Oh what the heck, here's one anyway, just don't tell, OK?
The Bush Pilot
This story was told over a picnic table high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. I was the only one present, as the guy who told it didn’t think anyone else would believe him, so he waited until we were alone. I guess I believe him, but it’s sure a strange tale. —Rusty
Scotty and I were friends, and somehow I think we still are, even though he’s passed over to the other side, wherever that is. I dunno, but he’ll always have a place in my heart. Especially after he saved my life, and I know it was him.
I met Scott McDonald when we were both pretty much just kids. I was hanging around the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, watching the planes come in. At that time, the airport was pretty small, and it was a pretty happening place, as the oil business was booming and the Fairbanks airport was a hub for it all. I used to go down there after school was out and just hang around, soaking it all in.
I wanted nothing more than to be a bush pilot. It was a life of adventure, and I craved adventure. This was back in high school, and I’m still that way. Nothing like a good day in the air, though I don’t fly as much as I used to.
Scotty was a few years older than me, and he’d been flying since before he was old enough to be legal. He started just like I did, hanging around the airport, just being a general gofor guy for everyone, and that bought him some time on the planes when they were taking tourists out and had an extra seat.
So he started getting to see some country, and that translated into him getting to go along and help on some of the freight flights, when they were hauling stuff in to the oil guys. He eventually got his license and was doing the freight runs himself, then, after he got the experience and hours in the air, he became a full-on pilot, hauling people into the bush. He learned the business from the ground up, so to say.
My parents had moved the family to Alaska when I was about 15, my mom getting a job in school administration and my dad working in the hospital. We’d moved from sunny California, and it took us all awhile to get used to the long cold dark winters, but the summers in Alaska made up for it.
We all loved Alaska, and for me, it was the gateway to adventure. I wanted nothing more than to be a bush pilot. I think that made my parents a bit nervous, as it has a reputation for being a dangerous job, but they didn’t stand in my way.
So, meeting Scotty was my ticket to the air. When I met him, he was able to haul freight but not people, so I couldn’t fly with him. He was still working on getting air hours. But we hit it off, and he had the contacts to get me going, and I started out pretty much the same way he had, except my dad would pitch in once in awhile for a lesson, so I was able to progress a bit faster.
By the time I was about 22, I was able to haul freight, and by 24, I was a full-on bush pilot. I ended up mostly flying floatplanes to remote areas, taking in fishermen and climbers and even ferrying locals around for doctor appointments, that kind of thing. I usually flew a Beaver or Otter on floats, but then I was finally able, with my dad’s help, to buy my own plane.
I’ll never forget the time I took a pilot from a big airline into the bush, along with his friend. He looked me up and down before getting into my little Cessna 207, then asked me how old I was and how many hours I had. He acted like he wasn’t gonna get into the plane with me. When I told him around 1200, he was incredulous. What he didn’t know was that I spent all my free time in a plane, and I’d been flying since I was 17. By then, it was second nature to me. After we landed on a lake way out in the bush, he told me he was jealous. This from a guy in his 40s who had been flying a big Boeing all over the world.
Anyway, Scotty was one of the most generous guys I’ve ever met. Whatever you needed, if he could help, it was yours. Everyone liked Scotty, and he was the first guy to be called by returning tourists, they all wanted to fly with Scotty. He had a great sense of humor and would go out of his way for you, whatever you needed.
I heard stories about him long after he was gone, things like how he would stop at some remote village and drop off fresh supplies even though the natives couldn’t pay for them, all out of his own pocket. Or how one little native girl needed surgery and he arranged for it all, including raising the money for it and flying her back and forth to the doctor.
Being a bush pilot isn’t a high-paying job, regardless of what people generally think. You do OK, but you can only fly in the summer months. And it’s expensive to live in Alaska. But Scotty did pretty well, as he’d go down to the Lower 48 and spend his winters flying tourists around down there, so his income was better than most of us.
He worked out of Tucson, Arizona, and as we both got older and wiser, he always told me he was going to give up flying the bush and go down there year-round, but he never did. Bush flying gets in your blood and it’s hard to give up. There’s nothing like it—flying over a big herd of musk oxen or a pack of wolves out in the middle of nowhere, or a beautiful glacier far from the hand of humans. It’s always an adventure.
But it can be hazardous if you don’t know what you’re doing or neglect to find out about the local conditions, or if you don’t set personal limits. It’s a thrilling job with lots of adrenaline sometimes, and it can be tempting to push it, to overestimate your own abilities. Common sense is what keeps you alive, and sometimes you think you’re invincible when you’ve flown through so much extreme weather and in such extreme country, sometimes landing on small strips of water or on sandbars and in places planes aren’t really made to go. One old-time pilot told me that you’re not a bush pilot until you’ve had a few crashes, so I guess I never was a true bush pilot, even though Scotty ended up there. But I bet he would have preferred not to have that designation in the end, he would’ve been happier to not crash.
