through Alaska. After quite some time it proved to be a no go. No one in Alaska was willing to let their precious machines being flown over some of the least hospitable and unforgiving places in the world, especially by some flat-landed European with zero mountain flying experience. It was nothing short of a miracle when we found our Guardian Angel, Eric's flight school, operating out of Vanderhoof and Prince George (British Columbia) who actually considered lending us a Cessna, albeit "only" for flying in the Canadian, not the Alaskan, great wild.

In the months leading up to July 2017, I read all possible bush-flying and mountain-flying material I could find. I spent hours, days really, watching training videos and searching for the right articles. All these efforts helped me realize that mountain flying might be extremely rewarding but you better stay away from it unless you have a lot of experience under your belt. Which I did not.

Let us hear an expert here. Fletcher Anderson wrote one of the most comprehensive books on the subject (Flying the Mountains, McGraw-Hill Education): "Even on the very best of days, it involves considerably more than just normal flying over exceptionally scenic terrain. The aircraft’s engine develops only a fraction of its rated horsepower at high altitude. … Because the air is thinner, the wing needs greater true airspeed to develop adequate lift…. The pilot may also suffer from lack of available oxygen at altitudes lower than required to clear the mountains. Steep and high terrain is hard to fly over. Weather conditions which exceed the operating capabilities of most small aircrafts are frequent, normal occurrences, and weather can change dramatically in minutes. ... In addition to mountains, Alaska has the obvious extremes of vast distances and poor weather from the nearby oceans and no roads ... (therefore, a small airplane is) 40 per cent more likely to crash in the mountains than anywhere else. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the aviation death rate in mountain states is twice that of the nation as a whole.” What a chipper fellow.

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Upon landing in Prince George, the cabin was filled with the smell of smoke from the distant wildfires across British Columbia. An eerie feeling. The city itself is a legacy of the sparse web of centuries-old trading posts of the North-West Company throughout the big northern void. Originally inhabited by First Nation people, proudly calling themselves “people of the confluence of two rivers” (Fraser and Nechako rivers, to be exact), Prince George of today is more of a confluence of roads connecting South British Columbia with North, Yukon and Alaska. Lonely Planet’s account of the city is not overwhelmingly flattering: “The downtown, no beauty-contest winner, is compact and has some good restaurants” You also might want to know that there is a large paper mill that generates a very particular smell which gives Prince George away for miles and miles. The smell is a neat aviation navigation beacon, as I was to learn the following year when flying through the dense wildfires smokes. I fell in love with the city instantly, nevertheless.

Eric greeted me at the small and tasteful terminal building of Prince George airport. I thought I might simply go to bed as it was close to midnight and I just flew halfway around the world. Well, I was wrong. Eric was in full swing and after being done with my car rental we headed to his office at the airport to do the proper paperwork before mountain flying training and rental checkout procedures could start the next morning.

After I finally arrived at the Downtown Motel it was almost two in the morning. The Motel did not try to conceal the fact that it is an affordable place to stay at. There was still quite a number of people hanging and wandering around the neighborhood with no apparent purpose, direction or place to stay. This was yet another signature feature of Prince George. In the morning the next day, I got myself a large cup of cheap coffee at a gas station and was ready to get back to the airport. At Eric’s office, we started a very thorough ground training just as two copters lifted off from a helipad nearby. “It’s all over the radio. There is a small plane missing, that is what they are after”, uttered Eric laconically. Those books on mountain flying were not lying, apparently. You can get into trouble around here.

No wonder my learning attention – which is usually not the strongest of my skills, whatever they may be – was laser-focused on every single word Eric shared with me. How to cross the mountain range safely, how to turn in a tight canyon, how to do an emergency landing where there is no emergency landing spot available, how to read wind direction from the aspen trees and lakes, how the eagle never dodges in the air for it is you who need to make the move, how to avoid prop strike on soft and gravel airstrips or how the weather changes in ways you can never predict. In the afternoon, we took to the skies with one of Eric’s instructors. The first checkout flight was a rather serene affair – slow flights, steep turns, stalls, the usual stuff.

Later that same day I was assigned another instructor – Alex, a cheerful character and a splendid pilot. We started working on my navigation skills and emergency landing procedures. I truly was not at my peak, owing this slightly to the jetlag and to the fact that I was flying in a completely foreign environment, but I muddled through. Over Fraser lake, we had a conversation about the First nation people in Canada and specifically around Prince George which was when I first gave a deeper thought to their touching fate. Not that I had much time for these contemplations because Alex made me start training spins. A spin is essentially a stall that results in a downward autorotation of the airplane usually when a pilot does not heed attention to the aircraft speed or bank angle (or, usually, both). To be able to recover from a spin is a crucial skill, even though one usually occurs during the initial or final phase of the flight when the airplane is slow and low and there is only limited – if any – space and time for a successful recovery. With Alex, we were flying high above the lake and our Cessna just refused to spin, so good an aerodynamic little airplane it is. Or, let me put it more correctly – I was unable to spine her. Thus, Alex took the helm and pitched her high, banked a hard right and kicked in enough of the left rudder and with an excited exclamation “spin, bitch, spin” she reluctantly did what he has asked of her. After that, I was also able to make her spin and recover, and with the jetlag still hanging around, I started to feel a bit dizzy.

Yet, the training was far from over. Here comes the "graveyard spiral" part. Its name does not imply anything friendly - and it is not. A graveyard spiral is a dive that happens usually in bad visibility or at night when the pilot becomes disoriented and cannot see the horizon. Sadly, plenty of graveyard spirals are concluded with the airplane hitting the ground at a very high-speed with a very fatal outcome. What happens is that without the outside horizontal reference the pilot does not realize the airplane is banking and descending at the same time and pulls on the yoke in order to arrest the descent which only tightens the turn and, subsequently, the descent. We do not have to go into the details here, suffice to say that the lesson is - always trust your instruments, not your gut feeling about your attitude and - more importantly - don't ever get into a position that you have to deal with meteorological or visibility conditions that are beyond your abilities, training or rating. A year later, not too far from the very same spot we had trained to recover from the "graveyard spiral" I was to learn both of these points the hard way in the middle of a choking and debilitating wildfire smoke. But we will get to that much, much later.

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What to look for in Part II? Eric makes me turn in a tight canyon without looking outside the airplane. How to land on a logging trail in the wild.  My crew arrives - how to stuff three adults and tons of equipment into a small airplane and still expect it to fly? First night in the North - Dease Lake, sea-plane trip at Atlin Lake. The madness of the Gold Rush.