Air Rangers

The wild flights of Park Service pilots.

Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve fills the windows of an AStar B3 helicopter en route to base camp. (NPS/Martin Parker)
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For ranger pilot Richard Kemp, who flew in Alaska for 19 years, some of the biggest problems were caused by bears. He recalls going into an isolated camp on the Noatak River and waking up the next morning to find that a bear had eaten one side of his fabric-skinned Scout. “I got some wood and a duffel bag and two rolls of duct tape [for repairs] and made it out of there,” Kemp says.

ON DECEMBER 19, 2002, Tom O’Hara, a 41-year-old National Park Service pilot, high school wrestling coach, and father of three, took off from King Salmon, Alaska, on a moose-tracking survey with a young biologist in the right seat. O’Hara had a lot of backcountry experience, with much of his 11,000 flying hours spent patrolling the remotest corners of the state’s Katmai and Lake Clark national parks, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument.

“Then,” reads the official report of what happened that day, “when they failed to return in accordance with their flight plan, the Rescue Coordination Center dispatched an Alaska Air National Guard C-130 and a Coast Guard UH-60 helicopter to search for them. At first light on Friday [the next day], 14 single-engine aircraft and a helicopter flew out of King Salmon in search efforts coordinated by the NPS, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Alaska State Troopers…. The crash site was found late in the afternoon.”

O’Hara had been killed in what appeared to be a stall/spin accident. The biologist was injured, but survived. And the National Park Service flying corps was rocked—not for the first or the last time—by the loss of one of its own. (In October 2010, two ranger pilots from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area were killed when their Cessna 172 crashed in southern Utah.)

“A crew member is dead, the aircraft is destroyed, new regulations and training and policy changes have to be implemented—just what did we accomplish today?” asks Jim Traub. He’s the national fleet manager for the park service and a former tail gunner in U.S. Air Force B-52s over Hanoi, amassing 1,700 flight hours on 70 bombing missions.

At 59, he has served multi-year assignments as a ranger pilot nearly everywhere the NPS maintains its own airplanes: Big Bend, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Glen Canyon. (Such mobility is not unusual for park rangers.) He also flew out of Kodiak, Alaska, for a year counting brown bears for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now he has a desk job in Boise, Idaho, coordinating the training—and re-training—of park service and Fish and Wildlife Service pilots.

Traub rattles off some of the things these pilots need to know: “How do you land on a gravel bar on a river? How do you evaluate a tundra surface from the air, or a grassy meadow? You’re going in someplace where there’s no windsock, no runway lights, maybe no runway at all.... There are no facilities, no fuel, no spare parts in the hangar, and nobody to help you if something breaks.

“This is what all aviation used to be. But more and more of the pilots we see coming out of universities and the military don’t have this kind of training. You have to know the subtle techniques to slip down to low altitude quickly. You have to know what to do with the airplane when you get there to avoid the stall/spin situation.”

To expand his pilots’ expertise, Traub puts them through a regimen that includes stall/spin awareness and paramedic courses, then adds “off-airport unprepared surface” training, float and wheeled-ski clinics, and low-level resource protection and resource survey refreshers. At some point, they’ll all need to see the Doctor.

That would be Idaho flight instructor Rich Stowell—the Spin Doctor, whose course was added to the NPS pilot curriculum after the O’Hara crash (Fish and Wildlife Service pilots have been using him since the 1990s). “The big killer of general aviation pilots and government pilots is maneuver in flight, and NPS pilots are maneuvering all the time,” Stowell tells me at his one-man academy. “It’s a heavy workload with a high potential for distraction at a critical time.”

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