Veteran Alaskan pilot shares the lessons he’s learned

For John Davis, his storied career in Alaska as a Big Game Hunting Guide and bush pilot began when he was a sophomore in high school in his hometown of Quincy, Wash.

The natural-born storyteller, who just completed a book about his life called “My Memories,” recalls seeing a Piper Cub landing on a narrow gravel road on his family’s ranch. “I was impressed,” he says.

“Later that summer as I was walking along a dirt road on the ranch, I noticed in the distance a Stearman biplane coming toward me. I was used to them as they came often each summer to spray our grain fields for insects and weeds. However, the pilot in this plane aimed right at me as I walked along the dirt road and as he got closer I began to run down the road, but the plane just kept coming right at me. Finally, with wheels virtually inches off of the ground, I threw myself into a small wet waste ditch. The plane roared over me and flew away. As I looked at the pilot in the open cockpit looking back at me and laughing, I shook my fist in the air and yelled ‘Some day I am going to be able to do that!’”

Just a few months later, his grandfather returned from Alaska with a huge Grizzly bear he had made into a rug. “As he told us kids the story of the hunt, I determined that someday I would be a hunter and pilot in Alaska,” Davis says. “Everything I did from that day forward was to reach the goal of a commercial pilot.”

He had his ticket and ratings when he arrived in Alaska at the age of 26.

As a pilot in Alaska, he flew and owned many planes, including Taylorcrafts and Aeronca Champs in the early days, then later Super Cubs, Tri-Pacers, Cessna 206s, and Beavers. All were equipped with wheels and floats.

“Although, I have owned an air taxi service for many years, almost all of my 12,000-plus hours have been logged as a part-time owner pilot, big game guide and bush pilot,” he says, noting that his full-time work was managing and owning the KSRM Radio Group, which included three FM and two AM stations in Kenai/Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula.

His big game hunting guide operation began at the family’s log cabin lodge in Port Alsworth, which he built from 1972 to 1974.

“In the early days I provided lodge services and transportation,” he explains. “I was neither a big game guide or an air taxi operator. Client hunters were billed for lodge services only, which included transportation and camping gear. Hunters and their outfitted camps were flown to hunting areas, mostly by float plane, and then picked up at a specified date and returned home with their game.”

In the mid-1980s, the Alaska Board of Fish and Game did away with big game guides and outfitters, creating a Guide/Outfitter license.

“After becoming a Big Game Guide/Outfitter, we began booking guided hunts for a variety of Alaska’s game,” he says. “Now, my son Jeremy Davis and I operate out of two different hunting lodges. We hunt for moose, caribou, dall sheep, black bear and specialize in brown/grizzly bear hunts in both spring and fall.”

Looking back over the more than four decades of flying hunters in Alaska, Davis says it was much different in the early days.

“We flew by the seat of our pants and a good memory of terrain and drainages was required,” he says. “I had no GPS, of course, and radio navigation was non-existent in the Alaska bush if you were more than 40 or 50 miles from a station. Many of my planes in the early days had no electrical system and no radio and the engines had to be propped by hand. In late fall, winter or early spring the engines had to be heated with fire pots and later with small catalytic heaters.”

“With aircraft on big bush wheels, finding the game might be easy, but finding a spot to land the plane can be difficult and very dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing,” he continues. “Experience is mandatory. Landing on bush covered ridge, a wind-blown sand spot or a round mountain top or steep ridge needs to be carefully considered by the pilot. The most important thing to remember when considering a first or difficult landing is ‘do not do it’ if you have the least amount of concern. Trying to please your hunting client may make you want to do the landing anyway but you cannot let that pressure control your decision.”

He advises pilots who want to fly in Alaska to be aware of their experience and skills.

“If you are not completely comfortable with either, practice, practice, learn, learn,” he says. “As your experience grows, your skills will improve and you will feel comfortable about making decisions concerning the safety of yourself, your passengers and your aircraft. Learn to recognize your ability and your doubts. If you have any doubts about your ability, do not do it.”

