Clearing a remote Alaskan airstrip by hand is back-breaking work, even with a little ATV help to haul away the brush. Photo by Eric M. Beeman.
What goes up must come down. Nothing stays aloft forever. It happens with Elon’s satellites, equally so with my April 16th bank balance. It’s especially true when flying in remote Alaska. Rocketing in on that final descent, looking over the cowling at that rapidly approaching postage stamp, it gets personal. The backwoods airstrip comes in two sizes: short, and shorter.
Some are natural— river bars, beaches, tundra ridges. Many others have been hacked out of a begrudging Mother Earth. Most have foibles, be it wind, bad approaches, or potentially soft surfaces. The men and women who fly off these diminutive patches of real estate are a cut above. I’ve known a few aviators with over 20,000 hours in their logbook. In perspective, this is like taking off today and landing 27 months later. Some have methods as extraordinary as they are unconventional. We once had a young pilot land his fully loaded Super Cub with a wash tub over his head. I knew another who flew with part of a piano hanging outside his door. Alaska Peninsula hunting guide John Swiss would land in swamps, with his wheel-skis at half-mast to avoid a nose-over in case his wheels punched through the soft surface. This sometimes caused considerable drag on takeoff. Taking longer than usual to get airborne, Swiss once plowed through all the gear we had just unloaded before finally bouncing into the air. He later growled, “Ya’ should’a stacked it 20 feet further!”
Gravel bars and beaches are fine to land on when they are available, but when they’re not, the work begins. Sisyphus would have been right at home building an airstrip—the closer you get to the end, the more it recedes. If 600 feet is good, 750 feet is better, and if you really want to haul in heavy loads, then 900 feet works better still. But 900 feet is a bit short for larger planes that could bring in even more stuff, and, and, and… But wait, you’re not done yet! Like wedlock, after the initial completion, airstrips require maintenance. You think that nice smooth 1,100 feet you busted your bum to make is just for airplanes to land on? Ha, think again! Everything wants to take over your new airstrip. Here come the bushes. Cut ‘em, and they come back Hydra-like with even more sprouts. Ignore ‘em, and you’ve soon got a tree farm. Get the brush cleared, and here comes Old Man River to carve out a nice juicy channel in your hard-won chunk of ground. Build it, and they will come.
Even when functional, bush runways are always just a bit too short. You can stuff 10 pounds of plane into a nine-pound touchdown just so many times before your landing distance will exceed the runway length, and then you are in for a bumpy ride. From a personal experience:
Smashing through the snow In a landing gone astray. Off the field we go Cussing all the way. Bolts and rivets ping Making sphincters tight. I just hope this crate holds firm, So, I can fly home tonight!
Fortunately, the only damage (other than to the poor reader) was a missing tailwheel. Both pilot and I were fine, although the seven sled dogs in back were somewhat agitated. On the bright side, I learned a bunch of new words for my commercial fishing business.
The best airstrip is one you didn’t have to build. But even these have their own challenges. Icy lakes make wonderfully long landing sites, but an errant gust of wind can send you sliding a** backwards toward the rapidly approaching shoreline. I once watched a ski-equipped Super Cub twirl through our cove and up sideways into the lodge’s front yard. I bet that got the pilot’s attention. Another time, our fishing crew members were stranded after a combination of soft beach sand and a gusty tailwind resulted in a perfect three-point Ugashik touchdown: front tires and propellor.
Airstrips come and airstrips go, but none last forever. In the Talkeetna Mountains, my father stood on a riverbank and watched chunks of the cabin bob down the raging waters of Iron Creek. Below lay what had been their airstrip, eroding quickly away in the rushing torrent. When the seven-day deluge eventually ceased, Dad and Co. set off, eventually finding a potential site 3/4 of a mile downriver. The four men levered boulders, filled dips, and chopped down mature spruce trees. Once a day, Talkeetna pilot Don Sheldon would fly over and drop a note, and it always said “Bigger!” On day six, after wearing out two axes and two shovels, they watched as Sheldon himself bounced in on what he termed a “controlled crash.” One rough takeoff at a time, the party was hauled back to town. The “strip” was never used again. Years later, my father flew over and couldn’t find a trace.
So, the next time you’re speeding in on final, take a moment before touching down to appreciate the effort it took to make the landing site. And keep in mind, as my dad says, that you can always land anywhere, at least once.