Friday, July 4, 2014

Flying Drake

It won't happen often that we post a blog specifically about one event but this one deserved a special entry. The other day when Kathy wandered into Drake's hangar, she left just knowing she had to fly with him. Kathy recently became a licensed private pilot after a year and half of studying and preparation.  She was encouraged by one of her instructors to seek out her seaplane endorsement during our time in Alaska.  She called a pilot her instructor told her about but he didn't have any connections.  She was disappointed.

Kathy's affinity for flying influenced our path to Alaska.  We drove by/to airports in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, British Columbia, and Wyoming and now Haines, AK.  In Haines, Kathy wandered into an open hangar that, unbeknownst to her at the time, belonged to pilot Drake Olson, of the Nat Geo TV series Alaska Wing Men.  Kathy had watched the show, along with others about flying in Alaska, as she was studying for her pilot's exam.  Drake was actually her favorite pilot on the show and she had done some research on him at that time and discovered that he was a former race car driver.  She had know idea where he was based at the time and never even thought about looking him once our plans for Alaska were finalized. It was pure ironic fate that brought her into his hangar that day and absolutely luck that he was actually there and not flying.

She immediately recognized him as they talked although she couldn't recall his name.  Drake told her that he was not an instructor but after talking for a bit he agreed to take her up and show her what he knew about flying in the mountains at a reduced rate.  The weather was rainy and far from being what she considered "good flying weather," at least by Texas standards, so they agreed to keep in touch to see if the weather and Drake's schedule would work out.

When Kathy returned to the Jeep, she said, "You are not going to believe who that is??!!" and proceeded to tell Joy about the TV show, etc.  We left the airport with Kathy grinning ear to ear and checking and re-checking her weather apps.

Later that afternoon, as we were sitting at  Mountain Market in Haines enjoying coffee, Drake called and said that they would shoot for the next morning or afternoon, as he thought the weather would clear a little and his schedule was relatively open.  We agreed to stay an extra day so Kathy could fly.

The next morning, Drake called and said we'd try to fly at 2:30 and asked about the other person traveling with me.  Once he learned of Joy, he invited her to join them as he explained it would be once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  We thought the invitation was sweet and Joy agreed to join in.

We arrived early, of course.  Drake's 14-yr old daughter informed us he was picking up someone in Juneau but should land shortly.  As we watched a coyote jog up and down the runway, Drake landed his Cessna 220 with his passengers.  They appreciated the trip so much they provided him a "delicacy" of pork rinds from Mexico.  Drake had one in his mouth as the passengers departed.  As soon as they were out of sight, he spit the remnants onto the Tarmac.  "Yuk! That's disgusting, pig skins or pig ears!"  We laughed at him and would later watch a raven clean up the mess - which was even more disgusting.

"So how's the weather looking?  Here's a chart, figure out where we're going," instructed Drake as he handed Kathy a sectional while he wolfed down salad from a wooden bowl.  Kathy noticed the chart was out of date and that there was a lot of brown on the map, which indicated elevation.  It was nothing like her Houston sectional which was covered in green.

Drake and Kathy talked planes while Joy spoke with Drake's daughter who was helping out in the hangar and studying for her learner's permit. In a few minutes, Drake was pushing his plane with skis on it onto the tarmac.  We climbed in and the engine warmed as we taxied.  Drake called in a flight plan for Glacier Bay and we were off climbing and soaring towards the nearby mountain peaks and Rainbow Glacier.  Drake and Kathy discussed temperature changes per 1000 ft of elevation and Joy snapped picture after picture.  Drake began pointing out Rocky Mountain sheep which were just small white spots on an otherwise huge green or brown mountain.


We neared the Davidson Glacier, one of the largest in Alaska.  Joy asked how quickly it was disappearing and Drake reported that although it's been disappearing since the Paleolithic era but most recent measurements show it's losing 3-4 ft a year due to accelerated climate warming. Joy found this number saddening.  The glacier is a blue-green streak which appears as though it's sliding down the mountain in slow motion.  We flew along its edge and felt as though we could simply reach out and touch its craggy edges. Near the top, crisp white snow covered the ice.  Drake turned the plane and followed the lines of the basin as he began to lower the ski gear by hand. He had indicated that he'd hoped to land on the glacier if the weather held out.  The soft white cloud we watched as we came up the mountain began to turn an ominous gray.  Drake banked away to another passage and began to reel the skis back in.  No glacier landing today thanks to poor visibility over the landing zone.  So close!

The flight back meant more sheep and even bald eagles whose heads were even smaller white dots along the side of the mountains.  We saw dozens of them sitting in their aeries as the Chilkat River lead us back to the airport and on to the ground.

After flying, Drake was gracious enough to take a break and we sat in the hangar visiting for nearly an hour. We chatted about flying, the economy, Alaska, business, women, perfect turns, and living choices.  We thoroughly enjoyed the conversation as much as we enjoyed the flight.  Drake is the real deal - an authentic adventure aviator with a passion for flying and freedom.  We hope to stay in touch with him and Kathy is hoping to get back down that way to fly with him in his newly purchased Super Cub.

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