I Learned About Flying From That: Parallel Parking a DC-3

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The passengers were all sound asleep in the back. It would be a shame to awaken them to prepare for the landing. I let them sleep until the very last moment. There had been none of the usual complaints, like "we're too hot" or "we're too cold." They had no inkling of what lay ahead for them. Nor did I.

My very early flight for this day was to the tiny Alaskan village of Beaver, far north of the Arctic Circle, to pick up 27 tired and very dirty smoke jumpers and take them to Anchorage. The jumpers had been ferried into the gravel airstrip at Beaver by helicopter from a stubborn tundra fire they had worked on for almost a week. The summer sun never sets this far north, and as they boarded the DC-3 in the early morning sunshine, they had little energy left. Their faces were smudged with charcoal and ashes mixed with sweat and mosquito bites. The boys were hardly able to smile and utter a very weak, "Hi, Jim." After boarding and loading their gear, some did cheer up a bit when they were told they were going to Anchorage for a few days off. After takeoff, the steady hum of the big Pratt & Whitneys soon drummed them deep into slumber. Parachute bags became their mattresses, ­Nomex jackets their pillows. All was very peaceful in the cabin all the way to Anchor-Town.

The flight would cross over the mighty Yukon near the town of ­Tanana, then abeam of the still waking Fairbanks, and soon after, past the forbiddingly awesome snow-capped Mount McKinley. Its ice fields and glaciers were sparkling in brilliant sunshine. I had passed by this majestic wonder many times, but this was the first time I had seen it without the usual shroud of clouds. The air was smooth as glass with nary a ripple. The Alaskan sky was cobalt blue and crystal clear as I slid my seat back at top of climb and poured myself another cup of coffee. I had flown this route many times in the summer of 1969, but this morning would be etched in my memory forever. This is what Alaska flying is all about, and this is the greatest job in the world. I sat there patting myself on the back and glowing in pilot-induced grandiosity, just thinking that they were paying me for flying that I would have done for free. This is the unbusinesslike way we pilots think. That is why professional pilots rarely become millionaires; we have found more satisfying things in life than making money.

During the early years of my airline flying career, furloughs came often and lasted long. Pilots had to be resourceful and adventuresome in finding work. Alaska was my favorite place on earth, and good pilots could usually find summer flying positions. During the late 1960s jobs were plentiful and I could afford to look for adventure as well as good pay. The aviation gods brought me here, and I ended up with the best flying a young pilot could ask for. In fact, it was the most interesting flying of my career, ever. I was the captain of a DC-3, flying within Alaska for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Not only was I the captain, but the entire crew as well. This was a government owned airplane operated for public convenience, and the bureau established its own rules.

The airplane assigned to me was the most pristine DC-3 I had ever seen, either before or since. It was modified for single-pilot operation, with all controls within more or less easy reach. It was also equipped with larger Pratt & Whitney engines, landing gear doors and JATO bottles (two small self-contained, solid-fuel rocket engines mounted under the belly to be used in an emergency). They could make that baby climb at 5,000 fpm for about 30 seconds even fully loaded.

This airplane was based in ­Fairbanks and was convertible from passenger to freighter configuration by folding the bench seats up against the cabin walls. It also had large double doors to be opened when loading freight and exiting smoke jumpers in their bulky, padded ­Nomex suits and helmets with full-face shields. The airplane was stripped of all non­essentials like radar, auto­pilot, deicing, upholstery, cabin heat and toilet. There was a small urinal in the back of the cabin. This DC-3 and some of the other airplanes were used only in the summer and stored in Arizona during the brutal Alaska winters.

The summers in central Alaska are often dry and hot and very prone to thunderstorms sparking forest fires. My job consisted primarily of dropping smoke jumpers and hauling native firefighting crews, cargo and occasionally VIP parties from Washington on fishing junkets. This was no-nonsense, bare-bones flying. I was the luckiest pilot alive and the envy of my airline friends.

The entire BLM Alaska Air Division was under the direct control of retired U.S. Air Force Col. John McDermott. He was a military man through and through and operated his air force (as we pilots called it) with exact precision. Pilots shook in their boots at the thought of ­screwing up and being called on the carpet by "The Colonel." John was a small man with a full head of wavy coal-black hair, a chiseled granite smile that was seldom used, and of course a pencil-thin mustache. He wore dress shirts, ties and summer khakis, ironed to a perfect crease. This, I must admit, was quite a unique fashion among Alaska pilots. The line pilots wore jeans, boots and plaid shirts, never a tie or uniform. Levis and boots were much better suited to the work in the bush.

During the fire season when there was a high potential for fires, either accidental or from lightning strikes, I was never far from the airplane or the jumpers. Their gear was in the airplane ready to go. We camped in tents on the airport and were expected to be airborne within three minutes of getting a fire call; the plane was fueled, preflighted and ready. All necessary tools were on the flight deck, including lunch, coffee thermos, sleeping bag and pack. My radios were pre-tuned to ground control and fire dispatch. The exact fire destination would be radioed to me after takeoff. If an IFR clearance were required, we were given priority. Other airplanes shared my sky; tankers and the plane carrying the fire boss would soon pass me. It was busy flying on climb-out. The airplane had no autopilot. Hand-flying was the norm.