So, Scotty and I flew a lot in the same circles, though rarely together. But we were close friends, and when we were both in town, we’d get together and have a beer or two whenever we could. I would also often stop at the hanger where he kept his little Piper Super Cub.
Well, one day I stopped by to see if Scotty was around, and he was just sitting there on the big beat-up bean bag he had in the hanger, drinking coffee. I greeted him, and he seemed happy enough to see me, but I knew right away something was wrong. I could sense it in how he held his shoulders, he wan’t his usual happy-go-lucky self.
“What’s up, Scotty?” I asked.
“Oh not much, just found out an old friend just crashed his plane. Down in Arizona.”
“Bummer,” I replied. “What happened? Is he OK?”
“Yeah, he’s fine, he lost power coming in and couldn’t quite make the runway. Engine malfunction.”
“Trash the plane?”
“Somewhat, but it’s fixable. Undercarriage. He’ll be out for a bit.”
“So why so bummed? He’s OK, that’s good.”
“Yeah, I know, but it just makes me think. Not good to think sometimes, you know.”
“I know, Scot, I know. Too many things to think about if you let yourself get started in this biz. Got anything planned soon?”
“Yeah, I got a couple I’m taking out to the Brooks Range. They have a cabin they built way out in the middle of nowhere and I fly them in when they go, about twice a year.”
Scotty didn’t use floats, preferring land, saying it was more stable. He paused, and I helped myself to a cup of coffee. He then continued.
“You know, I keep having this weird dream, Lynn, it’s starting to freak me out a bit.”
Now, some people can be a bit superstitious, which makes sense, as superstitions are a way to try to get a little control over the unknown, like crossing yourself before you take off. But bush pilots are a different breed, and I’ve never known one who was even a bit superstitious. They’re as pragmatic as it gets. I guess they figure if their skill and luck don’t hold, well, that’s life. So, for Scotty to be upset by a dream wasn’t like him at all.
“What’s the dream?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know. I was having a sense of foreboding, and I didn’t like it.
“Aw, it’s just a dream, but it keeps coming back. No big deal, really, but I keep dreaming I’m flying over a big lake, kind of a bowl in these big mountains, where I see a plane crashed, kind of tipped in the water, one wing down. So I circle, and I see three people walking out, but they’re going the wrong way, like they’re disoriented.”
He continued. “So, I circle back around and head the right way for them to go out, and sort of waggle my wings. I do this a couple of times, and it’s pretty tight in there, but they finally get the message and start walking out the right direction. I then call in and report it, trying to get them some help.”
“Well,” I answered, kind of relieved, “Why is that so bad?”
“It’s what comes after,” he replied. “I’m on the radio, and all of a sudden, everything just goes black and I can hear a terrible crashing noise. It’s like I crashed the plane into something.”
Oh man, I didn’t want to hear that one bit. It gave me goosebumps.
“Look, it’s just a dream, right? You don’t believe in premonitions, do you?” I asked.
“No, actually I don’t. Maybe it’s just my subconscious trying to get my attention. I’ve been a bit lax lately with a few things.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” I replied. “Always slow down and remember to be safe. You’re the one who taught me that rule, and it’s a good one to live by, if you get my meaning.”
Scotty smiled and stood up. “Hey, thanks, bud, I need to just slow down. In fact, I need to do some maintenance, that’s part of it, I’ve been putting it off a bit and that’s bad. But Lynn, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I think I’m going to leave Alaska, for good. Move to Tucson.”
“Yeah, this bush flying is starting to get to me. I mean, I never thought I’d give it up, but I keep having these feelings like it’s time. Hard to explain.”
“Well, Scotty, if you do, I may be right behind you.”
“You starting to feel that way, too?”
“I’m not getting any younger. I’m pretty burned out on the long winters up here. Forty below zero is getting old. My wife’s about had it.”
We talked a bit more about little things, then I started out the door, as I had to do a transport to a small village. I was kind of excited about Scotty leaving, don’t tell me why, as I knew I’d miss him. But it kind of tempered him telling me about the recurring dream a bit. Maybe it would be good if he moved to a safer place for flying.
But as I turned to go out the door, he stopped me.
“Lynn, I’m not sure I should tell you this or not, I mean, it’s just a dream, but maybe you should know that you were one of the ones walking along looking for a route out. You’d crashed your plane. Be careful out there, buddy.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, and for the first and what would also be the last time, though I didn’t know it then, we kind of hugged each other.
I felt kind of unsettled about what he’d told me, and I vowed to be safer myself. But I gradually forgot about his dream, and I didn’t think much about it, until a couple of weeks later, when I got a call from one of the guys I sometimes flew with.
