BOOK REVIEW, Nine Lives of an Alaska Bush Pilot

Eichner, Ken, edit. Robin Taylor and Suzanne Eichner, NINE LIVES OF AN ALASKA BUSH PILOT. Taylor Press. Soft bound, illustrated with four maps and 120 photographs. $19.95.

This is a pilotís book. A Bush pilotís book, full of ways to do things in Alaska, such as how to land a float plane on ice (be sure itís strong enough), how to land in fast-flowing rivers (head for the deep water and watch out for turns; there youíll use the opposite aileron to bury the float on the outside of the turn), and other practical matters, most of them learned through experience.

Eichnerís first transportation bout was driving a bus in Ketchikan. That was all right, but the sky beckoned, so he scraped the money together to take flying lessons in 1944 and there he found his true love. After flying float planes for several years, he had a chance to learn helicopters and became one of the first private chopper pilots in Alaska.

All was not easy sailing. He and friends put a lot of time and money into prospecting and staking claims. Unfortunately, his money was to be made in flying, not in minerals. He began his own company and had trouble keeping pilots and raising the funds to continue, but gradually trained, reliable pilots were hired and the firm, TEMSCO, began doing well financially.

Like all good aviation books, mercy flights and rescue missions are highlighted. Among the most impressive was taking part in the rescue of the survivors of a terrible avalanche at a mining camp in the mountains of British Columbia in 1965. The Granduc mine normally was reached by flying over a 5,000-ft mountain range, but that was impossible in February. The only feasible route was to fly from Ketchikan to the Chickamin River, then up that river to the Leduc River at its source at the Leduc Glacier, where the camp was located on a knob above the south lobe. To make matters worse, further avalanches were occurring all around and the communication shack at the mine was demolished.

Eichner went in with a helicopter on big floats, carrying a doctor and medicine. After spending a night on the glacier and removing the ice from the helicopter the next morning, he was able to make it to the camp. Working with Canadian choppers, they successfully moved the surviving miners down to a cabin at sea level where they could be flown in or taken aboard government cutters for the trip to Ketchikan. Twenty of the fifty miners were saved.

The one criticism of these heroic actions this reviewer has is Eichnerís distaste for the press. He doesnít seem to realize that making the national news and having reporters present and phoning go together. Being thrilled the operation was "...focusing attention both on Southeast, and the viability of helicopters for remote search and rescue operations like this one" and saying reporters were trying to "weasel their way in" to the avalanche site and describing them as "like a pack of dogs thrown a single bone" when he tossed a roll of film to one journalist shows a complete lack of understanding of live news coverage.

Helicopters can perform miracles of picking stranded people off ledges, retrieving folks from sinking vessels, hauling freight, and placing radio repeating towers on mountains; all in the dayís work. Escaping dynamite blasts and exploding propane containers happen occasionally as well. The white-knuckle flyer should be reassured at how often plane and helicopter crashes result in fright for the passengers and repairs for the vehicles, but no lasting damage. Just take a well thought-out pack of survival gear and youíll be all right.

The non-pilot will likely find much of the book, such as the instructions on landing in a river bordered with tall trees a bit tiresome; "I turned away from the trees doing a 180-degree turn to set me up on my downwind leg. When I got close to the river, I turned 90 degrees. As I reduced the power, I watched the RPM very closely, and I didnít get an over speed. It didnít dawn on me for a split second that the engine had quit...At the time the new turbine engine installations were having trouble with the warning systems, and we often pulled a circuit breaker to turn the false warning off" is the sort of thing best saved for a time when pilots are sitting around exchanging horror stories.

Overall, the strengths of the book are the photographs of people, places, and aviation around Ketchikan and the affectionate stories about people he has known over the years. Ken Eichner is assured his place in the aviation lore of Alaska.

D. L.

 

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