"'Good VFR,' huh?" my wife commented dryly, gazing through the windshield of the Cessna 180 at the snowstorm that surrounded us, her voice mimicking the weather briefer in Anchorage. "'Won't have any problems,' eh? Nice to know."

"Now, now," I said mildly, "you know how weather briefings are. They have to be taken with a grain of salt. Especially in the mountains."

"More like a truckload," she responded.

And I nodded, as we continued to creep from lake to lake at half-flaps, the visibility going up and down like a yo-yo, never leaving one landing spot until I was sure we could make it to the next (and glad the airplane was on skis, it was mid-winter, and the lakes well frozen). For while we had left Anchorage in good weather, and it had remained good as far as Chitina, the Chitina Valley was blocked with unforecast snow squalls and the day was growing late. We were taking a calculated risk in trying to make it home before dark, and we still had 50 miles to go. At our current groundspeed, with no more delays, that meant another 36 minutes...

"We're not going to make it, are we?" my wife observed quietly with a glance at the clock and another at the storm outside. To either side of us the walls of the narrow valley rose, in places to an altitude of over 16,000 feet, and around us were dramatic ice fields and glaciers and stunning vistas, but none of this was evident from where we sat. We were flying in a tight little visibility circle the equivalent of ILS minimums. And while we could leave the valley from our home base in the Nizina Valley on instruments using a private SID, we couldn't go on instruments from where we were. For all practical purposes we might as well be back in the '30's with silk scarves flying in the wind...

"No," I said as we crossed the end of the lake we were approaching and the storm closed in again. I came back off the power and applied full flaps. "This squall takes us over our time limit. We'll have to RON here."

From the corner of my eye I could see her shrug. She hadn't expected any less. Then the skis were gliding smoothly through the deep snow and we parked next to a spot where there was wood for a fire and a bit of shelter from the wind. In the intense silence after the engine died the snow swirled madly and the dark came rapidly upon us. A slight gust rocked the wings gently, then subsided. There was nobody within many miles of the lake and the temperature was -2 degrees F/-19 degrees C. The sense of solitude was profound. We were, as one always is in the deep bush, on our own.

* * *

There are some basic requirements for flying in the north, and one of them is the survival kit. These kits contain different items depending on where the pilot is operating and the time of the year, but basically there are summer kits and winter kits. Let's look at what is necessary, or at least advisable, for flying during winter in areas where some firewood is available. The wise pilot always carefully considers the contents of his survival kit, for when the going gets tough one of the ways to contend with the often changing and notoriously difficult weather conditions is to simply set down some place and wait it out. To the bush pilot, that "some place" could as easily be a gravel bar, snow field or frozen lake as a legitimate airstrip with a convenient hotel where hot coffee and a good dinner are waiting.

So, with this in mind, let's look over the items that need to be in a winter survival kit. It goes without saying that you should get the best quality items you can afford and not skimp. When you need your kit you need it badly, and quality differences can not only provide some comfort, but also make the difference between life and death. The reason for this is because comfort has a subtle psychological consideration going for it beyond the merely sybaritic, since the ability to pitch a comfortable camp goes a long way towards encouraging a sane and rational attitude towards safe weather operating practices.

  • Sleeping bags. In the interior it can get down to -70 degrees F/-57 degrees C at times, and, while that is an extreme, it mandates sleeping bags of the highest quality. Mummy bags are both more compact and warmer than rectangular bags, so they are the bags of choice. A good way to go is to get one rated to -30 degrees F/-34 degrees C as the main bag, and then get a slightly lighter one as an inner bag. This light one can also serve as a summer bag. Any of the top quality goosedown bags, such as those sold by Recreational Equipment, Inc., and North Face, will do the job well.

  • Mats. A mat is needed under the bag, and a good quality foam is the type to get. Air mattresses should not be used, for they do not provide adequate insulation against the cold that will be seeping up from the ground.

  • Tent. The best tents for airplane use are the type that have an external frame which permits them to be erected without stakes on rock, frozen gravel, or ice. Over the external frame is a separate rain fly, and the space between the two walls allows water vapor to escape. I currently use North Face VE-24 tents in my survival kits.

  • Ax. Something is needed to cut wood, and a Hudson Bay ax, with a sheath, will do the job well. I keep a short file in my tool kit for dressing the prop when necessary, and this file also keeps my ax in good condition.

