We get a call from the customers, still on the edge of nowhere, waiting for both workable weather and an airplane. Today the weather is starting to clear, and they expect it will be good enough to fly by this afternoon or tomorrow, so they're desperate to get the airplane so they can take advantage of the rare opportunity. Their cellphones don't work there, and the one landline available at whatever accommodations they are enduring is so poor that they are almost unintelligible when they call. Before the call is cut off, we understand that they want us there asap, and this message is underscored by numerous texts and calls from our own company president. Yes, we will do what we can to get there today as soon as possible! It's not like we usually dally.
I help the mechanic while my coworker returns to the hotel to reset his duty day, so we can still fly tonight even if it takes us all day to finish up. There also isn't that much left for an unskilled person to do, until it's time to close the cowls. I can crochet okay, but my lockwiring is really abysmal.
I sit next door in the departure lounge for the charter company and do paperwork and, when they give me permission to use their wireless, e-mail. The woman checking in the passengers is a licensed A&P (American version of an AME), and a licensed commercial pilot. We could have used her next door for the last couple of days! I ask her about her career goals, and she wants to be a missionary pilot. I think she's pretty much set. Strong faith: check. Local church outreach experience: check. Can fly airplane: check. Can fix it when it breaks down in the bush: check. She has a tiny bit of flying left to do to complete her licences, because she somehow holds a multi-engine commercial licence without the corresponding single engine one, something that isn't even possible in Canada, because commercial is a licence and multi is a rating for us. That doesn't sound too hard or even too expensive to finish up. I'm sure she'll meet the missionary goal quickly, and I wonder what she'll do next. This business might be a family run one too, so maybe someday she'll come back here and take it over.
At one point when she was talking about where she had flown already for mission work, she held up one hand in a thumbs down gesture, except with the index finger extended as well as the thumb. Picture the "loser!" gesture, but tilted so the thumb pointed down. With her hand held this way she tapped the back of her hand and the knuckle of her index finger, and immediately I saw what she was doing. That is a map of Alaska. The thumb is the panhandle and the index finger the Aleutian islands. It was so cool I immediately wondered what other states or places might have indigenous hand or other signals. I might have used my vertical palm to represent one of the basically rectangular western provinces, but it's not that representative. Do Italians point their toes slightly and tap parts of their foot and calf to describe their travels? Do you have a gesture or hand shape that represents your area? I need to know these things.
Meanwhile there's someone at dispatch answering radio calls. I'm not listening closely, and he's kind of around the corner, but after a while I realize that he's speaking in a Russian-English pidgin. Things like "Skazhi him I'll be tooda ootrom." This really shouldn't be news to me. It's no different than a New Brunswick Acadien sentence like "Je vais hanguper le telephone et callez-vous back." It's normal for a linguistic border with a history of occupation and regime change to have a transition zone where both languages or a combination are spoken. Why am I surprised here? I think it is because it is the Americans, the same people who take to the streets to fend off the encroachment of Spanish. But of course they aren't the same people. The United States is a huge and diverse country and the more I travel in it the more I am convinced that the only thing that unites the whole is the legend of being Americans. This isn't a criticism. If only every country composed of such diverse parts could embrace its nationhood so firmly that civil war was not on the menu.
I wonder now too at how many other borders is there angst about the prevalence of the language from the other side. Certainly Québec has fought hard over the years to maintain its linguistic identity in a sea of English. Do Finns freak out about so much Swedish being spoken? Is there angst in the Alsace Lorraine that there are people there who live their lives in the language of their ancestors, regardless of where the border happens to be this century?
My coworker decides he's done resting and comes back. We help recowl the airplane. I close up all the inspection ports with no screws left over or missing. There's nothing sitting on the wings, the cowls are on properly and there's oil in the engines. I go out to do a run up check. everything checks out, so I ask for high speed taxi on the runway and wear in the brakes according to the package instructions before returning to the hangar. There are no issues or oil leaks, but I spot an open access panel under the horizontal stabilizer I didn't notice before. I point it out guiltily and muse that I didn't have any screws left over. My coworker removed that one and he put the screws on a nearby barrel. Another reason to use a designated screw container, in my opinion. I finish the walkaround and that appears to be the only thing that was wrong.