Planning is critical when flying in the Alaska bush. And, as with all flying, weather is extremely important, he notes.

“There is nothing better than flying in the sunny calm skies of a huge high pressure system and there is nothing worse than encountering fog, low stratus or a blinding snow storm,” he says.

“When encountering wind in Alaska’s mountain passes — and you will — know where to fly in the pass by knowing where the wind is coming from and, if you’re not sure, know when to turn around and try again another day,” he says. “When approaching a cut in a mountain, be aware of wind direction and speed and then never fly directly into the cut. Approach the cut from the side. This allows you a choice of a 90° turn away from the mountain cut if you encounter a severe downdraft, or turning into the cut and continuing on your way. A direct straight-on approach into the cut and encountering a severe downdraft with immediate loss of altitude could require a full 180° turn, causing the aircraft to stall, and making recovery impossible before the turn is complete.”

“Know how to handle your aircraft in cross-wind landings including the cross-wind speed your plane will handle,” he continues. “Confidence is very important for a safe cross-wind landing.”

And remember: It’s a long ways between fuel facilities and running low or running out of gas is no fun at all, he says.

“Whenever I am flying in the Alaska Bush I make sure I have a small tent, sleeping bag and pad, small medical kit, and an emergency kit with freeze dried food, chocolate and energy bars, coffee or hot chocolate, coffee pot and a small water boiling pot,” he says. “A Wyoming saw, a good axe, a satellite phone and a back-up GPS are also on board.”

As he looks back on 45 years of flying, Davis acknowledges he learned a lot of lessons — about flying and about life.

Arriving in Alaska with more than 300 hours, “I truly thought I had it all together when it came to flight skills but Alaska is a great teacher, if you live through your experiences,” he says. “Several times I learned that hanging from your seat belt with your plane on its back is, first of all, painful when you release your seat belt without an arm pushing on the headliner; secondly very exciting and humiliating; and thirdly very expensive.”

“I learned that landing with skis in snow 10 feet deep turns into more work to get your plane back into the air than one can imagine. A buddy taught me that trying to land in a cross-wind coming over tall spruce trees without enough air speed to hold a two-wheel landing can completely destroy your aircraft. I learned after retrieving your plane from the bottom of a 500-foot canyon that landing on a tundra-covered ridge is not enough and that you must tie down your plane even if it is very calm as you climb into your tent for the night.”

“I learned that landing on a grassy meadow in the spring is not a good idea and you might not retrieve your plane until summer. I learned that when having landed on a sandy beach to go clam digging, you don’t load up your passengers and then warm up the engine because the vibration may cause your wheels to bury themselves in the sand and you will not move your plane. I learned that even landing with big bush wheels on a usually solid sandy beach does not mean that your wheels will not find a sink hole with the tide coming in.”

“I learned that after an overnight fuel leak on a Taylorcraft you can fly for enough time to reach a village and more fuel if you empty your Coleman stove and lantern, plus all the fuel drained from one tank to the other. I learned that engines do fail at 700 feet into a 40 knot headwind and that you can stretch your flight across salt water and land on a small strip of sand, but it may take up to three days for your friends to find you. I learned that when you are on a flight to the North Slope with ceiling less than 500 feet and flying through the thick smoke of more than 200 tundra fires, you must have a GPS, you must backtrack many times,when the smoke is too thick, and you never want to do it again.”

You can read more about Davis’s Alaskan adventures when his book, “My Memories,” is released later this year.

Comments

  1. I want to become a pilot and fly there some day.

  2. Dave Hill says:

    I can’t for the book to come out! Where will it be sold?

  3. Leonard Nolden says:

    A great story that makes me NOT WANT to go fly in bush Alaska!

  4. Linda S. Berl says:

    Wow! This story just makes me WANT to go fly in bush Alaska..

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