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Fixed-Wing Alaska

What’s more fun: skiing AK or flying over it with Drake Olsen?
posted: 11/15/2011

n a pilot, I like a man of few words—a Chesley B. Sullenberger III “brace for impact” type who lets his flying speak for itself. Silence lets you know he is concentrating. When he speaks up, you know it’s important. So I like our ski-plane pilot, Drake Olsen. When he says stay nearby, I don’t need to be told twice.

I am skinning laps a few miles inland from Haines, Alaska, in the Coast range with Alaska Mountain Guides. My buddies and I blew our budget on two days of heli-skiing in Skagway, so we came south to eke out another day up high—an airplane’s flight time in Alaska costs a fraction of a helicopter’s, but the skiing is every bit as spectacular. A thousand feet below, Olsen’s blue Cessna 182 is a toy on the glacier, but I can still see him, squatting on the snow beneath the wing, eyeing the roiling clouds in the narrow exit to the crown of massive peaks around us. It’s a marginal day, and heavy weather is in the forecast.

With a cameo in the 2010 TGR flick Deeper and a profile on National Geographic Television, Olsen is becoming a legend in the bush-pilot world. A former race-car driver, he spent his 20s living out of his pickup like a ski bum but hanging around racetracks. He worked as a mechanic and did whatever it took to get behind the wheel of a car. When he says, “It turns out I was a good driver, and I was fast,” it’s classic Olsen understatement. In fact, he raced the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans and won the 1985 Porsche Cup. After a few nasty wrecks, though, he “began to wonder if it was really worth it all” and quit the sport at age 35 for the “safety” of flying single-engine planes in Alaska—a notoriously deadly profession.

But he’s survived 16 years of what he calls “mountain work,” so when at the bottom of our second lap of carveable spring corn he barks at us to pile into the plane, the three of us move fast. He has no interest in getting stuck up here for the next week, and as soon as we stow skis and packs and buckle our seat belts, Olsen guns the engine, speeds across the snow, and darts us through the narrow slot and swirling clouds to safety.

Olsen flies like a skier, swooping, climbing, and arcing high-angle turns through the air. He says he thinks of flying the same way he used to approach slalom gates—trying to preserve or even increase momentum in the turn. Especially when the air is smooth, he says, the perfect turn is possible. In the airplane, that means extra g-forces, and when he banks around the deep belly of a cirque, the compression adds more punch to the swooping arc. With his left hand he operates a silver iPod, which is patched into our headphones. He tries one song and then another as we buzz serrated peaks and thread rocky notches in search of cloud-free zones and clear glacial shelves to land on. We’ve got more skiing to do.

But Olsen himself is also searching for those perfect moments in the air. Music, he tells me later, helps define those moments, and sure enough he settles on the Pixies song “Where Is My Mind?,” the one from the end of Fight Club when the narrator realizes he’s in a schizophrenic state of sleepwalking and skyscrapers explode all around him. It’s ethereal and searing at the same time, and though Drake has admitted that mountain flying has given him a head of gray hair, that “it can be more than a person wants for sure,” in the moment he isn’t saying much of anything. Enthralled by the song and the windshield full of tilted mountains, we’re all dead quiet as Olsen pulls us through the next perfect turn. 

» Lodging Sheltered Harbor Bed & Breakfast [ashelteredharbor.com]

» Libations The Bamboo Room & Pioneer Bar [bamboopioneer.net]

» Guide Alaska Mountain Guides [alaskamountainguides.com]

» Plane Fly Drake [flydrake.com]

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