Above the Wilderness

Tuesday, July 13, 1999 - Fairbanks to Circle Hot Springs, Alaska and back - Invite 100 Alaskans to your party, and chances are, 20 of them will cling together and chat about thermals, or losing engines or the price of Av-gas, because one out of five Alaskans are pilots. Home of the legendary "bush pilot" our 49th state hosts more aviators, per capita, than anywhere in the U.S., if not the world. Tour the state, and you will see more cars with wings than you thought existed. Chat with a farmer long enough, and he (or she) might just take you up. This is the state where it is perfectly legal, and not uncommon, to land a plane on any stretch of public roadway, as long as it is out of the city limits.

One of the country's busiest small-plane airports, in Fairbanks.

During my well-honed quest for article subjects, I stumbled upon (the quest involves much stumbling) a classic bush pilot. Operating out of a small hanger, with office(s) in a camper trailer, Karl Braun has been flying the Alaskan bush for years. He now owns three planes, and hires pilots to fly freight for his company; Bellair. Braun checks out my web site, and jumps at the opportunity to take the afternoon off and fly me to Circle Hot Springs. "It's as common as going to the store for a gallon of milk," he says, as we climb into the cockpit of his Cessna.

"The Cessna 172 is the VW Bug of airplanes," he says. "But, unlike the Bug, it is extremely crash-worthy." I wonder what he means by "crash-worthy." I wonder what he means by "crash." After walking around the plane, inspecting things, for what seems like forever, he gets in, and we rub shoulders in the tiny cockpit. Watching him refer to a checklist, I must decide; "should I worry that he needs to rely on this, or be thankful that he does rely on this?" Then I recall that all pilots use these things.

Braun did not grow up staring at the sky, dreaming about taking wing and soaring with the birds. "I couldn't have cared less," he says. He had been a part owner of an IHOP in Connecticut, when he sought a life-change. He had considered some type of career in writing, but dreaded English classes. He had an inkling that he wanted to be an underwater photographer, and Florida Institute of Technology offered a course in that (and he wouldn't have to take English!) so he moved to Florida. On enrollment day, he learned that the class had been cancelled. FIT also offers flight training, and on a whim, he took an introductory flight. Somewhere over south Florida, the instructor let him make a descending, left-hand turn, and that did it for Braun. "I thought that was so cool," he says. "I decided to get a Bachelor's Degree in aviation - even if I had to take English."

The instruments of the Cessna 172, "the VW Bug of airplanes." Wonder if the new model has a flower vase...
After some conversation with the tower, we taxi and take off into "the vast expanse of nothingness," as he calls the skies above Alaska. We head northwest, over the Little China River. In the great, wide wilderness of Alaska's interior, a pilot can do as he pleases. If you see a herd of antelope and you want to circle for a while, you can do that. If you see a flat mountain top and you feel like landing, you can do that. It is the epitome of flying for the joy of flying. "There's no traffic lights." Braun says. "It's an independence kind of thing."

Not only is flying a lifestyle for over 100,000 independent Alaskans, but it keeps the rest of them in touch. The U.S. Postal Service flies mail to Alaska, and hires private pilots to fly mail from Fairbanks and Anchorage to smaller hubs, like Nome, Bethel, Kozebue and Barrow, and also to remote villages around the state.

Braun cut his aviation teeth in Alaska, flying freight around the west coast, to places like Alakanuk, Mekoryuk, Eek, Dutch Harbor and Point Hope. "I can't tell you how many times I landed on gravel bars," he says, "and slept in the plane." The first years of his marriage were highlighted with the young couple taking overnight flights to remote Alaskan villages. he says. He notes that, in the lower 48, pilots can fly no more than 1,000 hours per year, but the need is so great in Alaska, that the limit here is 1,400 hours. "A pilot can easily burn that up around here," he says. "Then he can take a few months off."

Having flown thousands of hours, Braun is becoming more cautious. He quotes the popular saying; "There are bold pilots, and there are old pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." Wherever possible, we keep a dirt road, or river in sight - not for navigation, but for a place to land should we lose an engine - excuse me the engine. About the only foolish move he makes, is letting me take the controls. "Your airplane," he says, without even a hint of sheer terror.

Braun pilots this plane with strategy. If this were an airliner, he could just plow through the air, without much concern for varying winds, but this plane weighs less than my friend's refrigerator, and it gets pushed around a lot. One strategy is keeping us out of the clouds. "There are things in the clouds that could hurt you, Mark," he says.

