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An Alaska bush pilot plays the role of pizza delivery man

Devon Holmberg
Devon Holmberg photo

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In the winter of 2009-2010, I was flying charters in a Cessna 206 with a freshly overhauled engine out of Aniak during the week, and would fly home to McGrath on the weekends. Aniak had a pizzeria that was well known among residents in McGrath as making some of the best pizzas in the area. One week, I posted on the online McGrath community message board that I would be flying from Aniak to McGrath on the following Friday and would pick up pizzas and haul them to McGrath, for a nominal delivery fee.

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Expecting to bring only a few pizzas home with me, I was shocked when Friday came around and I had orders for close to 25 pizzas. As if that wasn’t enough, the pizzeria was not set up to take credit card orders by phone. I had to pay for the pizzas -- over $650 worth -- from my own pocket before being reimbursed when I delivered them in McGrath.

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I also had a load of passengers and baggage going to Grayling before continuing on to McGrath, plus a quick stop in Anvik to drop off a pizza there as well. The only place I could fit the pizzas in the airplane for transport was in the cargo pod mounted beneath the airplane.

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I departed for the Yukon under gray skies with light snow showers along the route. The cabin heater pumped out what little heat it could, taking the bite out of the crisp winter air. After a 30-minute flight, I dropped off a pizza in Anvik and continued on to Grayling in what was now turning into a raging blizzard moving in from upriver.

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An airplane from another charter outfit in McGrath was arriving at Grayling just ahead of me and I followed it in, struggling to maintain visual contact with the snow-covered river below, the other airplane ahead, and the river bank behind me. Visibility was now low enough that I decided I would turn around if I were to lose sight of the riverbank behind me before finding the opposite bank ahead through the falling snow -- a true white-out condition.

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The landing went smoothly, and while unloading the airplane I watched somewhat incredulously as the other pilot unloaded his airplane, hopped in again, and promptly departed back into the blizzard. I wasn’t too surprised actually, knowing the pilot and all, and this weather was relatively normal for flying.

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I decided I’d better get a move on as well if I was going to have any chance of making it to McGrath or Aniak before nightfall, and departed behind him to meander through the snow storm up the Innoko River in the general direction of McGrath some 140 miles to the Northeast. The other pilot called me on the radio moments later to let me know the weather conditions improved a bit further to the south. I broke out of the storm to a high overcast layer above and numerous scattered layers above and below along the rest of the route home.

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Approximately 65 miles from McGrath, I was thinking how great it was going to be to get home, see my fiancé, eat some good pizza, have a cold beer and sleep in my own bed again for a few days.

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At that moment, a loud bang jolted me to attention. The entire airplane shuddered, the rudder pedals shook, and the smooth drone of the big Continental engine up front was replaced with the rhythm of a jackhammer and my heartbeat pounding in my ears. Instantly, I had visions of having to set this stricken bird down on the tundra and $650 worth of pizzas going down with the ship. A quick glance at the engine gauges showed normal pressures and temps, with the exception of the exhaust temperature gauge, which had gone offline.

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After several minutes, I figured the engine was probably going to keep running, and so I pressed on, climbing as high as possible while I still could. I tried repeatedly to raise the other pilot on several different frequencies to explain my plight. Though I was unable to contact him, through the looming darkness I could see his airplane a few miles ahead of and below me. As long as I could see the steady red flash of his rotating beacon, I didn’t feel quite so alone for the next 30 minutes of flying over the vast expanse of barren, snow-covered tundra and mountains that extended to the horizon in every direction.

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Arriving at McGrath right at dark, I held plenty of altitude until nearly over the field before descending down to land. With reduced throttle the engine popped and backfired terribly, and the cacophony continued on the ground as I taxied to the ramp, the aircraft belching fire from the exhaust.

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The ramp area was full of hungry customers waiting for their pizza, and within 10 minutes I had all my cash back, and then some. Finally able to relax, I put the airplane to bed and headed home. I’d find out the next day that, among other things, a valve had stuck, and our troubles with this engine were just beginning.

Devon Holmberg is a 26-year-old commercial pilot based in McGrath. Holmberg grew up in Aniak and started flying when he was 12 years old. In an email, Holmberg said, "I love my job, and I'll never fly jet!"