Bush pilots: the New York cabbies of the last frontier

Jim Okonek swoops down like an Arctic tern in his single-engine Cessna 185, hovering 10,000 feet above the jagged foot of Mt. McKinley.

Below, glaciers finger their way through the pinnacles and peaks of North America's highest summit, while a setting sun burnishes the buckled spine of the Alaska Range, wriggling off toward the horizon.

''Incredible,'' cracks Mr. Okonek, in wool hat and shirt, scanning a horizon he has seen hundreds of times but which always looks a little different. ''Do you think I can interest you in a lot?''

Mr. Okonek is part-time bush pilot, part-time aerial tour guide, and full-time Alaska fan. He is one of hundreds of pilots who taxi people around the remote and rugged corners of the ''last frontier''--part of a fraternity of rural barnstormers who can light a small plane on a precarious mountain ridge or a snowcapped glacier.

Bush pilots are Alaska's answer to the New York cabdriver: The jobs are about equally perilous and the home-spun stories just as engaging. But they also provide an invaluable service in this unwieldy state, transportation.

In fact, the large number of people who fly here--1 in 40 has a pilot's license, more than 10 times the national average - symbolizes the state's transportation problem.

Harsh conditions are a chief impediment to economic development and result in sky-high prices for many goods in the ''bush.'' Foodstuffs have to be flown in or barged to rural villages. Some residents have resorted to having friends ship food by parcel post.

Money from the state's oil-enriched coffers is being used to help ease transportation problems. But the task is large. No need to remind Alaskans, for instance, that their 586,000-square-mile home encompasses four time zones and is crisscrossed by fewer roads than the state of Rhode Island.

Nearly half of these are below par. The state Department of Transportation estimates it would take $2.8 billion just to bring existing highways up to standard. Juneau, the humble state capital, can be reached only by air or ferry. The state has long debated the merits of stringing a roadway from Juneau to Haines, 90-odd miles to the north. But the tab would be at least $1 million a mile.

Five billion dollars will be needed to improve port and harbor facilities the next several years if the state is going to boost exports of coal, fish, and grain to other countries.

All this means the Alaskan bush pilot will continue to play an important part in this state's unusual transport network. Mr. Okonek came out of retirement for the fourth time recently to take over an air shuttle service headquartered in a log cabin here. The stout, silvery-haired aviator mainly flies mountain climbers up the side of Mt. McKinley. But he also shuttles mining prospectors, hunters, and tourists, making as many as eight flights a day.

''There is an element of risk involved,'' says the former Air Force officer. ''There's nobody there to tell you what the winds are. You've got to use your own judgment.''

A few houses up Talkeetna's only main street lives Cliff Hudson, one of the deans of Alaska bush pilots. Mr. Hudson, sturdy and brief in conversation, has been flying around the wilds for more than three decades. A one-time trapper and rail hand, he has landed on knife-edged mountain ridges, river sandbars, and glaciers.

''Anybody can probably learn bush piloting,'' he says offhandedly. A rack of moose antlers, chest-high, stands nearby in the living room--the trophy from a 1979 hunt. ''It's mainly knowing your aircraft, judging distances, and knowing how big rocks are.''

Violent weather changes and ''white out'' snow conditions make Alaska piloting a challenge. Standing on a glacier during a snowstorm, you can completely lose your sense of direction and topple over. But despite the hardships, Mr. Hudson plays down the perils of his job.

''You just look over your landing site and if it looks good enough to sit down, you sit down,'' he says. ''You don't worry about things.'' Said like a true bush pilot.

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