Writer captures the romance and adventure of Bush flying
Wyatt Miller Hawknews Writer The book, Last of the Bush Pilots by Harmon Helmericks was fascinating. The author was a famous Alaskan bush pilot that loved to fly. He logged in 27,000 hours in approximatly 20 years. Since 1946, he held an award for “special services” in the arctic regions. Harmon loved and respected the land around him; he described it as a “Delicate land of gentle changes,” or the north being “vague” and “unknown” just before the turn of the 20th century. Helmericks, who was born in Illinois, studied engineering at the University of Arizona and came to Alaska in 1940 where he has lived ever since. His wife, Martha, an “Any bush pilot’s wife,” had to live in the silence, a silence of an engine’s roar fading or increasing as Helmricks would be leaving or coming back. His son Jim, a nine year old that was most likely born in Alaska, wasn’t recognized too much. At the time the book was written, they were still living in Alaska. Helmericks talks about the experiences of being a bush pilot and fitting in between the era of the gold rush, and the beginning of the commercial airliners. I enjoyed the book because it summed up his history of bush piloting. I found this book to be easy to read despite the few bland parts, but most of the time I could see what he was trying to accomplish with his words. In the book, Helmericks tells stories about his experiences of flying in the arctic regions of Alaska. He has watched people land in four inches of water with floats, and has carried a few kids on his skis while taxed to where he stopped to let them off before takeoff. He shares about the people he met like the short, potato shaped guy Archie Ferguson who was claimed to have never been seen inside because he loved the outdoors so much. He also described the pregnant lady that had to be flown to Fairbanks, but Helmricks had to make a quick landing gear change out that wasn’t so quick. Harmon was a cargo pilot that flew goods in his Stinson wherever needed, or wherever the river barges couldn’t make it, such as Hughes, Wiseman, Bettles and Barrow. He noted the challenges, near death experiences and what he though the bush pilots were going to face in the years to come. I liked the story of when the author flew goods into Barrow. His journey ended with him having to land on a snow drifted lake because the weather started to move in which made the visibility low. After landing on the lake and getting the plane secured, he started to wander to get to know his surroundings. “It’s a good landing if you can walk away from it,” Jim Falls once told him. He noted, the way to not lose your airplane, is to count the steps that you take away, and count again when going back from where you were. I liked the section when he talked about the Wein brothers, Sid and Noel. These brothers were no ordinary pilots, and they had been at it for 35 odd years. They knew what and what not to do; they were always the first in flying and always would be. “On August 6, 1932, the three year ‘No competition’ agreement in the sale clause lapsed, and the name Wein again appeared in aviation circles.” The Wein brothers ran a family owned business, Wein Alaska Airlines. I assumed that Wein Alaska Airlines became the present day Alaska Airlines. The section of the book that I disliked was when a commercial pilot landed on a gravel runway in Hughes and complained to the owner that he did not like the runway. He wrote him up for having too “soft” of a runway. “Next thing a pilot won’t want to help unload his own airplane.” Later the pilot grumbled that he should have been paid for unloading his own cargo. To me he shouldn’t have cared because as long as he was on the ground and alive, there shouldn't have been an issue. The author did a good job explaining what being a bush pilot was like and what one could run across while flying in Alaska. Take for example the aircraft brakes failing during landing, or having to use bailing twine or duck tape to hold parts together. This is a book people would pick up 50 years from now because “olden day” planes probably will not be in use, and one day the empty, vast great lands of Alaska might fill up. Many people are interested in the stories from the past. They would want to know what it was like to be that person behind the yoke of an airplane and what old rural Alaska was like, and experience the Alaska many Alaskans have never known.