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Don't trust an optimistic hunting guide

Devon Holmberg

Rain pelted the windshield. The noise was deafening as I guided the Cessna 206 through the mist and lined up for a shot on the gravel bar. I was hauling a drum of gasoline, some ATV parts and other supplies into a "900-foot gravel bar" (according to the hunting guide) at a camp on the Chukowan River in Southwest Alaska this September. I had never been into this particular gravel bar before, and at first look I knew right away it was definitely shorter than 900 feet.

However, after looking it over from the air, I was pretty confident that it was just long enough. As I dropped in low for the landing flare, my tires barely passed over the brush across the river. Chopping the throttle and flaring deftly, I touched down on the left tire and rumbled down the gravel bar toward the quickly approaching water while trying to follow the left turn of the "strip." Feeling the sickening tug of soft gravel I came to a stop, then horsed the old bird around and taxied back to park next to the line of tents.

After shutting down, I hopped out and immediately wondered how I was going to get airborne again. It turns out, in an attempt to increase available runway for me, they had actually tilled the gravel in order to remove some willow growth, which in effect made the entire gravel bar as soft as a child's sandbox. It was too late for a go-around now, I was on the ground and there was only one way out.

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Devon Holmberg photo and video
Both this photo and the video were taken on the second trip in, which was a nicer day than the initial landing.
A camouflaged figure approached and soon several men who looked like they had bought everything in the 2010 Cabela's catalog began piling dozens of empty five and 15 gallon fuel cans beside the cargo doors. I walked around to the back and began unloading my cargo. I met the guide, whom I had only spoken to on the phone up until that point, and became acquainted with his entourage. We then walked towards the departure end of the gravel bar while they all regaled me with stories of an old pilot landing on this very strip in a Cessna 207 and hauling three people and their gear out. In very short order we reached the edge of the water and I took note of the hard left turn that would be required after takeoff to avoid a crash and the ensuing paperwork and phone calls to the FAA (not to mention a helicopter ride, hospital visits, lawsuits, and living on welfare).

Since I had known the previous camp support pilot since I was a kid, since I had seen him in action on several memorable occasions, and since I was also aware of his laundry list of aviation accidents, I was even more convinced that he really was a lunatic and decided to tip my hat to him. I pride myself on being able to routinely and consistently fly my airplane right on the edge of its performance limits, but I wasn't going to risk it. I did however haul one of the assistant guides out who had an infection on his leg and needed medical attention. He had a light backpack and my only other cargo was the empty fuel containers. After I let some air out of the tires, we hopped in, fired up and taxied for the end of the strip.

While attempting to turn around, the right tire dug in and the whole plane slewed to the right. We were stuck. By now nearly all confidence of successfully becoming airborne was rapidly fading away. We hopped out and all hands were on deck to help push it out. We got it moving and pushed it back until the empennage was hanging out over the water and the main gear was at the water's edge. Piling back in, I fired her up and gave her the gun. Reaching full throttle, the plane finally lurched forward, and began accelerating at an agonizingly slow rate. Gaining momentum, I threw the yoke hard to the left, dumped the flaps to 20 degrees and tried to coax it around the bend. Approaching the river, I hit full flaps, hauled back on the yoke, and held my breath. The gravel bar ran out, and the jarring stopped. We were flying. Almost.

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The airplane was wallowing through the air in a left turn, inches over the water. I gingerly lowered the nose, and began raising the flaps in increments of one millimeter. After rounding the corner in the river I was able to attain a "positive rate of climb" and began clawing away from the terra firma as fast as the ol' 520 would allow. Doing my best to look cool, calm, and collected, I pointed the nose for home and began to reevaluate my career goals (i.e., was bush flying really the only kind of flying I ever wanted to do?). Later that evening the guide called me on his satellite phone and I told him I couldn't return while the strip was soft and wet. He understood and we set in motion plans for having someone with a Cub or Stinson shuttle his clients to and from the nearby 47 Creek Mine airstrip for me.

Weeks passed, and I found myself back on that little gravel bar dropping off three hunters and their gear. This time, the sun was shining, and a nice breeze was blowing downstream. The gravel bar had dried and hardened, and the water level had dropped a bit, lengthening the strip by almost 50 feet. After dropping off my passengers and departing, this time with plenty of room to spare, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had faced my fear and learned a valuable lesson (don't trust an optimistic, non-pilot, camouflage-clad customer who really, really needs you to haul his supplies and clients in and out). Still, it all turned out fine. After all, I didn't bend anything.

Devon Holmberg is a 25-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!"