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'Panhandle Pilot' takes readers along on long career of Southeast Alaska flight

Colleen Mondor
Author and pilot Bob Adkins spent more than a decade flying for air taxi Haines Airways and shares his adventures with humor and genial wit in his aviation memoir.

When Bob Adkins arrived in Sitka in 1964, his intention was to teach for a year or two and then return to the life he knew in his home state of Michigan. As happens all too often for recent transplants to the Last Frontier, Adkins fell in love with Alaska, especially the Southeast region. In rapid succession he met the woman who would become his wife, made lifelong friends, relocated to Haines -- where he has lived now for more than four decades -- and most unexpectedly of all, learned how to fly. It is that aspect of his Alaska adventure that he explores in "Panhandle Pilot."

Adkins was bit by the flying bug in 1966, and pursued lessons in Fairbanks while attending a summer seminar for high school counselors. After a far-too-exciting first solo -- of which he provides a minute-by-minute description in the book -- he successfully landed and began avidly pursuing more flight hours whenever possible. Longtime Alaskans will take special note of Adkins’ first instructor, Don Jonz, who in 1972 was flying a charter that included Alaska Congressman Nick Begich and Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana. It disappeared somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau and continues to be one of Alaska’s most enduring aviation mysteries.

In the years that followed his first flight, Adkins pursued private and commercial pilot licenses and an instrument rating and also became a flight instructor. With friends in Haines he purchased various small aircraft over the years and enjoyed hunting and fishing trips throughout the region. The book includes many wonderful photos of those adventures. In 1985, he was happy to accept part-time employment with a brand new air taxi service, Haines Airways. It was the logical conclusion to his longtime passion; a chance to fly over the country he knew so well and meet people eager to experience it from the vantage point of the air.

As Adkins maintained a full-time position in the Haines school system, his experience flying for Haines Airways is a bit unusual. He primarily worked for them only in the summers and although he certainly flew many long days, it was never his sole source of income. It is clear that while he did find himself in sticky situations a time or two during the time he was with the company, the pressure to take flights in difficult weather was not something he succumbed to. This is not to suggest that he had no experience with accidents, however, as several pilots Adkins knew or worked with crashed at some point.

When he writes about such accidents, Adkins includes not only his own personal memories -- especially of close friends -- but also excerpts the official reports from the National Transportation Safety Board. This gives readers a look at how common accidents in Alaska are investigated and adds a deeper layer of information to an otherwise very personal story.

Despite Adkins' cautious nature, there were still some very dicey flights for the author along the way. Consider the following recollection of transporting a mental patient with two city police officer escorts (“Bill” and “Jerry”) to Juneau. Only a four-place Cessna 182 was available for the charter, so Adkins was in much closer proximity to his disturbed, handcuffed passenger than he would have liked:

We entered the Juneau control zone and were cleared to land. Halfway between Coghlan Island and The Cut, on a long straight-in final approach, the kid bent forward again, but this time he moved liked lightning. He lunged ahead as far as he could, reached all the way up and down Jerry’s neck from his ears to his shoulders while giggling maniacally at the top of his voice! “Heeheeheehee.”

Bill grabbed him and slammed his hands down, but meanwhile I thought Jerry was going to go through the front windshield. He was plastered against the instrument panel as tight as he could be with his seatbelt fastened. If there had been dual controls in 808, Jerry would have put us straight down into Auke Bay.

Bill forcibly held the kid’s hands down all the way through the rest of the landing and Jerry finally peeled himself off the instrument panel just was we stopped and I shut the engine down.

Jerry was still breathing hard and the kid still giggling hysterically when the four officers got him out of the airplane and took him away.

From flying prisoners and mental patients to tourists and scheduled passengers, freight and mail, Adkins provides a solid slice of the nuts and bolts of Southeast air taxi operations in “Panhandle Pilot.” His narrative voice is that of a genial guide carefully sharing his experiences while also enlightening readers on some of the basics about flying in the region’s often difficult weather and appreciating the blindingly gorgeous scenery. It is clear that Adkins has enjoyed every single moment in the air, whether flying friends or for hire, and he is happy to let readers know just why Alaska and flying go together so well.

"Panhandle Pilot" is available in independent bookstores throughout Alaska, directly from The Sheldon Museum in Haines and via the author’s website. The Babbling Book in Haines can also be contacted for a signed copy.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com. Contact her on Twitter @chasingray.