Book an inside view of air taxi work
Resident Bob Adkins recounts flying stories comic and tragic in “Panhandle Pilot,” a self-published book now available in Haines.
According to Adkins, his manifest has included lunatics, movie stars, drunken roughnecks and one provocative woman who, as solo passenger, started undressing in mid-flight. “A lot of crazy stuff happens. Flying involves people and people can be weird,” he said in an interview.
Adkins worked in Haines 22 years as a school principal and teacher but had a side career as summer pilot for Haines Airways, a local air taxi that closed in 2001. Adkins’ 12 years as a pro coincided with a mid-1990s boom in the airline business generated by tours off cruise ships.
The combined fleet of four airlines operating in Haines and Skagway at the time exceeded 60 planes, he said, and a fly-cruise program moved up to 100 visitors per night. Among his stories is an account of 10 planes landing in quick succession in Skagway. “The Skagway airport used to be just packed.”
The book, which is part biography, starts with Adkins’ boyhood fascination with flight, then follows a trajectory that intersects with events and personalities familiar to residents.
Haines Airways personalities Ernie Walker, Reggie Radliffe, Mike and Barbara Shallcross and Boyd Hoops get ink.
Chapters describe the airfare “war” of the late 1980s that dropped one-way tickets in Lynn Canal to $30, airlifts of McDonalds’ hamburgers for special events in Haines, and memorable accidents, including the crash of a flightseeing tour that occurred when a pilot slowed for a closer look at a bear. All six on board died.
“I wanted to give people an idea of what air taxi aviation is like in Southeast Alaska. The (accidents) were all major incidents around here, so I included some of those,” Adkins said in an interview.
He said he had two target audiences: aviation buffs and readers interested in Alaska stories. The book mixes folksy anecdotes with technical information. It includes official accident reports printed verbatim to avoid any misinterpretation, Adkins said.
In retelling local accidents and incidents, Adkins often leaves out names of airlines and changes names of individuals involved. Longtime residents with good memories may be able to fill in the blanks.
“I wanted to be able to relate stories to people without (readers) catching people in bars and saying, “Ho-ho-ho.”
Passages touch on elements of luck, fate and risk assessment inherent to flying. Unaware of the dangers posed by the “wake turbulence” of a departing jet, Adkins nearly crashed into a flight tower in Fairbanks during his first solo fight in 1966, as instructor Don Jonz watched nervously.
Six years later, Jonz disappeared while piloting a flight from Anchorage to Juneau carrying Alaska Congressional delegate Nick Begich and U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs. Their plane was never found.
In August 1991, Adkins was sharing pilot duties with Haines Airways co-owner Barb Shallcross when calls came for a Glacier Bay tour and a round-trip for a pick-up in Gustavus. Adkins was assigned the Glacier Bay tour after Shallcross asked for the Gustavus trip.
She and five passengers flew at full power into a mountainside at 4,000 feet.
On one of Adkins’ flights, a woman grabbed the plane’s passenger-side controls during takeoff, nearly causing a crash. Another time, veteran pilot Boyd Hoops showed Adkins a pre-flight check that was new to him – putting a shoulder to the plane’s propeller and pushing upwards “just to make sure the engine doesn’t fall out.”
The following summer, Adkins shouldered the prop of a plane he was about to fly and lifted the engine six inches. “Both front engine mounts were broken. A sudden application of full power could have easily developed enough torque that the engine would have twisted right out of that airplane. Boyd saved my bacon on that one.”
High points Adkins describes include night flights under a full moon, tracking radio-tagged salmon from the air with state biologists and flying a friend who was making an aerial-view video of her house to attract a buyer.
With three logbooks full, Adkins retired from flying in 1997, a year after he gave up his school job. Haines Airways was struggling and he didn’t want to work for anyone else or fly in winter, he said.
The arrival of larger planes and on-board computers has made flying here faster and safer, Adkins said, but there’s still romance on the wing. “As long as people are flying back and forth between these little towns, there’s always going to be something like that… And as long as you have young pilots, you’re going to have people screwing around with airplanes.”
His book, he said, only scratches the surface of local aviation lore. “There are lots of flying stories that float around here.”
Adkins will sign copies of his book starting at noon Saturday at the Main Street bookstore. The book is also available through his website, bobadkinfoto.net.