Volunteer pilots keep Iditarod trail supplied

Two dozen volunteers spend days hauling food, staff and supplies to race checkpoints

Posted: Monday, February 25, 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 Anchorage's 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 the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins Saturday.

Before and during the race, they will spend hundreds of hours hauling food, supplies and race personnel between the checkpoints along the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. And while that's 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, co-chief pilot of the air force this year.

"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 different.

"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."

Two Saturday mornings ago, the pilots swapped war stories and good-natured jabs while waiting for the snow to end.

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

Most of the planes are single-engine Cessnas equipped with skis. 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 air force 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 also are required to have at least 100 hours of wintertime flying and 100 hours in a ski-equipped plane. Most of those who fly for the race are longtime Alaska pilots who have many hours more than what is required.

"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 says 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 have 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.

During their trips up and down the trail, the Iditarod Air Force pilots have a bird's-eye view of the dog teams as they make their way to Nome. And a few of the pilots have taken their turn on the runners of a sled.

Diana and Bruce Moroney are among the few Iditarod Air Force pilots who also have competed in the race.

Diana has run the Iditarod nine times and developed an interest in flying in 1986 when she spent time as a volunteer logistics coordinator with the Iditarod Air Force.

For Bruce, flying came first. A commercial pilot, he has volunteered with the Iditarod Air Force since 1976. Diana and Bruce met in 1990 and, soon thereafter, he was helping her earn her commercial pilot's rating while she helped him train for the Iditarod. They married in 1994 - the same year Bruce completed his first Iditarod.

Bruce, who earned his pilot's license at 17, said while he enjoys his time with the Iditarod Air Force, competing in the race is the ultimate satisfaction.

Diana has a harder time deciding which she enjoys more: riding to Nome behind a dog team or flying there in the family's Piper Archer. When she is flying she watches the mushers with envy. But when the trail gets cold and bumpy, a warm airplane looks pretty good.

"To be able to fly around and come back at the end of the day and know you've accomplished quite a bit to help the race is very satisfying," Diana said. "The dogs are where they belong. The vets are where they belong. Then you can sit back and tell war stories."

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