I didn’t have to make the flight to Barrow. It would have been easier to turn around in Dead Horse with a cabin full of frostbitten campers and head back to Fairbanks, but I had a job to do, one I hate. I had a pilot in Barrow who was having problems. I had gotten a call from a friend at the FAA in Anchorage that a pilot, Charlie Perkins, was reported to be drunk and erratic by two controllers and a passenger.
Charlie wasn’t some unknown walk-on; we went way back. I met him first in basic at San Diego NAS back in ’67. We flew together in ‘Nam. This was going to be difficult.
I lifted off from Dead Horse in the old “819,” an R4D-6 that I had been able to purchase at a ridiculous price thanks to a windfall we got on the sale of some tubes. “R4D” is the Navy designation for the Douglas DC-3, in case you’re curious. The R4D-6 is a later model with improved performance and range. It was 12 degrees below zero as I climbed into the arctic sky. I had a load of junk in the belly of the plane to pay for the flight, but this was a mission, and had the plane been empty, I would have made the flight anyway. The arctic sky is so extreme that it’s almost like being on another planet, and I looked out of the window and watched the surreal earth as I climbed to altitude. I leveled out and set the autopilot. I pulled out my iPhone and watched a few minutes of the Giants-Padres pre-season game, but my head just wasn’t into baseball.
I was mad. I was mad at the FAA for calling the question. I was mad at Charlie for making it necessary. I thought about the war, the bar fights and poker games. I thought about all the hot LZ’s we had flown into. I thought about Charlie. I knew he could fly better loaded than most people could sober, but he had lost his edge. It was showing, and people were getting scared. I have a whole organization to think about, not just one guy, regardless of the history.
I descended into Barrow immersed in the roar of the big Pratt & Whitney R-1830’s. I almost wished the town wouldn’t be there so I wouldn’t have to carry out this unpleasant errand, but it was, just where I left it – touch down and taxi, and I was at the hangar. I shut down the old bird and exited onto the tarmac. It was cold as Hell. Even in a fur-lined flight jacket, the wind cut like a knife. I knew he would be in the hangar. I don’t know how I knew, but I guess knowing someone for a long time gives you an intuition about things. My glove stuck to the doorknob as I opened the door. It was cold. I went inside and he was sitting there at the mechanic’s bench. He gave a mock-Nazi salute, “All hail mighty grand poo-bah senior command pilot.”
“That’s not necessary,” I said.
“I know why you’re here. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you’re grounded immediately, until further notice.”
“That means I’m fired.”
“Pretty much,” I said. This was every bit as unpleasant as I thought it would be.
He looked up at me. His eyes were bloodshot and tired, “You remember that time in Bangkok when I pulled you out of the bar because you were going to take out the whole place because some whore spit on you, and the shore patrol got us in the parking lot, and we spent a week in the brig before the master chief got us out with some bogus documents?”
“Yeah, he was an artist.”
“I saved your life that time,” he said and turned a carburetor over on the bench.
“Maybe. I still think I could have taken them.” I said.
“But the best was Khe Sanh. We were the last flight to land, and we smoked a bong coming in and the gooks punched a hole in the rudder with some AAA. You didn’t even break a sweat. That’s why you were always in the left seat – Mr. Ice Water Veins.”
“I was scared shitless, and that whole thing was stupid. What was I supposed to do?”
“Just what you did: you got us out of there like you always do.”
“You’re not making this any easier,” I said, searching the rafters with my eyes.
“I don’t intend to,” he answered.
“Let’s get you back to Anchorage. You can do detox there. If you clear your medical, you can have your job back,” I said.
“I don’t wanna’ go back to Anchorage. I wanna’ get drunk.”
“You can get drunk, or you can fly for EVA, but you’re not going to do both.”
“You’re a self-righteous pain in the ass,” he said as he lit a cigarette.
My patience was wearing thin, “And you’re a burned out old drunk who’s pushing his luck. Come on. Let’s go back to Anchorage. I’ve got the Candy Bomber. It will be like old times.”
“Really? An R4D?” his eyes lit up.
“Yeah, and it’s a peach. You gotta’ see it.” In a twinkling, the burned out old drunk was gone. Charlie was on his feet like a puppy expecting a walk in the park. He put on his jacket and headset. We walked quickly to the plane. It was so frickin’ cold. We followed the last of 18 passengers onto the plane. I told the co-pilot, a nice but clueless kid from Unalakleet, to sit in the passenger cabin, but to stay alert in case I needed him. “Come on up to the flight deck,” I said to Charlie.
I grabbed the mic and keyed the intercom, “Folks, please find a seat and belt up so I can fire up the bird and get the heaters running, and thanks for flying Eagle Valley Air. The weather is great today and we’re expecting a smooth and fast flight to Unalakleet.” I knew Charlie wouldn’t be any help on the pre-flight, but I had it down pretty well. #1 fired right off. #2 was fussy and I had to prime and count the rotations, but at seven it fired. I turned on the “no smoking” and seatbelt signs, and turned up the cabin heat as far as it would go. “Tower, N262EG, clearance to Unalakleet.”
“N262EG cleared to Unalakleet. Taxi to runway 8 and hold short… and good luck with you know what.”
“Roger that, Tower.”
“Wow, this is just like D-Day,” Charlie said.
“I told you it was a peach.” We climbed out of Barrow through frozen air. At 10K ft. I leveled off, set the autopilot, turned the supercharger blowers to high, and turned off the seatbelt and “no smoking” signs.
Charlie looked at me and said, “You wanna’ smoke a bowl?”
“We have 18 passengers onboard, and I swear to God…”