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Alaska bush pilot honored for lifetime of Prince William Sound service

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times
Photo courtesy: Diane Jeantet, Cordova Times

Roger Behymer, a longtime pilot for Cordova Air Services, is standing outside the company's headquarters along Power Creek Road in Cordova, a town of more than 2,000 on the southeastern end of Alaska's Prince William Sound. He has no idea that this morning, July 27, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has decided to award him a lifetime achievement for more than 30 years of loyal and valuable services.

A few feet away, a room is packed with colleagues -- former and present -- and members of Fish and Game, some of whom flew from Anchorage for the occasion. Behind the scenes in the small office located adjacent to Cordova's city airstrip, organizers are getting the party ready, serving hot coffee and carefully taking a big chocolate layered cake out of its cardboard packaging.

When the star of the day finally enters the room, a round of applause and cheers take him by surprise. The shy and reserved pilot takes a few steps back, looking for some place to hide.

Behymer has spent over 6,000 hours flying Fish and Game surveyors to count fish across Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta. "I do spend a lot of time with them," admits Behymer once the emotion has slightly dissipated. "They probably know every bump on the back of my head."

More than 30 surveyors have sat behind Behymer to see and count fish in the region's numerous streams, rivers and the Sound. Aerial survey escapement estimates are the primary tool that has guided Prince William Sound and Copper River Delta management decisions. So in a sense, the department says, Behymer's work provides the basis for sustainable fisheries management that drives the economy in the area.

In other words: "The department would be operating blind without Roger," said Bert Lewis, a Fish and Game fish biologist who used to fly with Behymer.

Roger Behymer is particularly appreciated for his infallible and weatherproof serenity behind the controls. A level of pilot skills that allows surveyors to focus on counting fish with no concern for the trees zipping by the wing tip and the rock wall dead ahead because Roger was at the controls.

Dan Gray, management coordinator at Fish and Game, has had five years of flying with Behymer, which represents 350 to 400 hours. "What I remember most are the hours of amiable conversation or silence while in his airplane and the skill with which he flew over the fjords and salmon streams in all kinds of weather," said the man who describes his aerial trips as both flying through a postcard and taking a four-hour ride in a washing machine.

'Encyclopedic knowledge' of Prince William Sound

Behymer has had the same air plane, a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, since 1947. An inside joke in the department makes fun of particularly tall surveyors, such as Dan Gray. When there's turbulence, their heads hit and hair gets stuck in the low hanging ceiling of the plane.

Another valuable aspect for surveyors, especially new ones, is the pilot's "encyclopedic knowledge" of the history and geography of Prince William Sound. His colleagues say he knows every stream name in the Sound. "During [my] first few flights, Roger would quietly tip the plane or circle an area he knew I missed or miscounted without saying a word; it was his way to train me," remembered Evelyn Brown.

When asking Behymer what he thinks makes a good pilot, he first mentions initial training as a ground base for any good piloting. Soon after comes the need for a good mentor. His was Terry Kennedy, whom he started flying for as a taxi pilot at the beginning of his career in 1975. "He's about the only one I'd fly with just about anywhere around here," confessed Behymer about his friend. "He's about top notch."

After his first year spent flying for Cordova Air Services, then named after its owner, Kennedy Air Service, Behymer started taking Fish and Game employees on board. That was in 1976 and he never stopped ever since. One of the department's worst nightmares is to see Behymer leave: "You can't retire before I do, because we can't replace you."

Few are those who dare complain about Behymer's fierce smoking habit. In tribute, many mentioned his casual way of lighting up Camel Straights during take-off, something most found as yet another sign of reassurance. "I knew everything was OK as long as I'd see cigarette butts fly out the vent as I counted fish!" joked former Fish and Game surveyor Ellen Simpson.

Others, like Evelyn Brown, would manage to settle their stomach out of it. "I found the second-hand smoke helpful in quelling my air sickness and speeding up my tolerance of the aerial maneuvers," she remembered.

Behymer's friendship seems to be just as steady and valuable as his driving. His former employer Terry Kennedy talks about a young trainee that grew to become a "real personal friend," - a friend who has watched out for him for many years. A model of tolerance, Behymer would never take sides or express sharp judgments about people. "With Roger, you didn't have to talk at all if you didn't feel like to," said Dan Gray, who appreciated the tranquility of flights and adroitness of his pilot.

When asked if he's thinking about retiring, Roger's initial firm response is: "Not yet." He then comes to term with the idea, and corrects: "It'll have to happen one of these days. It's still all up in the air."

This article was originally published in The Cordova Times and is reprinted here with permission. You can reach Diane Jeantet with comments and suggestions at djeantet(at)thecordovatimes.com