Where wings meet the wild

To find the young pilots who will take you flying early the next morning, step through the mud that mires two trashed Ford pickups and stomp up the stairs of a drafty house just east of the airport. It's dark. Mongrels scavenge in a vacant lot next door. The temperature is dropping fast below freezing, and there's no mistaking where the party is.

Tupac's taken over the CD player where the Stones left off. Eight guys crowd the living room, gawking as air traffic controllers blast the window from the tower with a lightgun. In the kitchen, a couple are pushing people aside as they spin each other to the music and there's this kid screaming ecstatically as he holds an empty beer keg over his head as if it were some wild game trophy.

Let it never be said that the men and women who work the most dangerous job in Alaska don't know how to blow off steam.

Or how to tell stories.

They say the best pilot in Alaska -- a career that kills at a rate 100 times higher than the average job in the United States -- is the one who's still alive, and after many beers and many shots of whiskey chased with Mountain Dew, these bush pilots seem to think it's a part of their continuing education to celebrate survival by flaunting their skirmishes with death.

"We had packed the plane with half-gallon bottles of whiskey and gin and as much beer as we could fit in," begins one young pilot, Corona in hand.

"But it was too heavy to take off," pause for dramatic effect, "so we drained the fuel. When we landed in Bethel and the tail set down, the gas gauge turned up empty."

Even as heads are still bobbing over "Anchorage Beer Run," another pilot (who requests anonymity out of consideration for anxious insurance and FAA types) launches into "The Fired Mechanic."

"I was just out of Hooper Bay. Smoke started pouring into the cockpit," he says, eyes widening. "I grabbed the extinguisher, shoved the nozzle into the dash and pulled the trigger. That seemed to do it, but I had to fly home with only the compass, altimeter and wind-speed indicator."

Yarn after gripping yarn, including "Spiraling Vortex of Death" -- "We were pointed straight down ... all I could see was the ground ... " -- pour forth before the Monday night party peters out unceremoniously.

The fun of flying

The late fall sunrise is a frosty Popsicle that pokes with sadistic glee at the previous evening's enthusiasms. Around 8 a.m., the crew starts drifting into Arctic Circle Air, one of about 10 carriers in the Bethel area. Founded in 1885 by Moravian missionaries, Bethel is 2,285 miles from Los Angeles (as the crow flies), 400 miles from Anchorage and 80 miles from the Bering Sea. It is a lonely, treeless burg built on permafrost in Alaska's southwestern corner and home to the state's second busiest airport.

The iconic bush pilot -- grizzly guy in caribou coat and beaver hat -- still exists. So does his mythic plane. But skimming on mountain lakes and glissading on glaciers is mostly summer work, paid for by hunters, anglers and tourists. The pilots who fly year-round tend to be younger and more transient, arriving in Alaska in search of adventure, hours in the air and whatever else it is that draws a young person to wild, raw places.

At the moment, Jimmy Christensen, 22, is pushing a Cessna 207 into the hangar. He takes a broom to a layer of frost clinging to the wings and prop. Wearing a Yankee cap, he's the kid they tease for not being able to grow facial hair. He was busted for marijuana possession two days before high school graduation. His uncle sent him to flight school in Arizona for a year. He arrived in Alaska four years ago.

Aaron Stinson, 27, was born in Victoria, Texas, but only after he's had a few drinks does his accent leak through. He's sipping coffee now. Outside, the Herman-Nelson heater is blasting hot air into his plane, warming the solenoids and liquid crystal circuitry. Degreed in international finance, he became a pilot as a way to meet women. He flew out of Jamaica for a year before heading north.

Matt Warrick's a month younger than Christensen. He's got the week off, but stopped by anyway. Farm boy and Eagle Scout from Nebraska. He started flying in junior high and never stopped.

Warrick's the only pilot here who doesn't drink, but if the others look a little hung over, fear not: The FAA requires eight hours of abstinence before flying -- bottle-to-throttle, they say -- and these pilots love getting in the air so much, they're scrupulous in timing their other indulgences.

As for the rest of the rules, most of them have been bent, if not broken altogether. Alaska is its own world: When the Civil Aeronautics Authority first visited the territory in 1934 and tried to bring order to the skies, the pilots rebelled. Flying by the book was both unprofitable and foolish. Not much has changed since.

What really stinks is when a pilot dies following the rules, says Stinson, who's on his first flight of the day, taking three engineers from the local telecom company to St. Mary's, a small village 110 miles northwest of Bethel. They'll spend a week out there upgrading the community's satellite connection so residents can access the Internet with a local call instead of long-distance.

The plane, a single turboprop workhorse known as a Caravan, is cruising at 1,500 feet, packed to the headliner with duffle bags, sealed boxes, an ATV, a gun case and circuit boards that look like something out of "The X-Files."

Below, the enormous flood plain of Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers sprawls in a beautiful maze, some 100,000 square miles of meandering streams, oxbows, ponds, tidal sloughs and swamps, separated by hummocks and tundra, soft as a sponge in summer, a frozen white sheet in winter. Today the small lakes and channels look like pools of mercury splattered across a vast open floor. High overhead, jets, following the polar routes to Asia, leave contrails in the pale sky.