  • Tool kit. All airplanes operated in the bush must have a small tool kit on board. Consider how you would feel if, just prior to takeoff, you discovered a small mechanical problem (perhaps with your preheating equipment, or with a ski bungee) that could easily be fixed in a few minutes...if only you had not left your tool kit at home base. And you are now facing a 110 mile hike out through deep snow in thirty-below-zero temperatures to get it...

  • Hunting knife. A small one will do; the one I use has a 4" blade.

  • Packboards or knapsacks. You will need something to store your survival kit in, and these will serve a double purpose, for if you have to walk out, they will permit you to carry your kit with you.

  • Food and cooking utensils. Freeze-dried is the best choice since it is the lightest. A small nested cooking set can be purchased at almost any sporting goods store.

  • Medical kit. Its need is obvious. Ask your doctor to help you put one together; remember, you might have to deal with severe pain and other serious problems.

  • Flashlight, matches in a waterproof container, nylon cord, snare wire, and fishing line. Throw these in your emergency kit too.

  • Gun. This is required by state law in Alaska. If you are able to place your shots well, a single-shot Thompson Contender handgun with two barrels would be a weight-saving choice. One barrel in .35 Remington will do nicely for moose and caribou, and one in .22 LR will take care of small game. Another option would be two handguns, a .44 magnum for large game and a .22 for small. However, guns are very much a matter of personal choice, and you will have to make your own decisions on this score (note: in Canada, where handguns are prohibited, your choice is limited to either a rifle or shotgun).

  • Snowshoes. I prefer the trail model, for they work best for either packing down deep snow -- under some conditions necessary after a heavy snowfall so one can take off -- or, in an emergency, walking out. But the bearpaw style is smaller and lighter, and so is favored by many. Some of the new lightweight aluminum frame designs are finding their way into more and more kits; however, I have not yet tried them and so am unable to make any suggestions as to their suitability.

  • Clothing. It MUST be a cardinal rule in winter operations NEVER to allow a passenger on board who is not dressed for the outside weather along the route. This always means parka, boots, cap and gloves. If your passenger says, "Hell, it's only a short distance and my brother-in-law's meeting me," let your competitor take him, if he's fool enough. As for the pilot, while I have heard of cases where some pilot went down wearing only light city clothes and paid dearly for it, I find this hard to believe. No Northern pilot could be that stupid. I hope.

While this completes the basic survival kit for the people on board, you still have to consider the airplane. It too needs its survival kit:

  • Tiedown ropes. A complete set should always be brought along, for high winds are one of the major weather problems in the north. It would be a less than satisfying experience to make a safe emergency landing in strong, wildly-gusting winds, only to end up having to watch your plane go cartwheeling down the lake a few minutes later because ropes were not on board.

    Survival kit ropes need to be longer than those used at home base, for in the bush you will often have to use natural features like trees, bushes, driftwood, etc., or make your own tiedown anchors. During winter, a good technique is to freeze three pieces of wood (e.g., lengths of birch, cottonwood, or thin spruce about twenty-four inches long) to the ground by digging through the snow, placing them in the holes with a piece of rope tied to each, then filling the holes with snow and pouring water over them. In a sudden windstorm, this type of tiedown has held my plane secure in gusts of well over 100 knots.

  • Wing and engine covers. You need these for obvious reasons; they should not be left back at home base.

  • Preheating equipment. There are many ways to skin this cat. I prefer an old-fashioned blowtorch -- two with the Cessna 180/185 -- that can use avgas as a fuel, along with three lengths of 3" stovepipe. One end of the stovepipe is placed in the bottom of the cowling, and the other end receives the torches. This method works very well down to temperatures of -50 degrees F/-46 degrees C, is light and fast, and the blowtorches have the added advantage of being able to help melt snow and start a greenwood fire. One final point: keep your fire extinguisher handy. While I have never needed mine, you never know...

To this basic kit (people and airplanes), always add those odds and ends which personal experience, or your spouse, suggests are useful. And, since you always have weight and bulk to take into consideration, your decisions here will often approach the Solomonic.

Which brings us to a matter of psychological import. It is necessary to consider your survival kit as just another part of the airplane's basic equipment list, like floats or wheel-skis, and treat it as such. You need it to operate in the North, and that's the way it goes. The room and weight left over is for payload, and if an extra trip must be made every once in a while because of the kit's presence, so be it. Only a fool risks leaving it behind because of customer, boss, or family demands.

