Many have heard of the Iditarod, the multi-day sled dog race from Anchorage (or Fairbanks, some years) to Nome that covers nearly one thousand rugged Alaskan miles every year in early March. The race was started in 1973 with two primary goals: to preserve the Alaskan husky dog breed along with the culture of using sled dogs to transport goods and people which was being phased out by the introduction of snowmobiles, and to conserve the historic Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome. The event is a nod to the role sled dogs played in the history and settlement of Alaska, as well as the incredible physical and mental challenge for the dogs-and-human teams endeavoring to finish The Last Great Race.
But have you ever wondered how all of the people and supplies required to support the racers over all those miles and through the 23 or 24 checkpoints (depending on route) get delivered?
The Iditarod Air Force is a key component.
This unique, all-volunteer group of pilots use their own airplanes before, during and after the race to deliver nearly 125,000 pounds of dog food (some 3200 bags) as well as 400 bales of straw/hay so that every team has food and fresh straw when they arrive at each checkpoint; lumber for tent camps; over a thousand cases of HEET (for cook stoves and fuel lines) and miscellaneous supplies; and transport some 500 dogs dropped or scratched from the race back to Anchorage. The pilots also move lots of people through the checkpoints as the race progresses over two weeks: 45 veterinarians who monitor the athletes and ensure their well-being, a communications crew of 44 and all of their equipment, and over a hundred race judges and officials, photographers and videographers, and dog handlers. The pilots are among approximately 1,200 dedicated volunteers without whom the race could not happen.
The 30 pilots comprising the Iditarod Air Force (IAF) come from a wide range of backgrounds. Collectively, they have 743 years and 420,000 hours of flying experience.
Local pilot Jerry Wortley has been a member of the IAF since 2007. Wortley splits his time between homes in MeadowCreek in Meadows Valley and Anchorage. Raised on an Idaho farm, he graduated from the University of Idaho in 1971. After a tour in the United States Marine Corps where he was a Radar Intercept Office in F-4J Phantoms, Wortley became an aviation insurance broker. He holds an Airline Transport Pilot certification, has over 8,000 hours of flight time and currently flies a Piper Cheyenne for business and a Cessna 180 on wheels, skis and floats for business and pleasure. Flying with the Iditarod Air Force is something Wortley looks forward to every year, for the challenge and the entertainment. The IAF is a close-knit group of men and women who thoroughly enjoy their role providing logistical support for The Last Great Race.
Early in the event’s history, simply having an airplane and an interest in helping was sufficient to become part of the IAF, according to Wortley. Over the years, however, to ensure the safety of all involved, the IAF has become highly professional and operates like a commercial flight operation with a Chief Pilot and directors of operations, training, maintenance and safety. Wortley sits on the safety committee. The IAF now has a selection and recruitment board, making sure that when a pilot position comes open, it is filled with the best candidate. Every IAF pilot must have commercial and instrument ratings, at least 2000 total flight hours with 500 of those hours in Alaska and 100 of them on skis. The average IAF pilot has over 10,000 hours. In a pilot’s first year, he or she can only fly supplies unless permission to fly people or dogs is given by the chief pilot. Because of its reputation for excellence, the IAF has a waiting list of highly qualified pilots eager to be associated with the organization. Some pilots have been flying with the race for thirty years.
Alaska is known for its challenging flying weather, especially in winter. IAF airplanes are fitted with skis for landing on snow. Pilots may encounter high winds, low visibility, blowing snow and whiteout conditions. And extreme cold – it can get to sixty below at night. “We only fly at 30 below or higher,” says Wortley. When temperatures are zero or below, pilots add HEET to their airplane’s fuel to prevent ice crystals from forming, which would clog the fuel line and lead to engine failure.
Keeping an airplane warm and free of frost while on the ground is critical. “You always put an engine cover on after you land to keep the engine warm, and at night put on wing, tail and engine covers to keep the frost off.” The pilots use on-site generators to warm the airplane engines overnight, but sometimes those quit and they discover a cold airplane in the morning. Wortley and others take portable generators with them, and every pilot also carries an alternative gas stove to warm engines. “I’ve used a hair drier in the cockpit to warm the instruments,” Wortley says. Skis can get stuck on the snow after landing, the friction of the skis on the packed landing strip causing melting, but experienced pilots know to simply move again shortly after stopping before coming to a final rest. Wortley’s skis have wheels, minimizing the problem of freezing on the snow while also providing braking capability. Some years, pilots have to remove skis for some locations because of lack of snow.