We load everything back in the airplane, faster this time--because we now know the best way to load it, not because the clients aren't watching--and secure it down. Wonderful, wonderful tie down rings. But couldn't the stupid airplane manufacturer have provided some tiedown points in the aft half of the airplane? I mean, they expected us to put stuff in the airplane, right?
We bid "do svidaniya," to our new friends and takeoff, following ATC instruction out of PANC terminal airspace (but the Americans don't call it that, what do you call it, again?) and the weather allows us to climb high enough to go through the pass with no cloud dodging, just gradually climbing and then descending through a hole on the other side so we don't get stuck above a layer. It's rugged and beautiful until we're clear of the first range and then it becomes more rugged and bleak. The terrain is crinkled and gray-green depending on the rock to short-fuzzy-growing-stuff ratio. I think I spot some caribou, but I was really hoping to see some, so I may have allowed my mind to play tricks on me. Canadian law doesn't permit overflight of caribou below 2000' agl. I don't know if US law is exactly the same, but if an animal manages to make its living out here, year round, I'm not going to make its life any harder, so I couldn't get a close look anyway.
There's a VOR way out here in the boonies. I keep forgetting its name, saying, "Begins in S. A short sounding name, but it has a lot of letters in it. Sparrevohn. I have the story of how it got its name, but I'll tell that another day. Sparrevohn is also a military aerodrome, so I'm watching for it as a landmark. There's a kind of knack you get for finding airports after a while. You look at the lay of the land and there's a place where an airport fits, both because the people who sited the airport put it in a reasonable place, and because subsequent land development has taken into account the approach surfaces and noise areas. I suggest that it will be in a flatter area ahead, behind the second ridge.
I mentioned Sparrevohn to someone at the barbecue last night as a possible emergency landing site "if the emergency was bad enough to overwhelm the fear of doing paperwork for an unauthorized landing at a military aerodrome," but was told that if I had an emergency I really didn't want to land there. I didn't ask why, assuming that it was a particularly paranoid base. But then I see the aerodrome and now I see why you don't want to attempt it in an emergency. For some reason, perhaps old fashioned defensibility, or shelter from wind for the base on the ground, it's tucked in very closely between two ridges. We don't land there.
Beyond Sparrevohn the terrain flattens out into swamp again. We could tell from the sectional map that it would, because the map is one low colour with hundreds of little smooth edged lakes. Any place like that that I have been has been swamp. There are no trees. I think the vegetation below is grass and lichen and maybe some bushes. We find the destination airport and land, approaching over a lake that has floatplanes moored at it. It's a fair sized airport with a paved runway and paved taxiways and apron, too. A foreboding sign suggests that we needed prior arrangements to park here, even though I called ahead to check on fuel and such and was told there was plenty of parking. There is plenty of space, and We find an appropriate place to park, with the assistance of the tower. We can't find a payphone, but the tower volunteers to call for fuel for us, and the clients turn up in two truck they've somehow managed to procure. We unload everything, sorting it into what they need now and what will go back to the hotel, and then they take off in a chartered Beaver to do reconnaissance.
We drive to our accommodations--I'll describe them and town tomorrow--and unload. There will be be no mission for us tonight, but we'll go early tomorrow.
Oh and the person whose company I enjoyed so much in the air charter company next to the maintenance hangar? She's a regular reader and commenter who had previously e-mailed me a welcome to Alaska and invited me to come and talk to her if I happened to be one of the Canadians who had rented the next door hangar. At the time I received her e-mail I didn't know about the hangar plans, so told her it wasn't us. And then--this is the ridiculous part--I chatted with her face-to-face for hours and did not clue in that I already knew her in the virtual world until months later when she e-mailed me about something else and mentioned that she enjoyed meeting me. I was actually worried at the time that I might be annoying her with all my chatter. From this I conclude that (a) I am a champion scatterbrain and (b) Cockpit Conversation readers are simply fantastic people whom I am delighted to meet even when I don't know I'm meeting you. May there be many more.