Saturday, August 1, 2009

Denali Air

I'm sitting in the back seat of a Piper Chieftain. The pilot fires up the two props and taxis out to the end of the grass strip. A quick 180 points the plane toward Denali National Park.

Full throttle. The small plane rises so gradually, that it's difficult to tell whether we're still rolling on the grass. A quick glance down reveals that all is well. The tips of the tress are indeed below, and I'm suddenly glad that Piper blessed the Chieftain with two engines, not one.

The pilot banks west over Parks Highway, the Alaska route 3. We pierce the park's invisible wilderness boundary line and throttle back. Ground below, clouds above, Mt. McKinley ahead.

The headset clicks. Our ascent and pre-recorded audio tour is suddenly interrupted by the pilot. Dall sheep on the cliffs at 3 o'clock... not below, straight out the window. Perhaps I should reach out and grab some wool, but the comfort of the enclosed cabin makes me think twice. The pilot comments on the joys of flying below the clouds, between the peaks, now that the weather has cleared. Indeed.

Denali AirDenali Air

Surrounded by cliffs, glaciers, and mountain passes, our plane dips and banks to their every breath. My back and hips absorb the undulations as though I'm riding on the back of a horse. The lens hood on my 24-105/4 occasionally bumps the Plexiglass window in spite of my attempts at stability. As the vastness of patterns and colors outside reveal themselves, there are simply too many pictures to take. Image stabilization is a wonderful thing.

Denali Air

Denali Air

Suddenly, we've reached our destination. We're eye-to-eye with McKinley massif, or at least we should be. Clouds have moved in. The pilot offers to zoom us around to the west side of The Mountain in an attempt to get a clear view... for an extra $100 (each). A quick look at the clouds brings a quick consensus among the passengers. No thanks, McKinley can keep its cloudy reputation.

Our course dwells momentarily as the plane turns slowly east. We're graced with the same amazing cliffs, glaciers, and mountain passes on our return, and my 5D continues to click away. As we approach the runway, I switch to taking video with the SD800; no need to "turn off all electronic devices" here, thank you very much.

The landing is as smooth and gradual as the takeoff; much smoother than I've felt on most commercial airliners. The Chieftain rolls to a stop, and the pilot shuts down the right engine. After all, there's no need to taxi with two engines after a perfect landing.

The plane is returned to its patch of tarmac. The pilot turns around and finds nothing but smiling faces. He tells us a little about the plane. Its engines are overhauled every 2000 hours. It spends its winters (September to June) in Anchorage. Personsonally, I prefer to winter in Miami, but Anchorage seems sensible. The pilot also mentions that he's been flying at Denali for 27 years; almost my entire life. Good to know.

After some pictures next to the plane, we return to the car. As we drive back to Riley Creek campground, we agree that Denali Air was a wise choice over the ATV tour. $250, 45 minutes, 180 pictures, and an unforgettable perspective of Denali; sounds like a deal to me.

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