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Lear jet pilot's puff piece on Alaska flying bypasses reality

Colleen Mondor
Maybe someday, Twin & Turbine will pay a pilot to write about what flying in Alaska is really like. A recent article, written by a corporate jet pilot based in Washington state, offers lots of well-worn cliches but little substantial reporting on flying in the 49th.

Writing about Alaska flying for aviation publications is something of an industry staple, even when the story offers little if any real glimpse of what pilots should expect from Alaska flying. There tends to be too much emphasis on how deadly, dangerous and remote the environment is up here. Pilots in Alaska have been rolling their eyes at such articles for decades; as a pilot and former dispatcher who's paid to report on Alaska aviation, I feel compelled to keep an eye on new entries into this reliable branch of aviation journalism if for no other reason than to spare everyone else from reading them.

The most recent case in point: "Flying the C340 for Fun and the Lear for Pay...It's not the Same" by Kevin Ware in the March issue of Twin & Turbine (tagline: "For the Pilots of Owner-Flown, Cabin-Class Aircraft").

Ware is a corporate pilot for several Seattle-based companies who writes in this piece about operating a Lear 35 out of a western Washington airport for Ketchikan on a business trip. He and his "fellow corporate pilot" have been up since 5 a.m. when they depart at 7 a.m. "on a foggy cold morning."

The flight to Ketchikan, about 680 miles north of Seattle, proves relatively uneventful: the instrument approach is down at the Ketchikan International Airport flight so they struggle to find and enter GPS waypoints into the Lear's "flight management system." They land, unload passengers and head over to a motel to sleep for a few hours.

Ware doesn't wax romantic about the Inside Passage, Alaskan Panhandle or rugged, rustic and unspoiled country Ketchikanners enjoy. Instead, he writes,

Listening to the wind howl outside, I think, If this had been a personal trip in my Cessna 340, I would just be getting out of a warm bed at home now and checking the weather at some sunny destination, rather than being here in this distant, cold, bleak and rainy place.

By 5 p.m. and after a few hours of rest, Ware and the other pilot have sat down for dinner. Looking out the windows they see nothing but "a nasty mixture of blowing rain and snow." Our author is morose: "If this was a personal trip, I would just defer leaving until tomorrow, go back to the room and watch a movie. But tonight that is not an option."

At 7 p.m. they arrive at the airport and wait for their passenger, who doesn't appear until 9 o'clock. There is much discussion of using Costco towels to wipe condensation off the windshield. The Ketchikan weather tenses up our corporate pilots: winds gust to 20, a ceiling at 300-400 feet and visibility is less than a mile.

Ware is getting very nervous:

Between swipes of the towel, it's hard to tell if it's even that good. We each look out at the wing on our side for ice, then pick up the taxi ace a little bit for fear such a bad thing could happen if we don't hurry.

The flight south, back to Washington, is apparently consumed by conversation and controlled by autopilot. Yet the "cold front" -- mild and unnewsworthy by most every Alaskan's standard definition of "weather" -- follows Ware and his Lear jet "down from Alaska."

By the time they land it is after midnight local time on a "dark, cold and stormy night."

Our Alaska aviator is ready for bed:

What with the weather, long hours, and night time schedule, flying a corporate Lear to Alaska in the winter is actually a lot of work, and definitely the kind of flying you want to get paid for."

Pilots across Alaska likely are shaking their heads right now. Ware and his fellow pilot didn't load anything other than what fits behind the seats and there is no mention of fueling or checking the oil, tasks likely left for aircraft hangar employees.

No, Lear pilots wait for their passengers on "plastic-covered couches" as they "sip bad coffee" and fly from one fully paved instrument-equipped airfield to another. It's not below freezing, let alone below zero, where the mercury plunges at many Alaska airports for up to half the whole year. No one is hauling Herman-Nelsons or pulling off and on wing covers.

Ware's Alaska flying story is practically pulp fiction: These cold, tired, clearly uncomfortable pilots have had the kind of flying experience that a charter pilot in Alaska would not even think twice about. Maybe someday, Twin & Turbine can head up to a remote hub community like Bethel, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta's busy cargo port, or on to Nome, on the windy Bering Sea. Or farther north, into the Arctic to Kotzebue.

These are airports where pilots can experience what Alaska aviation is really like.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com