* * *

The snow began to fall thickly as I put the plane away for the night, blocking the skis, putting the engine and wing covers on, and making tiedowns. And soon the only light was from the campfire where my wife was making dinner, the tent set up behind her with mats and sleeping bags already placed. Then she was beside me with a cup of coffee, and, as I took a sip, I made a final inspection of the airplane before accompanying her back to the fire. Beyond its circle of light the night was dark, and the snow made small hissing sounds as it fell into the flames...

Dinner was not freeze-dried from our survival kit, but salmon (the gift of a friend), potatoes, and vegetables, with a salad and cornbread and more hot coffee. Then it was time for bed after a long and full day, settling into our sleeping bags in the snug tent, and I was asleep almost before my head hit the rolled-up parka that served as my pillow...

...only to awake, what seemed just moments later, to find it early morning. As I opened the flap, the moonlight flowed in, casting gentle shadows, outlining the airplane waiting on the lake covered in its mantle of fresh snow. Beyond it, the mountains rose, clear and sharply etched, and above them the stars shone down with a hard brilliance. The air had the dense quality of deep cold, and, as I got dressed and put my mukluks on, it stung my hands, sending me reaching for my gloves.

Pouring a cup of hot coffee from the thermos my wife had thoughtfully filled just before going to bed, I wandered out onto the lake and over to the airplane for a look at the thermometer attached to the wing strut. In the glow of my pocket flashlight it read -44 degrees F/-42 degrees C.

Obviously, a high pressure system had moved in during the night, bringing with it a potential problem: the river in front of my place was still open in spots and this type of situation -- very cold, dry air over "warm" water -- was perfect for the formation of steam fog. Such fog, often forming very rapidly just after sunrise, could easily spread from one side of the narrow valley to the other, locking us out of our airstrip and forcing us to RON once again (although this time there was a friend's cabin nearby, which, safe from the fog due to its location, could be used if necessary). There was no question but that we had to get moving, and fast. It was going to get cold, seriously cold, and I had a feeling we were in for a spell of -60 degrees F/-51 degrees C or worse. A spell that could last weeks.

So, stepping out from under the wing, on my way back to the tent to start the fire, wake my wife, and begin the process of preheating the airplane's engine and getting the wing covers and snow off, my thoughts occupied with the task at hand, I moved around the tiedown rope -- and, as I did, something about the cast of the moonlight on the snow attracted my attention, its ethereal beauty, the way it appeared to lie not only over but inside the flakes, lighting them softly from within...and it seemed almost as if...as if...

...I found I could not express my thoughts as my gaze moved over the lake in its stillness, taking it in, then climbed past the rugged mountains to the sky. And as I focused on the stars through the shimmering Northern Lights and the distorting lens of spacetime, the stars seemed to be asking the old questions, questions we have always had with us, but which now seemed as fresh, as new, as if whispered for the first time: who are we? why are we here? what is reality? what is the purpose of it all?...

Surely the deepest, most important of the mysteries.

Then, from the far side of the lake, came the howl of a wolf. Behind the camp, close, another wolf responded, the sounds flowing through the still beauty in a sense of ancient timelessness.

And somehow there seemed an answer there, more felt than understood, but an answer nonetheless.

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye as my wife came up beside me. She said nothing -- she didn't have to. We stood close together gazing at our world, its beauty and wonder and mystery, until dawn washed the stars out and served notice that a new day was beginning.

A little over two hours later we were in the air, our tracks behind us on the lake, camp clean as if we had never been there, and shortly thereafter we rounded the bend and saw our place before us. Out of the open spots in the river the steam fog was rising, spreading, licking the edges of our short strip, already covering one end, and I came back off the power, lowered the flaps, and touched down gently on the fresh-fallen snow. And, as I was tying down the airplane after draining the oil and putting the wing and engine covers on, I could not help but consider the experience and reflect that "emergency landings" and "survival conditions" were not all bad.

Not for those who are prepared both physically and psychologically.


This excerpt from F. E. Potts' Guide to Bush Flying: Concepts and Techniques for the Pro Copyright © 1993 by F. E. Potts, all rights reserved.

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