Smoke-jumping, as one might imagine, takes special people, and they came from all walks of life: One was a tax attorney and summer was his slow time. Several others were teachers. All loved the challenge, the adrenaline rush and the outdoors. Physical strength and stamina were essential, not to mention courage. It requires a lot of guts to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and into a fire, but these guys did it all summer. They were also jokesters and considered themselves prima donnas. They lacked the proper respect for pilots and chided us unmercifully. They faced extreme danger daily, and this was their way of lightening up. We laughed a lot and we had a great time working together.

There were many lightning strikes setting small patches of trees on fire that summer. If they were caught quickly, they could be stopped. The trees in central Alaska were small and the ground was usually soft and spongy, with permafrost under a damp layer of tundra. Small lakes and creeks are numerous, and jumpers could usually find a good landing spot. Moose sightings were a common occurrence; bears were a constant threat. The mosquito was the state bird. After they landed, I would circle and drop their needed equipment, including chain saws, sleeping bags and tents, by parachute. The jumpers exited from about 1,300 feet agl and I dropped cargo chutes from about 300 feet agl. The chutes barely had time to open before hitting the ground, to keep them from drifting too far. If the small fires could be extinguished quickly, the B-25 tankers would not be needed.

At times the jumpers would stay at the fire site for several days to make sure no hot spots flared up. They were paid by the hour, and when they were on a fire they were paid overtime, so they were never in a hurry to leave. Some carried sectional fly rods taped to their legs, and when I would fly over to check on the fire's progress, I would likely find them fishing for salmon in the ­nearest river. Fresh-caught salmon roasted over a wood fire was better than C rations any day. Several days later I would drop fresh supplies. When the fire was safely out, a helicopter would be dispatched to pick them up and fly them to the nearest village with a runway. Although there were no roads to most villages in interior Alaska, all villages had some kind of runway, usually on a riverbank and unpaved. I had to be very proficient in my short-field landings and takeoffs. If I ever got in a jam I always had JATO to save me.

The landing in Anchorage was baby-butt smooth. The tires chirped happily as they kissed the paved runway. My weary passengers were rubbing the sleepers out of their eyes and woke up, clapped and yelled. I acknowledged their applause with the usual "aw, shucks, it was nothing" smile. It was time to relax; my work for the day was done — or so I thought.

An old pilot once told me, "The flight ain't over till you shut the engines down and walk away. Then you look back, and if she ain't bent and she ain't burnin', your flight is over." My flight was on the ground, but it wasn't over. Not by a long shot. My judgment and command skills would soon be put to the test in ways that were not covered in the training program. I have always felt that good judgment was the result of a pilot's experience. More often than not, experience is gained by the use of poor judgment. That would not happen to me on this gorgeous day, as the sun was burning through the coastal fog.

I was instructed to taxi the airplane to the rear of the main hangar; it was going in for routine maintenance. The taxiway was congested with parked airplanes. I should have shut down and let the tug maneuver the airplane to the hangar doors, but I was told that there was no tug available; it was busy moving another airplane. My decision was to taxi the airplane between a corner of the hangar and a parked Cessna's tail. I squinted out of the windshield and sized up the space. It looked adequate in my opinion, but as I got closer the wings began to grow at the tips. The copilot seat that day was occupied by the jumpmaster, a student pilot. I asked him how it looked and he answered with a questionable look and a reply that was not reassuring. Weighing the possible outcomes, the reward was just not worth the risk. "Crap," I said to myself. I can do amazing things with this airplane, but I cannot make it back up. Or could I? It was just about this very moment that I had one of my brilliant ideas. I shut the engines down and told my passengers to remain inside the airplane while I announced my plan to them. They are strong — why not put them to work? (The term crew resource management had not yet been invented.)

"I want six of you guys on each main landing gear, the rest of you on the tail. You are going to push this baby back to that parking space that we just passed. Now, you see, I am the captain. I'll stay in my seat and set the brakes after we are parked and chocked."

Needless to say, my plan was met with less than grateful applause and admiration. With much grumbling the boys got out and went to their assigned positions. Soon that 23,000-pound airplane was rolling backward. This screw-up is going to get me the dumb shit of the year award, I told myself. Why do these things happen to me, and always in front of the whole world?

Now "The Colonel's" office just happens to be on the second floor in the front of the hangar, and from my seated position I was at eye level with him. Of course he was standing at his window with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Won't this flight ever end? As he watched this amazing feat of airmanship from his lofty position of supreme judgment, his mustache was not smiling. I managed a slight smile and a wave, but he did not acknowledge my humble greeting. His body language was transmitting a message to me directly, line of sight. It was not good. The hair on my arms stood straight up. I was scared!

As I walked down the stairs of the airplane, the hangar PA system announced to the entire darn world, "Jim Benelli, report to Col. McDermott's office. Jim Benelli, report to Col. McDermott's office." I heard it loud and clear the first time; why did they have to rub it in? I would have gladly climbed back in my airplane and flown away — anywhere, just away from here. By this time all the mechanics in the hangar had laid down their wrenches and walked to the front of the hangar. They were slapping their legs, doubled over with laughter.

The long walk up the stairs to the chief pilot's office gave me time to reflect on my shortcomings. All my life's past sins flashed before my eyes. My reputation is in ruins, tatters. I'll never live this down. Old stone-face is not calling me in to give me a raise.

"Jim," he started quietly, "if you had gone one foot farther, I would have fired you on the spot. You exhibited superb judgment. You did the right thing. Good job, thank you. You have a flight at 6 tomorrow morning. Goodbye."

I walked slowly away from the hangar. I looked back at the plane. She wasn't bent. She wasn't burning. She was smiling.

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