Chapter One - Boss Hogg and Enos -
As many of our regular readers will recall, the relationship between the F.A.A. and Alaska’s bush pilots had long been….uh…rather…uh…cantankerous! Yes. Cantankerous is just about the perfect word to describe what seemed to be at times, an almost continuous battle of wits, waged between the pilots of the Great Land and the Federales charged with trying to “regulate” them.
In fact, quite often, what played out between members of the two unquestionably adversarial groups, resembled what could most accurately be likened to a scene in the old 1970’s T.V. show “The Dukes of Hazard”. Naturally the protagonists of the show, Bo and his cousin Luke Duke, in our real life version would be the pilots. Leaving the F.A.A. personnel of Flight Standards District Office 61 of Fairbanks to fill the “bad guy” roles of Boss Hogg, Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrain and Deputy Enos, who was basically still a nice guy at heart.
Now, as they say on the Fox Network….to be “fair and balanced”, I have to throw in here that while as you are about to read, our opponents could be devious and sneaky, they weren’t really bad fellas. And although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that one or two of ‘em were accidently dropped on their heads by their Mommas when being picked up outta’ the crib; nonetheless they were mostly good old boys. They were never truly malicious. They were mostly interested in helping us stay safe on the job, and promoting the growth of the rural Alaskan flying network. And after all, they were pilots too. So they had that going for them.
Howsumever it all to often happened, that what they and their masters in faraway Washington, D.C. sought to enforce as regulation, didn’t quite fit in with what the bush air taxi owner-operators and their pilot-employees saw as…well…necessary!
In many if not most cases, the primary consideration for the owner-operators was what something was going to cost them; either immediately out of their pockets, or in potential lost revenue down the line. And then there was just the stupid stuff.
For instance one operations inspector would show up and demand that, to be in compliance, an operator must move the hand-held fire extinguisher mounting bracket from the right lower front sidewall panel. To please this inspector, the operator would have his mechanic move the assembly to the new position on the left lower front sidewall, where it would be more readily accessible to the pilot when needed in flight (according to the inspector). Of course, this applied to all four or five of his Cessna 206’s and 207’s. And any effort on the part of the operator to point out (quite logically) that the plane came fresh from the factory assembly line with the fire extinguisher where it was; and that presumably the Federal Aviation Administration itself had certified the aircraft “as equipped” on the manufacturer’s Type Certificate was pointless. The inspector would come back with some mumbo-jumbo government-speak gobbledygook in response that always ended with “do it…or ELSE!”
So the poor operator would grumble and growl and then finally go and make the change to please his assigned operations inspector, and everything would be fine. On that count at least. That is, until the next newly assigned Principal Operations Inspector (from the same Fairbanks office) showed up.
See inspectors rotated in and out of Alaska. Some stayed a long time. Some didn’t last a year. And even back in those days the FED’s would rotate operators and inspectors every so often just to make sure the two groups never got too “cozy” with each other. Yeah...right! As if there was ever a risk of THAT happening in the bush!
So two months later, out of nowhere, you’ve got a new F.A.A. inspector coming in to look at your operation. Inspecting one of your airplanes, he sees the remounted fire extinguisher on the left hand sidewall. Pointing offendingly at it he says “Hey! What is that doing there? That’s dangerous! That could impede a pilot’s ability to quickly escape the aircraft or hurt him as he tried to get out in a hurry. You’ve GOT to move those!” At which point our owner-operator grits his teeth and tries to explain it to the new inspector without blowing his lid!
More grumbling and growling from the operator begets more verbal governmental doublespeak from the inspector. This then prompts snarling threats, curses, and accusations of doubt as to the lineage of the inspector’s family tree from the operator. Which in return, now firmly plants the inspector’s feet in concrete, in response to having his mother’s moral compass called into question. He’s not budging! And the operator now has to move the fire extinguisher assembly to yet a third mounting position between the seats on the floor where it is deemed by the new inspector to be both easily accessible, and a non-hazard to a safe emergency egress. Now once again, the operator is free to fly his fleet of Cessna singles…in compliance.
Three months later they are back again. And this time, it is the maintenance inspector who turns to the poor owner-operator and says “Hey! Howcum you moved the fire extinguisher? The plane was type-certified with the fire extinguisher mounted on the right lower sidewall. You’re not supposed to move it! You gotta’ move it back to where it belongs!” (pregnant pause now for dramatic effect…)
KAAAH-BLAMMO! Folks, you gotta’ believe me. You can’t make stuff like this up! As God is my witness, I swear. I was actually there for the show with the second ops inspector and the maintenance inspector. The second one was bad enough, but I actually felt kinda’ bad for the third guy. Leroy (my boss, and the owner-operator involved) went understandably NUTS on the guy! And given that Leroy was just a wee bit liquored up as the two men squared off, leaning across opposite sides of the upended wooden electric cable spool that served our tiny office as a coffee table; it came as only a slight surprise to me that Leroy’s Buck knife appeared magically in his hand and was driven with vengeance deep into the spool’s wooden surface to punctuate his outrage. Whether it was pure luck or Leroy’s incredible skill that caused the blade to wind up between the middle and ring fingers of the inspector’s left hand is still a mystery to me. Leroy was furious! And Leroy was righteous. And…Leroy moved the fire extinguisher mounts on all the planes a third time. And then there was the really C.S. (chickenshit) stuff.
This was generally the stuff that might make a difference if you are based in oh…say….Miami, Florida or White Plains, New York in the early 1970’s. Things like making sure you had the most current sectionals or WAC charts in every aircraft. The fact that nothing, and I mean NOTHING had changed on either side of the Nome sectional map in the last twenty years or more made no difference. No new radio frequencies. Certainly no new roads, radio transmission towers, nor any new airports to be added. But no matter; that is an example of some of the nitnoid things the FEDs would try to nail us for if they couldn’t find anything else.
And then there’s the reg that says you are supposed to carry your pilot’s license and medical on you at all times while you are flying.
Hell. There were guys flying around Alaska for years that didn’t even have a license or medical to carry around with them! And do you think the FEDs ever wandered around town investigating who these guys were and trying to catch them? Nope! It was easier to hang around the airport and pester the working pilots like us with ramp checks. Then they could take out their liddle notebooks from their shirt pocket and write down all our info, so they could fill out their forms when they got back to the hotel room. Check the box, fill the square, and show the bosses back in Fairbanks and Washington, D.C. that they were out there riding herd on those renegade backwater bush pilots.
But sometimes, as you’ll soon see, even the smallest of potential offenses can lead to some of the funniest episodes that leave you laughing ‘til your sides ache. For just as sure as Boss Hogg and Sheriff Roscoe (the only two guys in the world with a worse won-loss record than Wile E. Coyote) figured they had the perfect trap laid for them Duke boys and were gonna’ finally nail ‘em and jail ‘em; only to have Bo and Luke in the General Lee once again slip through their fingers while simultaneously leaving them with egg all over their faces; so it was occasionally with us and the FEDs.