Last Flight Out

Lane sojourns to Alaska and learns about the fish hauling business firsthand, flying in an ancient and soon to be retired DC-3.

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The late September rain is pounding on the fuselage above me and coursing across the narrow, rectangular windscreen that sits less than a foot in front of my face. The frigid Alaskan ocean lies only 400 feet beneath us, but if we went any higher, we'd be in the clouds-clouds that are obscuring a line of towering glacial peaks that rise from the coastline just off our left wing. We are navigating by breakers. As long as we keep the white, foamy breakers in sight off to our left we'll be over the water, so we won't run into anything, but we'll still be close enough to the shoreline not to get lost.

The two Pratt & Whitney radials on the sturdy, aluminum wings of our DC-3 cargo hauler hum reassuringly despite the downpour, and the heavy, cable controls convey a comforting stability that my Cheetah couldn't even begin to offer. I conclude that if you're going to scud-run along the Alaskan coastline in bad weather, the DC-3 is probably a pretty good plane to do it in. We can lose an engine and still keep going, and if we had to put the plane down somewhere, those massive 45-foot wings would probably clear a landing site as they went.

That's not to say I'm actually comfortable flying like this, of course. The air is rough, the controls require a fair amount of muscle power, and the visibility makes it a challenge to keep even those high-contrast breakers in sight during the frequent rain showers we endure along the way. My left arm and right leg are also soaked from the water that's dripping from the DC-3's ill-sealed windscreen, despite the paper towels I keep stuffing in between the two front panels on my side of the plane. I begin to understand why Douglas manufactured rain capes (complete with official part numbers) to protect pilots from the elements that routinely leaked into the DC-3's less-than-climate-controlled cockpit.

Not even Ernie Gann would choose to fly in these conditions for fun, but we're not on a recreational flight. This is a working airplane, and we're on a working mission: transporting fresh Alaskan salmon from the remote locations where they're caught to fish-packing plants in the coastal towns of Yakutat and Sitka. It's not clean or easy work, and any romantic notions I may have had about being a DC-3 pilot in Alaska disappear quickly after getting a taste of the real thing. The cargo pilots here also act as loadmasters, mechanics and line service personnel, and the day's activities consist of a non-ending cycle of load, fly, unload, load, fly, unload, fuel, load, and fly again, over and over, from early morning until sometime after dark. It would be a long day anywhere. But during the Alaskan summer, which is when the salmon run, it's a really long day.

At the same time, there's a real sense of satisfaction that comes from doing work that's so appreciated by people in the local communities here. This particular DC-3 is based in the tiny town of Yakutat, Alaska, which has a population of about 800. It's almost 200 miles in any direction to the next toehold of human settlement, and there are no roads to most of the southeast Alaskan towns, including the state capital of Juneau. Everything has to be brought in and out by plane or barge, which means that nobody, and I mean nobody, complains about airplane noise. The sound of Alaska Airlines' 737 combi jets or a DC-3's thrumming radial engines approaching low over the town means that supplies are coming in, commerce is getting out, and a link to the outside world still exists.

The venerable DC-3 has made an art form of reinventing its role in aviation, moving from luxury airliner to military cargo plane, to parts hauler and king of the Alaskan bush flying industry?especially during salmon season. For more than 30 years, fleets of DC-3s, DC-4s, DC-6s, C-46s, and C-119s have provided a lifeline to the Alaskan salmon fishing industry, carrying tons of King, Sockeye and Coho salmon a day out of remote river and beach sites from Sitka to Bristol Bay and points north along the Bering Sea. The pilots at Yakutat point wistfully to old photographs that show a height-of-season line-up of round-engined classics waiting for takeoff at Egegik Beach that would rival any bottleneck at SFO or La Guardia. It was a heady time for both fishermen and pilots. Salmon were plentiful, prices were high and, while the work was hard, a year's living could be made in four months of nonstop,18-hour days.

Times, however, have changed. The salmon are still there. But the sharp downturn in the Asian economy, limited on-site buyers, and the increasing abundance of farmed salmon around the world have driven wild salmon prices so far down that many of the fishermen can't make a living at it anymore. King Salmon used to fetch up to $3.50 a pound. This year, fishermen were getting 50 cents. Nobody even bothered to fish the Tsiu River, a large fishing ground for Coho salmon near Yakutat, because the local fish plant was only paying 25 cents a pound for Coho this year, and it would have cost 30 cents a pound to airlift the fish out from the river.

The aquaculture industry that produces the farmed salmon is becoming more controversial as questions are raised about the industry's use of parasiticides, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, pigmented food and genetic engineering. Farming salmon is illegal in Alaska, and a popular bumper sticker there cautions that "Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Farmed Fish." But nobody can deny that farmed salmon are cheaper than wild salmon and can be shipped fresh all year long to ports around the world?which is why they now account for fully half of the salmon Americans consume.

As prices for wild salmon have fallen, however, Alaska's salmon fishermen have started to disappear, along with a way of life that has characterized and sustained these towns for more than half a century. This year, half of the commercial salmon trolling permits in southeast Alaska went unused, along with three-quarters of the gill net permits in Yakutat. And as the fishermen have disappeared, so has the need for the big, round-engined cargo planes. Cascade Air's DC-3 is the only cargo plane its size still flying out of Yakutat, and even it may be gone by next year. The company's contract for next summer calls only for a Cessna 206.

