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My flight like the one that killed Ted Stevens

Bush flights in Alaska. What a rich and treacherous tradition they represent. And what an end for Ted Stevens, a real-deal frontier partisan who must have logged a million miles over his beloved tundra in flights like the one that tragically ended his life earlier today.

As soon as I saw the photo of the kind of plane that crashed with Stevens aboard (along with former NASA head Sean O'Keefe and eight others), I thought "I've been on that flight!" It was the plane ride of a lifetime, the first leg of a two-week backpacking trip I made on assignment for The Post in the Arctic National Wildlife in 2002. I'll never forget the seat-of-his-pants bravado of the pilot as he wove between the ridges and played dog-fight with the swirling snow squalls.

(My plane was a 1952 DeHavilland Beaver; Stevens' was reported to be a '57 DeHavilland Otter, the slightly bigger model).

And I also remember thinking: for some people, this must be the last thrill they ever experience.

Here's the passage from that story:

It's not easy to reach the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as befits what may be America's most remote patch of public wilderness. The tourist season is mostly squeezed into a few not-quite-so-cold weeks between spring melt in late May and the mosquito bloom in late June. And most trips begin as mine had on a Tuesday last month, with a dragonfly flight through the corridors of the Brooks Range in a six-seat crate of a bush plane.

I'm part of a 10-person Sierra Club backpacking trip that had convened the night before in Fairbanks, Alaska. This morning had been a steady progression toward the untamed: a 200-mile prop flight due north from Fairbanks; a day of waiting in the rain on the gravel airstrip of an off-the-grid Indian town Arctic Village; and, now, a 90-minute barnstorm into the wilderness proper in a 1952 DeHavilland Beaver on its 10th engine.

Pilot Dirk Nickisch munched potato chips with a map of the refuge in his lap, scanning the narrow valleys for a clear route though the clouds. He had already ferried half our party out to the Aichilik River, but we suddenly found ourselves flying low in a snowstorm, pressed down by a lowering cotton ceiling. Ridges and peaks faded behind a scrim of white, and Nickisch peeled up like a fighter pilot when another route closed up.

"We may have to put down on the Sheenjek [River] and try again in the morning," Nickisch warned us. He keeps food and a sleeping bag in his plane and spent 109 unplanned nights in the wilderness two seasons ago.

We were well north of the treeline now. A few stories below, we saw our first caribou trotting along the macrame webbing of rivers and streams that drain these mountains of snow and glacier melt. On the foggy slopes -- sometimes above wing level -- Nickisch pointed out dall sheep clinging to the scree. "Your friends saw a grizzly on the Aichilik about a mile above your camp," he reported over our headphones.

The snow was heavier now, but suddenly the landscape opened up. We were over the coastal plain. "I think I can get you in, but I'm not sure I'll be able to get out again myself." He banked around, flew low over the scattering caribou and back upland between two low ridges. A mile upriver, we buzzed a cluster of snow-covered tents next to a gravel bar. He came around and dropped smoothly and quickly onto the tundra, coming to a stop with a neat pivot 30 yards from the endmost tent. We were in.

By Steve Hendrix  | August 10, 2010; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  More on the story  | Tags:  Alaska bush flights, Alaska crash, Alaska plane crash, Stevens killed, Stevens plane crash, Ted Stevens, Ted Stevens killed, bush flights  
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Traveling by small plane in the wilderness is an experience that you can never forget. When I formerly lived in Idaho, I rode a five-seater out to cover a news story. Swooping out of the sky onto a tiny grass landing strip made me catch my breath, but it was nothing compared to taking off. The winds had picked up such that the pilot didn't think he could fly us out and over the treeline. We had to split into two groups to make it out. As pilot flew over the trees, you could feel the winds bucking the plane and see the trees just inches away. I had never before been so grateful to a pilot for his flying ability.

Posted by: ehoman | August 11, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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