"Oh yeah?" I say. "Like what?"

"Like, mountains."

So... I push the yoke forward, and we descend below the clouds. Braun continually surveys the area where we are going. We are about to fly over a saddle in a mountain range, and the winds can be very unpredictable ahead, so he circles once, getting a feel for the wind, and putting us into a favorable position, before pressing through. There are certain dangerous situations which even the best pilots cannot get out of, but which the best pilots stay out of.

This is really great fun. We are flying "below the terrain," with mountains on either side of us, and we swoop down, and glide over, and dive, and soar and all those things which make you feel just like a bird. I seem to have the hang of this turning the yoke and pushing the rudder thing, when Braun grabs the controls and banks us hard left. Below us are two military planes, which are much larger than us, and flying against us. Though we are hundreds of yards away, Braun is taking no chances, and we divert into a descending left bank. Cool - really cool.

Karl Braun, after landing in the wilderness. In Alaska, your runway can be pavement, gravel, grass, clay, water or ice.

We arrive at Circle Hot Springs, and we circle the resort first, so they'll send a van out to get us, then Braun drops us down on the the dirt landing strip. Sure enough, a van arrives, and takes us to the resort. Soon, I'm eating a delicious hamburger only a few miles from the Arctic Circle, and it is one of the best burgers I've had, and Braun even picks up the tab. After lunch, the conversation turns to destiny. "Do you sometimes feel that you have used up all of your luck points?" I ask him.

One of the beautiful cabins at
Circle Hot Springs.

"I believe that God's in control," he says. "I believe it with all my heart." Still, he is growing more cautious. Now that he has earned his mechanic's license, he appreciates what can go wrong under the hood. "An improperly torqued bolt, a twisted safety wire, finding parts left over after a rebuild..." he says. These are some reasons why he now enjoys working on planes more than flying them. "If I have a problem when fixing an engine," he says. "I can take a break, have a sip of coffee, and study the problem. You can't do that up here."

It's a good thing Braun has his instructor's rating, because, without it, he would not have been able to cope with our landing in Fairbanks as well as he did. Like a kid showing somebody his new slingshot, he says; "want to try landing?" And I say; "sure!" like the fool that I am. He tells me to push forward on the yoke, which pulls our nose down, and it just doesn't feel right to me, but I do it anyway. We approach the runway, and there is no wind at all to complicate this landing, but boy, we are coming down fast.

"OK, let off the throttle, to 1,500 rpm," he says, and I pull the knob back. I wasn't really prepared for this. I mean, it's not like he asked me ahead of time; "would you like to land this thing?" No, he asked at the last, blasted second. I guess this was to avoid anxiety, but c'mon, he could have... "Pull back," he says.

"How much? Pull back how much?" I am NOT panicing.

"That's OK, now ease up, get your nose down a little," he says. Why does he want my nose - our nose - down? I don't get it. Shouldn't our nose be up? We're going to just plow right into the freaking ground, I just know it! When I watch those airplanes on TV land, their nose is always UP. The back wheels hit, and then the front. MAN, DOESN'T THIS GUY WATCH TV? "Good, good, nose down, Mark," he says, as the ground races toward us.

"Karl, the trees look like
needles from up here."

"That's what they feel like
when you hit them."

I think it's just great that this Earth is hurtling through space at thousands of miles a second, and that I am attached to it in some way by its atmosphere and its gravitational pull, but right now, we are moving at two different speeds, in different directions, and I am heading right for this big marble, and everything in this great, big universe is completely irrelevant right now, because I"m about to smack right into a planet.

And I find it somewhat comforting, to know that Karl is a religious man, and I look over to him, to make sure he is praying, and is he praying? No, he's laughing! I watch the runway coming at us, and I just know we are going to crash, and then I hear the stall alarm go off - just for a half-second - and I can't scream, because I am near hyperventilation, and then our wheels touch. They all touch, and we land, and we are on the land, and not in the land, and we are safe, and I am OK, and that's all right, really. I'm fine.

"My wife sees airplanes as a way to get somewhere," Karl Braun tells me, as we secure the Cessna to the tarmac. "But, I see airplanes as a passionate love affair." So, I hope Braun continues this love affair with aviation and Alaska, flying over her gentle, sensuous terrain, skirting the tumultuous meteorology, watching her age with the heat of wildfires and the cancer of developement, and soaring above and sweetly caressing her vast expanse of nothingness, above her beautiful and untamed wilderness.

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