After running a load of fresh troll-caught salmon from Yakutat to Sitka, we head down to a 2,500-foot gravel strip along the Alsek River to bring a final load of 7,500 pounds of Coho salmon back to Yakutat for freezing. It's the final week of the season, and this will be the DC-3's last trip to the Dry Bay landing site. Not that many years ago, Dry Bay was a bustling fish camp with a full-time cook, cabins overflowing with commercial fishermen, and planes taking off and landing all day long. Today there are only four fishermen there to greet us, and they, too, know that more than just a season is coming to an end.

We land and taxi in, jinking and braking sharply to keep the DC-3's broad wings from hitting the tall pine trees that line the narrow, gravel road from the runway to the wooden processing shack. We unload supplies and take on the plastic tubs full of fresh, iced salmon, raised by forklift to the DC-3's wide cargo door and then winched slowly forward up the sloping cabin floor. It's a familiar ritual, repeated thousands of times here with this airplane over the past 25 years. But the fishermen stand around watching as if it were the first time, because they know it may very well be the last.

We finish loading, but Bill and Randy, the DC-3's pilots, are as reluctant to depart as the fishermen are to see them go. We go into the kitchen where we're offered servings of John Bailey's legendary smoked salmon, fresh out of the smoker. The clouds have cleared a bit, and a hint of late afternoon sunlight is lighting up the Alsek Glacier that looms over us to the north. It's time to go. We load up and taxi out to the runway, running the engines up to full power before releasing the brakes and beginning the bumpy, jolting run down the tree-lined gravel strip. Just as I begin to wonder exactly how close we're going to get to those tall trees that are racing toward us at the end of the runway, the DC-3 lifts gently off the ground, confidently gaining altitude with only the barest perceptible change in attitude. I'm struck, once again, by what a masterful plane the DC-3 really is.

As we lift off, my eyes register something besides trees off to the right side of the airplane. I look, and something in my throat catches. There, in a small clearing along the runway, the fishermen have gathered to watch us depart, their hands raised in both farewell and silent tribute to the grand lady who has served them so well for so many years. We dip our wing in response and then turn toward the ocean, passing over clearings dotted with moose and bear who are as large and wild as the land they inhabit.

Everything here, in fact-the people, the flying, the lifestyle, and the wildlife?seems to reflect a kind of independent strength and freedom that characterizes the land itself. The flying in Alaska is freer than anything I've encountered in the lower 48, and there's a wild spirit here that is unlike anything I've ever known. The landscape is a testament to the splendor and power of a planet on whose back we have only recently left our footprints?a whirling masterpiece of icebergs, glaciers, mountains, fiords, and dense, primeval forests that stretch unbroken as far as the eye can see. The few inhabited spaces are quickly swallowed up by the vastness of the untamed wilderness surrounding them, a reminder that humans are still visitors here?acolytes in a strange and wondrous land that defies order or dominance.

Yet if nature teaches nothing else, it teaches that the only constant in life is change. With the commercial salmon industry deteriorating, what will the fishermen do? I don't know. But Alaska is a land of sturdy creatures. So like all the other species that have survived in this harsh wilderness, I suspect they will adapt, although that adaptation may have a painful price. Many of the seasonal fishermen who lived elsewhere are simply not coming here anymore. But the locals are a hardy stock, not given to giving up easily. Some have already traded in their commercial fishing boats for charter boats to service the booming sportfishing trade. Others are taking second and third jobs to supplement their fishing income, and some are talking about forming a co-op and trying to market their fish directly to cruise ships and buyers in San Francisco and New York. Some places are shifting their focus from fishing and logging to tourism, although that's already beginning to change the nature of these little coastal towns, and not necessarily for the better.

When I was young, I remember my Uncle Ned telling me how he saw the Old West die up here. In the summer of 1950, he arrived in Fairbanks to work the gold mines of the interior. Fairbanks at the time still looked like something out of a John Wayne movie, with dirt streets, raised wooden sidewalks and an entire street of rustic saloons paired with a matching street of bordellos just one block away. While he was sequestered in a remote mining camp that summer, however, the Korean War broke out. And when he returned to Fairbanks a mere three months later, the town had been transformed; modernized, sanitized and paved with miles of asphalt to accommodate the military troops that were soon to be stationed there.

As we leave Dry Bay for Yakutat, I wonder if I'm not witnessing something similar here now. Many years have passed since the DC-3 ruled the skies. But she and the other old, round-engine cargo planes have maintained their usefulness and purpose up here for over 50 years. And because of that, I had the privilege of actually getting to step back and experience a world and kind of flying that Len Morgan and Ernie Gann wrote about so often and so well. Yet what I experienced may have been not only the close of a season, but of an era, as well. There are still companies flying DC-3s and C-46s out of Fairbanks and Anchorage, but there are fewer than there were, and turbine-powered Caravans and Skyvans are becoming more prevalent in the Alaskan skies.

I look out the DC-3's window at the towering mountain peaks and deep fissures running through mile-high glaciers that are even now carving new contours in the land, and I realize that only a fool tries to hang on to the past or predict or control the future. Change is the only constant, and nature will, in the end, prevail.

I sigh, sit back, and take hold of the DC-3's sturdy, rounded yoke, banking us gently toward the shimmering blue-green breakers that edge the dark sand and driftwood-studded coastline. The world keeps changing, but the strong and stubborn find a way to survive. The Alaskan salmon fishermen may not need as many of these big old cargo planes anymore. But, you know, there's a whole big world out there. And something tells me this old girl has a few more adventures left in her, yet.