Volunteer air force keeps race fueled

Iditarod pilots take to sky

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- The small waiting room at Spernak's Airways was crowded with more than a dozen pilots drinking coffee, eating donuts and watching fat snowflakes swirl down from a milky white sky onto the runway at Merrill Field.

The weather would keep them grounded for nearly five hours, but waiting on the weather comes with the territory.

They are all members of the Iditarod Air Force, a group of about two dozen pilots who volunteer their time and planes to support Alaska's classic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The 30th annual running of the race begins March 2.

The Iditarod commemorates the desperate run by sled-dog teams to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome during an epidemic in 1925. Teams of 12 to 16 dogs and their mushers run the course, usually in nine to 12 days.

Over the next six weeks, the Iditarod Air Force will spend hundreds of hours hauling food, supplies, race personnel and dogs between the checkpoints along the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. While that may sound like a lot of work there is no shortage of pilots willing to use vacation time from their day jobs to fly with this group.

Serving with the Iditarod Air Force gives pilots a chance to sharpen their skills and explore wild country. It is bush flying at its finest, said John Norris, who is serving as co-chief pilot of the air force this year.


ditarod Air Force co-chief pilot John Norris loads Doug Swingley's race supplies into his plane at Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska, Saturday Feb. 16, 2002, to fly them to the Rainy Pass checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Members of the Iditarod Air Force, a group of about two dozen pilots who volunteer their time and planes to support the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, haul food, supplies, race personnel and dogs between the checkpoints alongthe 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. ()

AP Photo/Al Grillo

''I've seen the most spectacular sights and scenery in the wintertime in Alaska,'' said Norris, who takes a break from his job as president of U-Haul Alaska to fly for the Iditarod. Though he flies hundreds of hours each year to visit U-Haul operations around the state, flying for the race is special.

''It's something I really look forward to. We all have such a great time out there,'' Norris said.

Eric Johnson, flying his 14th Iditarod this year, agrees.

''There's a lot of camaraderie among the pilots,'' Johnson said. ''If a person doesn't have an extremely good time out there it's their own fault.''

So it was that, on a Saturday morning two weeks before the race, the pilots found themselves swapping war stories and good-natured jabs while waiting for the snow to end.

When the clouds finally cleared the planes were loaded with sacks of dog food, wooden stakes to mark the trail and bales of straw used to make beds for the dogs.

The planes, most of them single-engine Cessnas equipped with skis, are the workhorses typically found in Alaska. One by one, they took off and headed northwest to supply the race checkpoints east of the Alaska Range.

Race manager Jack Niggemyer tries to send as many supplies as possible to the checkpoints by mail. In addition, race sponsors Northern Air Cargo and PenAir carry some of the larger loads.

But the pilots, with their ability to land on small airstrips and frozen rivers and lakes, do the bulk of the flying.

''Flying for the Iditarod is a skill in its own right,'' said Niggemyer.

Iditarod officials require that the pilots have at least a private pilot's license, though many are commercial pilots. Each pilot must have at least 1,000 hours of flying time, with 500 hours of that in Alaska. They are required to have at least 100 hours of winter flying and 100 hours in a ski-equipped plane. Most are longtime Alaska pilots who have many hours more than the minimums.

''We have a group of qualified, high-time pilots that insurance companies are happy with,'' Johnson said.

The Iditarod spends about $50,000 to buy liability insurance for the air force for a two-month period. Niggemyer said it's one of the biggest expenses for the race, but about half what it would cost to hire local air taxis to do the work.

Though the air force has had accidents during the 30-year history of the race, none has been fatal and no insurance claims have been filed for the past nine years. The emphasis is on safety, Niggemyer said.

''We're flying in awfully big country in awfully small airplanes and it's not the end of the world if we don't get there today. I stress to the guys that this is only a dog race, when it gets right down to it,'' Niggemyer said.

''We've been told by the feds and other people that they wish a lot of the air taxi operators were as organized and safety conscious as our air force.''

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