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: Continue reading At Play in Ted Stevens Crash, A Familiar Culprit