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Moving Mountains For Iditarod Mushers

Alaska Airlines pilots fly ahead of the pack to support The Last Great Race in the bush

3/17/2010 10:58:38 AM

For the running of The Last Great Race, each of the 71 Iditarod mushers needs enough supplies on the trail to nearly max out the capacity of a three-quarter-ton pickup truck. That includes 600 pounds of meat, 400 pounds of dry dog food, 150 pounds of human food and drink, 100 pounds of extra equipment for sleds (runner plastic and spare parts), 50 pounds of personal gear, 40 pounds of dog booties and 10 pounds of batteries.

Getting all that out to checkpoints in the frigid, remote Alaskan bush requires a mosquito fleet of airplanes and the brave pilots who fly them - known as the Iditarod Air Force (IAF).

Alaska Airlines First Officer Bert Hanson serves as this year's IAF chief pilot. Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, Hanson has been an Iditarod Air Force pilot for a quarter century and chief pilot twice before. An Iditarod junkie of sorts, he likely has more flight volunteer hours than any other IAF pilot.

Joining Hanson are fellow Alaska Airlines pilots Phil Morgan, a 15-year IAF veteran, Dale Peterson and Anchorage Base Chief Pilot Sean Ellis. The four are part of a 30-member crew of pilot volunteers, without which the Iditarod would never happen.

Their work began long before the mushers left Anchorage on March 6 in order to stage supplies on the trail ahead of the pack. They also fly veterinarians and volunteers who work along the trail, dogs, sleds and whatever else can be packed into the tiny cargo and passenger holds of the single-engine airplanes, mostly Cessnas specially equipped with skis.

Ellis, who is an Iditarod Air Force rookie this year, says his role is limited to hauling dogs and freight. "When I get a season and 50 hours under my belt, then they'll let me haul a passenger or two."

Iditarod Air Force missions are so unique that the Federal Aviation Administration has had to grant an exemption to allow the bush pilots to do what they do. Landing on frozen rivers and lakes or whatever makeshift terrain can serve as a runway is part of the job - as is waiting out the weather.

The pilots share a passion for flying and a devotion to the sport. Their bird's-eye view of the course gives them a unique perspective, although getting in for the supply drop takes precedence over watching the race.

"One day we're in Anchorage, the next McGrath, the next Unalakleet and then Nome. It's cold, it's windy, it's snowing, it's sunny. It's an incredible winter experience and a great piece of history," says Russ Dunlap, an Alaska Airlines captain and longtime IAF volunteer who took this year off. "Everyone works very hard under very trying conditions, yet everyone has an incredible experience."

Many of the pilots get behind a sled themselves, as Hanson and Morgan have done in years past. Hanson ran the Iditarod in 1990 and 1993. Morgan's run, in 2005, earned him the coveted Red Lantern award, which goes to the last-place, or most-devoted, finisher.

But for all of the pilot volunteers, flying in the Alaskan bush and enjoying some of the most breathtaking land seen by man or dog is the highlight. Morgan's posting on the Iditarod Air Force Web site says it all. A photo of his Cessna, sitting on a glacier at the foot of a snow-covered rocky ridge, bears the caption, "Eat your heart out."

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