Scotty had crashed his plane.
He was flying alone, having taken some guys into the bush to fish. On his way back, he’d inexplicably veered off course and up into some pretty severe country. Once up there, he’d seen a little lake in a bowl and circled down. A private pilot had crashed his plane trying to land on a small lake, and he and his two passengers were walking out. Scotty had radioed in their location and shown them the correct way out when he suddenly crashed head-on into a big unnamed mountain. The people on the ground had seen it all, and they said he’d made no attempt to swerve away, just hit it full on. Nobody could figure that out, but maybe he was distracted. A rescue party would be going in, but it didn’t look good for a body recovery, as the plane wreckage was strewn all over a huge avalanche area, a really steep mountainside.
I was shocked. So, Scotty’s dream had been a precognition after all—or was it what had caused him to crash, more of a self-fulfilling prophecy? After all, he’d said I was one of those on the ground, and here I was, no plane crash that I was aware of. But it creeped me out anyway.
I decided not to fly for awhile. I was scared, to be honest, and I felt unsafe. I was beginning to think maybe I was a bit superstitious after all. And I was mourning Scotty. He’d been a close part of my life since we’d been kids, and I really felt his loss.
I shut everything down and took a break, went fishing, hung around the house and did some projects I’d been putting off, that kind of thing. My wife understood, and she had never been the type to tell me what to do, so I just went with it until I started getting bored.
And then, I got a call from a retired couple who wanted to go sightseeing. Everyone else was busy, and this was the only time they could go. They were visiting their daughter up here from Florida, getting out of the heat, and could I take them out?
I decided it would be OK. I needed to get back to work, and this would be a nice relaxing trip. We’d go out for a few hours and see some mountains and wildlife. I headed down to the hanger and got everything ready, and we were soon in the air. It was an exhilarating feeling to be back up, and they were thrilled with every minute of it. I remembered that this was what made my job so rewarding, this very kind of thing.
When I would do a sightseeing tour like this, I’d follow a kind of standard route, but today I decided to veer off it a bit. I think it was a combination of their excitement and my missing flying that made me do this, as I normally would think twice. But the weather was perfect, and I decided to take them up to see some beautiful high-mountain scenery not normally on the route.
I climbed a good deal and kind of flew along the flanks of the mountains, not wanting to get up too high. I wasn’t interested in fighting downdrafts, I just wanted to give them a glimpse of that beautiful Alaska scenery.
But before I knew it, I started having problems. We’d hit a downdraft, and it grabbed on and started taking us down. Now, I’ve flown lots of downdrafts, but this one was different. It seemed like there was nothing I could do to get out of it. That’s when I realized I was running out of gas.
I couldn’t believe it! Running out of gas? That was a problem that was out of my realm of thinking. I always checked the gas levels and filled up before going anywhere. What I didn’t know was that I had a gas leak, and even though the gauge said full when we left, I’d lost most of my fuel.
I had to set down, and fast. But there was nowhere to set down, just a tiny lake in a bowl right below us. I circled down and managed to land on it, then got to shore before the engine died completely.
Wow, what a shock! From an enjoyable trip to near disaster! Now what? I tried to radio out, but there was no reception.
I bet you can guess what’s next, because this story has a familiar ring to it, and it did to me even while I was living it. I could’t believe it was happening.
We had no idea which way to go to get out. It would seem obvious, but we had to find a way to cross over a big ridge. And I wasn’t real sure this older couple could even hike out and make it. They certainly weren’t the hiking type.
We assessed our options, and they decided they wanted to try hiking out with me rather than staying with the plane. I grabbed my survival pack, and we headed out. By then, I had no idea what was the best course to take, and they were adults, so we operated on the democratic principle.
Now, if you’ve ever tried walking through the Alaska bush, it’s not easy going. You need a machete, mosquito repellent, and a grizzly gun, and we had none of these. And it didn’t take long until we were scratched up and totally lost.
This whole time, I was thinking about Scotty’s dream, but when I saw a bush plane overhead waggling its wings, showing us the way out, I felt like I was in that dream myself. We changed direction and the plane circled, waggling its wings again, so we again changed direction. When it came back around, I knew we were on the right course.
But then suddenly, instead of circling again, it headed straight for a huge mountain above us. Before we could even gasp, it had crashed into it! But there was no sound, no crashing noise, nothing, no debris. We stood there in shock. It was as if the plane had just gone into the mountain.
It wasn’t long before we topped out on the ridge and saw another plane, and I knew this one was a rescue. It managed to land on a small flat area and pick us up.
It was some time later, after I’d retrieved my plane, that one of the guys told me it was a good thing I’d had the presence of mind to put out a mayday call with our location.
I just looked at him strangely. There hadn’t been time for a mayday call. But someone had indeed made one.
That’s when I knew it was Scotty.