The Yupik people believed Raven formed the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries out of the tundra with his claws. Primary residents of the delta, the Yupik live throughout the region in nearly 60 villages accessed by boat, snowmobile and mostly by plane. Because there are no roads in this part of the state, the bread-and-butter work for carriers such as Arctic Circle Air is the federally subsidized mail deliveries -- "pop and Pampers" runs, as the pilots refer to them -- and special charters.

The delta is a landscape without landmarks or a radar system. Pilots navigate mostly using VFR (Visual Flying Rules) but joke about two other systems: IFR (I Follow River) and the ever faithful Eskimo Direction Device, in which you fly in the direction your passengers' heads turn. Knowledge of this region is in the blood of the Yupik natives, but in a state where every region throws up its own challenges, pilots say that the delta is the most challenging. Flying here in bad weather is like slogging through a bottle of milk. Flying here at night is like swimming in an inkpot.

As Stinson approaches St. Mary's, a scattering of homes on the bluffs above the Yukon River, the Caravan bounces on the winds rushing off the hills. Nothing to be concerned about, he says. Now, if it were a flutter that would be different. "That means you're fixing to jettison your tail, and if you do that, you'll lawn dart into the tundra."

It's a common expression that, in Alaska, you start flying with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to be able to fill your bag of experience before you empty your bag of luck.

"When we think about crashes, we typically think of them as a chain of events," says Frank Neitz, station manager for Arctic Circle Air. Neitz, 43, sits in his office on the second floor, surrounded by 8-by-10s of his hunting and fishing trips. A window overlooks the runway. Led Zeppelin's "Hangman" plays on the computer.

"They usually begin with a bad start," he explains, "a hangover from the night before, a fight with the old lady. Then you get to work, and your airplane won't start. Or you kick out a plug walking around it in the dark. Or the plane is loaded too far aft. Or you spill gas on your hands. All these things add up. These are the trigger mechanisms. And if you're not careful, they can be catastrophic."

That said, Neitz acknowledges that the bush is safer than it used to be. In 1989, when he arrived in Bethel, there was probably a wreck a month. Now it's tapered off quite a bit. Runways have been upgraded and widened. Capstone, a razzle-dazzle navigation device that plays off global positioning system technology, has nearly eliminated midair collisions, and insurance companies, perhaps more than the Federal Aviation Administration, are clamping down on extravagant risk-taking, the stock in trade of yesterday's bush pilot.

"It's havoc around here if you're not flying straight, and the guys wrecking the planes are out of business. Slide off the runway once and you're gone," says Neitz. "That's why most accidents are turned into incidents."

The real bush may be out there, he acknowledges, but it's getting harder to find and few commercial pilots fly there. Nor do they carry a roll of pink toilet paper to throw out the window to see where the sky ends and the snow begins.

Buzzing with Jimmy

Jimmy CHRISTENSEN eases back on the stick and the Cessna jumps to 1,000 feet. The delta shimmers like crinkled foil. On the eastern horizon, the Kilbuck Mountains are snowcapped and haloed by clouds. To the south is the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, the shallows of the Bering Sea and a wide beach that leads to the shantytown of Platinum, located on Goodnews Bay. Once center of operations for the world's largest platinum mine, it is now a gravel pit.

It's the end of the season, and Christensen's giving a lift to a tugboat pilot who's about to make the long trip south to Seattle. The Cessna scoots along with a tail wind. Christensen reads the gusts from the ripples on the ponds below. He passes over the village of Quinhagak and the Kanektok River. "Best unknown salmon river in the state," he says, dropping to 300 feet. Outside, it's 45 degrees. A light rain has started to fall.

Christensen sets the plane down lightly on a dirt road, no wider than the wings and mercifully smooth. Three quarry men, who've been working here on and off since January, appear. The place seems to have rearranged their dirt-smudged, cold-creased faces. It's hard not to contrast them to Christensen's youthful features.

"You have to realize," he says as he heads home, "that we're just kids out here having fun."

Earlier in the day, Stinson said something similar: "I think that for most of the people out here, Bethel is a place to stay while they figure out what they want from life."

Christensen flies up the valley just east of the Kilbuck Mountains. The tundra below is rust, brown, gold and moss green. The treetops are silver with autumn leaves not yet fallen. The Goodnews River pours white over stones and boulders. Christensen chases a herd of caribou with two huge antlered bucks. He circles over a brown bear sitting on its rump in a clearing. He drops to 100 feet and clips along at 140 knots. This is what he loves most: flying fast and low. "Alaska has a brutal way of weeding out the average," he says.

One month after he first arrived in the state, his roommate flew some hunters to their camp and the weather trapped him there. When he didn't return, Christensen flew out to look for him but found nothing. A plane with radar joined the search and finally spotted the wreckage. "Scattered on the side of a mountain," Christensen says.

The pilot, he adds, made one bad decision at just the wrong time. "Like when you turn away from a dog and the dog bites you." His words sound like the disclaimer people tell themselves to avoid acknowledging that luck and fate can unexpectedly grab life's throttle.

The plane growls over the mountain and Christensen drops his story to adjust the red, fuel-mixture control knob.

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