And then there’s all the clothing required to keep the pilots warm as they perform their jobs in the extreme cold. “Everyone has their own system,” Wortley explains. “I wear insulated Carhartt bibs over underlayers because they’re durable, especially when kneeling on the snow. On top, I may have three to five layers, starting with a silk or polypropylene underlayer, then some fleece, a jacket, and a big coat with hood. When I’m flying, I drape the coat over my seat and put it back on when I land. I wear thin gloves while flying, and add big gloves, a hat over a balaclava and a neck gaiter when on the ground. I have big, clunky warm boots. I’ve never been cold. You just wear what you need.”
The time commitment demanded of each volunteer pilot is daunting, covering several months, starting in November when the line-up of pilots is determined. In December, every pilot, no matter how experienced and long-serving in the IAF, undergoes flight training that includes simulator time and check rides. The simulator training includes a “flight” through Rainy Pass, one of the more potentially treacherous part of the course depending on weather. In good weather, it might take twelve minutes to fly through this complex pass with numerous turns and offshoots, but in poor visibility a pilot could go up a wrong canyon so everyone flies the pass on the simulator without GPS during flight training. The person controlling the simulator makes the weather increasingly worse as the pilot flies through Rainy Pass until they’re forced to turn around and fly back out. Each pilot must determine the right time to turn back. Wortley admits it’s very challenging and necessary training. The pilots must also attend three safety meetings, one each in December, January and February.
In mid-February, the pilots help pre-stage race supplies such as straw and dog food to the checkpoints. One weekend, the pilots move two semi-truck loads of supplies from the town of Willow to checkpoints on the east side of the Alaska Range; the next week they do the same from McGrath on the west side. Some checkpoints, for example McGrath, are accessible by commercial air carriers, so the IAF is responsible for getting supplies from there to the more remote checkpoints.
As race day approaches in early March, the IAF starts moving people to the early checkpoints – the vets, cooks, carpenters, communications staff, dog handlers and general laborers who provide all the necessary support for the teams as they come through. After starting the race in intervals just two minutes apart, teams quickly spread out; the winner usually reaches Nome in eight days, the last finisher in twelve, so one can imagine the logistical undertaking facing the IAF to get the appropriate people and supplies to each checkpoint as the races progresses and the teams become dispersed across the thousand-mile route. After the last team passes a checkpoint, the IAF flies its people, equipment and supplies on ahead to another one, or back out to Anchorage.
“Race logistics coordinators and dispatch sorts all that out,” says Wortley. “They assign each pilot what to do, who and what to take where.” Each pilot must commit to fly at least a week during the actual event. Many, like Wortley, cover the entire race, but not all of them can get the time away from their work. Race management reimburses the IAF pilots for their aviation fuel, food and lodging, any necessary mechanical repairs, and insurance, but the expense of getting to the race, and time away from work for training and the race itself falls on each pilot. Nor are they pampered. “Accommodations can sometimes be on the floor. I slept under a kitchen table last year,” Wortley says, laughing. “Anywhere there’s space. In McGrath, there’s a bunkhouse with fifteen beds. Sometimes toilets and showers aren’t working.” Clearly Wortley and the other IAF pilots aren’t there for any perks; they’re working hard the entire time, supporting the athletes and allowing the race to function. “Sometimes I’m so involved with the flying of people and supplies that I don’t even know who’s winning,” says Wortley.
Weather is a constant concern for the IAF pilots, making an already challenging job more so. “A few years ago, weather was down in Unalakleet,” Wortley remembers, meaning visibility was so poor that airplanes were grounded. “We couldn’t get supplies or people to a checkpoint, despite several tries. The racers were coming, the leaders had left the previous checkpoint. A friend with a commercial cargo plane managed to get supplies to another nearby checkpoint and supplies were ferried in by snowmachine.” The athletes had the supplies they needed because of the quick thinking, versatility and dedication of those responsible for logistics.
“Dog welfare is the highest priority,” says Wortley. He and the other IAF pilots often transport race dogs that are either “dropped” by the musher because they’re tired, sore or otherwise not performing well, or because a vet has scratched them for health reasons. Each of the roughly 75 mushers starting the race can have a maximum of sixteen dogs at the start; they must cross the finish line with at least five. That leaves the possibility of hundreds of dogs needing an airplane ride from various checkpoints across the race route to a “hub” – one of the three checkpoints with commercial flight accessibility. At these hubs, certified vet tech handlers care for the dogs until they can be flown commercially to Anchorage. Once in Anchorage the dogs are cared for by inmates at the women’s prison until the mushers are able to retrieve them.
