Guest Editorial: My Affair With The Aleutian Goose
Guest Editorial written by Donald Todd – “A copy of your orders please”, said the master-of-arms as I stepped onto the tarmac at the Naval Air Facility, Adak Island on July 30, 1991. I had what was left of my Mark Air ticket from Anchorage and a carry-on bag that was being sniffed by the German Shepherd dog that was partnered with these two guys. Our chief pilot at the Alaska office of aircraft services had assigned me to join Captain Dave Henley as his co-pilot on Aleutian Goose N780 to continue a mission counting sea otters with four U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service people.
I was escorted to the terminal by my new companions to confirm that I had official business on the facility and for a rapid background check. “You’d better hope he doesn’t have any warrants out for him”, said Dave to Janice, with a hint of humor on the phone call back to the head office. A couple of my high school hi-jinks came involuntarily to mind, but after an hour of constant human and canine accompaniment everywhere I was cleared.
After checking into our cozy NFWS multi-bedroom cabin Dave and I were approaching the Aleutian Goose that had been the object of my recent instruction and study. It stood proud on its narrow landing gear, nose and oversized windshield looking skyward, Garrett OV-10 Bronco engines close to and slightly turned away from the cockpit and its no-nonsense, mostly brown and white weathered paint looking properly utilitarian under the dull grey overcast Aleutian sky!
My primary impression as we accelerated down the runway and into the air with plastic sliding windows and our David Clark headsets blocking part of the engine and prop noise was that flying this airplane would keep a pilot engaged and honest. Any reluctance to use enough arm or leg strength was soon disregarded and a certain amount of continuous bank and yaw correction required, and the absence of an autopilot soon had me feeling that the Adak island weather had turned from cool to tropical. Of course, it was very satisfying to get acquainted with this custom, purpose modified, long range wildlife observation flying machine. Like a high maintenance mistress, she had certain demands but think of the places she could take me!
Aleutian weather took over that evening, so we two pilots and our four observer passengers went on a weather hold. My new book titled “The Thousand Mile War” helped pass the time.
On August 2nd a two-hour flight brought us to the radar-festooned island of Shemya for fuel and then ten more minutes of flying saw us approaching Attu Island. Were those brown hut shaped things some sort of dwelling? No, they were old fuel tanks, a small part of the leftovers, buildings, and military junk strewn around the area of Massacre Bay. Since the only people living on Attu were a few Coast Guardsmen at the Loran Station and a few temporary visitors it will probably stay there. But what are those small wooden ships next to the shore? As we found out after we landed and walked to the beach, some Russians were re-enacting the second voyage of Vitus Bering and with the Coast Guard permission were using the shallow water and the beach to repair their ships after encountering a storm. After a couple of days, they sailed eastward.
We were guests of the Coast Guard during our stay and when weather permitted we counted sea otters. We flew at 500 feet above the ocean in patterns around islands. If you think of an island from a top view and then imagine that it’s a sea urchin with many spikes, then those spikes resembled our assigned flight patterns. The airplane had an Omega Navigation System and my primary job was to continuously load latitude and longitude waypoints into the now long-obsolete machine while Captain Dave wrestled the Aleutian Goose along the unwieldy flight patterns. Our four wildlife observers were diligently looking for and keeping a count of sea otters, which are still on a slow recovery from widespread slaughter for their pelts by Russian fur hunters who enslaved and abused the Aleut people with no regard for man or beast.
On a clear sunny day, the area around Attu is a place of splendid scenery and wildlife but during normal weather wind, fog, and rain prevail in this place where the weather for North America begins, and before August was half over the summer window for decent weather was growing short lived. As we prepared our plan one clear morning a look out the window revealed a giant fog bank advancing toward Attu and within an hour, days of fog and rain had begun.
Being a coast guardsman stationed at this remote site had its effects; the tiny room lined with books that served as a library had a cot and some personal effects added that day, I noticed, and as I was peacefully reading and watching the fog and rain through the window the apparent new resident came in and announced that I was in his room, and to shove off. He was evidently mad at his roommate, everybody there, or the world. As a guest I gave up what had been a community space before he usurped it, went outside and flew a kite in the fog.
Tiring of kite flying, it was time for a walkabout, wearing virtually every garment, including two jackets, that I had brought. No trees, no bears, lots of wildflowers and stark, rugged beauty. The rusty drums, discarded piles of radio gear, a huge stern drive and other military debris lent a ghostly testament to the relatively recent past. And what if I was standing here as an Aleut native in the year, say, 1675? Perhaps ready to take to my driftwood, bone and sea mammal skin kayak wearing my seal intestine rain suit with thousands of stitches and roof-like rain shedding hat to spear a seal for my family? There was probably no member of mankind more in harmony with their environment than the people who once lived independently on this very island where I stood.
I came upon a cement relic of an old military dorm that had been re-purposed as a vacation home for visiting birders. The former residents’ names and their bird counts written on the walls of the dank rooms showed that a visit to Attu could increase ones’ North American bird count by well over a hundred, and many people had come over the year at considerable expense. The Attu website still exists; www.tsuru-bird.net/attu/.
That evening we were invited out for supper! Another one of the deserted navy buildings located about a mile from the loran station served as a summer home for a wildlife researcher and two assistants. The flat roofed cement abode was surprisingly livable, and the main course was freshly caught halibut and salmon cooked over charcoal. Later the conversation in the cozy abode with the propane stove indicated that airborne sea otter counting was about to end for the short summer.
A couple of days later we were ready to proceed on our flight back to Anchorage from Attu and as I recall the Omega system showed 1350 nautical miles as the crow flies, but our route was Attu – Adak – Cold Bay – Lake Hood in Anchorage.
In the more recent past I met a pilot who had grown up in Alaska and as a young man had flown the author James Michener, who had been doing research for his novel ALASKA, from Shemya to Anchorage in some type of Cessna Conquest in which he could manage to attain somewhere around 40,000 feet to save on fuel. When he gave position reports to center airline pilots would incredulously ask for clarification concerning what kind of airplane he was flying.
With the Aleutian Goose we flew just over eight hours total at or below 10,000 feet. When one pilot got tired of dampening yaw and applying constant little pressures to the yoke to keep pitch and bank where it belonged then the other pilot could hand fly for a while and I was always ready to take my turn. Time for a smoke? Simply activate the high-performance ventilation system by sliding the plastic side window back a couple of inches and not only was all of the smoke instantly evacuated but forward motion and properly running engines were confirmed to an even greater degree.
Landing on Lake Hood was our only water landing but at least once I got to see the wing floats shed their disguise as tip tanks and with the flick of a switch, whir down into the float position. A splendid splashdown executed by Captain Dave, then wheels down, taxi up the ramp, floats up, then to the Anchorage OAS parking lot, shut down and disembark. The C-23 Sherpa was ready to fly again and soon I was walking away from the Aleutian Goose for the last time. As I took one last look back she appeared to have the aura of a proud lady, a little aged but still in the prime of life, who might beckon me to return.
But she stood aloof, so I averted my eyes and continued to walk away, never to see her again.
Donald Todd lives in Slater, Iowa and learned to fly in 1978 at age 36. He is a retired 14.000 hour ATP, CFI & CFII who still flies for the fun of it. Besides working at Iowa State University as an instructor and flying a Shrike Commander, he spent time at Elliott Aviation in Des Moines flying Beechcraft King Air 90s and 200s.
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