At Play in Ted Stevens Crash, A Familiar Culprit

The news out of Alaska over the last few days, about the air crash near Dillingham that killed former senator Ted Stevens, is sad but not entirely surprising. Flying bush planes in the north country is by far the most dangerous kind of aviation in the United States. The details of the crash have yet to emerge, but one thing is clear: the flight ended amid weather conditions that were marginal at best, with low clouds and rain obscuring rough terrain. These are all elements in a type of dangerous flying that has killed many, many Alaskan pilots over the years: scud running.

Scud running, simply put, is flying by visual flight rules through weather conditions that could close in around you at any time. A few years ago, I traveled to Alaska to spend a week with a legendary bush pilot named John Graybill. Every other bush pilot I spoke to was in awe of John’s stick-and-rudder skill. At the time, in 2000, he was 70 years old, and had survived no fewer than five potentially fatal crashes. He was quite blunt in assessing the reason for his repeated survival: he was, he said, simply very lucky.

Scud running is particularly dangerous in Alaska because it is so common. In the Lower 48, most pilots fly to destinations that have sophisticated radar navigation systems. In Alaska, a good percentage of flights are bound for airstrips that are little more than patches of dirt, or a strip of sand or quiet patch of river. The only way to get is by eyeballing it. So if you fly into a cloud, and find yourself unable to see the ground, you’re really screwed. Once you’re disoriented, you could easily fly into a mountain, or a tree, or what have you.

The problem is that flying in the Alaskan bush inevitably involves some kind of scud running. For one thing, you never know when the weather might change on you halfway through the flight. For another, bush pilots inevitably feel pressure from clients or their bosses to take their load where it needs to go. Ceiling low? Pass obscured by clouds? You’ll be able to pick your way through. With enough experience, pilots may begin to feel they have an intuitive understanding of when such gambits will work and when they won’t. In reality, they’re counting on luck, as Graybill said. Every flight into marginal weather conditions is a game of Russian Roulette.

Graybill told me that when he first arrived in Alaska in the 1950s, he took advice from an old-timer, Glenn Gregory, who drummed into him the first rule of bush flying: “He told me, ‘Don’t lose ground contact flying in Alaska. Don’t do it.’ I had grounds to remember those words later on.”

Later Graybill told me the full story, which provided a vivid understanding of how a pilot can be lured into scud running, and why it can be so dangerous:

It was 1957 or ’58. I had a pretty good load of hunters, there was about five of them, I was flying out of Circle Hot Springs, and there’s a lake there called Dead Man’s Lake, and I was keeping my float plane on that. The guys had good luck, they got black bear and moose. They had a truck there, so they loaded it up with their trophies and went back to Fairbanks. I was going to head back to Fairbanks, but the clouds were lying right down on the mountains, and it had been two or three weeks since I had been home, and I was anxious to get back to Fairbanks. The clouds looked like they had cleared enough so that I could squeeze through the mountains. Mistake number one.

I was working through the valleys, following the road the best I could, and taking whatever valley looked good. Finally, there was no way I was going to get through, so I turned around to get back to Circle. It started raining, and the clouds came down the ground around me. I kept turning and flying up and down the valley, but there was nowhere to go.

Finally there was nothing to do except set down in the willows or try to fly up through it. Mistake number two: I tried to fly up through it. I should have set down in the willows. It would have damaged the plane, but it would have been minor.

So I pulled up into the soup, and I started losing it. When you’re in the clouds without instruments, it’s hard to keep your wings level and your climbing atttitude constant. You slip off one wing and go into what they call a spiral. I knew I had mountains in close proximity on either side, and my knees where shaking, I was covered in sweat, and I was making promises about going to church every Sunday

A couple of times I managed to neutralize and the plane would fly better. On the third time I happened to see ground through the skylight. I was on my side, looking at the hillside. I was not quite upside down, but when I saw ground through the skylight I thought I was. I yanked back on the stick by instinct, and hit the hillside going uphill. I was going at least a hundred. Fortunately it was a pretty smooth. I said to myself, self, I’ve got it made. I assumed I was down and I was safe. I went through a rockpile, and then a ravine, and when I finally crawled out there was nothing but me and an engine.

Not a scratch. Not a bruise or a scratch. I jumped out of what was left of the plane and started walking downhill without a backward glance at the airplane. I was just so gald to be alive. After a couple of hours I came out on the Steese Highway. By then the sun was starting to shine and the blue sky was starting to show. If I had just waited three hours I could have flown in clear weather.

I flagged down a truck and caught a ride to Fairbanks. By the time I got there it was nothing but sunshine and blue sky. I did not tell the wife about the wrecked plane, because that represented our life savings, and I really didn’t feel like discussing it. I told the wife the hunting trip had gone fine, omitting to tell her “except fo the wrecked plane.”

We got a call from the FAA, wanting to hear about the wrecked plane. She said, “No , he didn’t wreck his plane, he’s sitting right here.” The next call was from a reporter wanting to know about the wreck three miles off the Steese Highway. They could see it on this peak just off the road. So the jig was up.

Ironically, Stevens had been a proponent of navigational equipment that would allow bush pilots to better deal with the kind of spatial disorientation that has killed so many pilots while scud running. But the plane he went down in was not equipped with it.

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