To make room for dogs, people and/or supplies, the IAF pilots remove one or more seats from the back of their aircraft. Wortley says he can fit as many as ten dogs in his Cessna 180. “The vets give pilots the paperwork for each dog transported; we then give the dogs and paperwork to the handlers at the hub,” says Wortley. “If a dog is distressed – called a red tag dog – it takes priority over everything, including people. It rarely happens, but is part of the protocol.” When asked how the dogs behave during transport in his airplane, Wortley says they usually settle right in, used to flying. “Even dogs that don’t know each other get along,” he adds. For the dogs’ safety while in flight, they are clipped to a chain on the floor. “I haven’t had to try this, but I’ve been told if there is a problem with the dogs in the back, just go weightless [quickly climb and descend] and they settle right down” adds Wortley.
One problem with a full load of dogs, according to Wortley, is interior window fogging from their panting. He always has a rag handy for that reason.
When asked to share a memorable flight during a race, Wortley recalled flying a vet into Koyuk, five checkpoints from the finish in Nome. From past experience, Wortley knew this checkpoint was notorious for high cross winds, turbulence and downdrafts, exacerbated by the varied terrain surrounding the landing strip. It’s a challenging landing even for experienced Alaskan pilots like Wortley. Turning to his passenger as they neared Koyuk, Wortley said, “This is going to be a rodeo,” worried she might be nervous, what with the wind gusting to 35 knots (40 MPH) and the airplane bouncing. “Flying in over the village on final approach, my air speed reads 80 MPH but ground speed is 23 knots; we’re hovering over town, barely moving. We creep over town rocking and rolling toward the field and somehow have a smooth touchdown. The veterinarian passenger, who happened to be from Boise, looks at me and says, ‘That wasn’t so bad.’”
Wortley also recalls an incident he describes as “sort of a close call.” He was operating off Farwell Lake—a lake several miles long and about a mile wide—staging supplies. Frozen solid, the lake ice was completely blown free of snow, leaving the surface perfectly smooth with zero breaking action. “After landing we would slide and slide until eventually losing enough momentum to come to a stop. It was kinda fun except we had trouble staying on our feet after getting out of the airplane. One trip I landed a little long and it soon became obvious that the end of the lake would precede running out of momentum. There was only one airplane parked on this miles-long lake, and of course I had it bore-sighted. As I was sliding closer and closer, the other airplane’s owner was trying to decide which way to run, dodging one way then the other while trying to stay upright on the ice. Since it would be bad form to harpoon the only airplane and pedestrian on the lake I thought I should come up with a better plan. I had heard you could ground loop [swap ends by turning abruptly, changing direction 180 degrees] in this circumstance, adding full power while sliding backward to stop. I hadn’t done that before, but it worked. My passenger said that was kinda fun.”
The IAF pilots sometimes utilize what they call “a penguin” to help determine whether airplanes can get into a checkpoint during bad weather because they don’t have the usual weather reporting services in these remote areas. The penguin is a pilot who volunteers to attempt the route, either getting through to radio back that it’s okay for others to follow, or turning back. “In Antarctica,” Wortley explains the moniker, “penguins will walk up to the edge of an ice cliff in a group. One will get pushed off into the sea. If no seals eat it, then the rest will jump.”
Sometimes, IAF pilots find themselves in completely unanticipated situations. One year after the race finished, dispatch tasked Wortley with stopping by Cripple, the most remote checkpoint on the course, to pick up some fuel jugs and close the checkpoint. “It was a perfect day at Cripple,” Wortley remembers, “clear, cold, not a breath of wind, total silence and not a soul within a hundred miles. After loading up, I decided to hang around for awhile and savor this Jack London moment.” Wortley’s solitude was broken, however, when a man suddenly walked out of the woods. Turns out his snowmachine had become stuck. Wortley followed the man down a trail and while helping get him out, realized he didn’t have any survival equipment. “It had been minus 53 the night before. He declined a ride back to McGrath with me, so I got his name and reported his location to the folks in McGrath. I guess he made it out.”
Wortley reports there haven’t been any deaths or serious injuries among the pilots or passengers of the IAF, but there has been some bent metal over the years. As he says, the pilots remind themselves that “it’s just a dog race” and not worth risking life, limb or airplane. Ten years in, Wortley is still thoroughly enjoying his time flying with the IAF and has no plans to retire anytime soon.