By Jessica Cherry
As I cruise westbound through what’s called Powerline Bend, I’m in awe of the silence. Not the engine, thank goodness, she’s still purring away, or the controller on the radio, orchestrating approaches and departures as other pilots echo her commands. The seat next to me, though, is empty. The pandemic has made us islanders and sometimes solo travelers.
For almost thirteen years now, I’ve been a pilot here in Alaska, flying small planes for science. I’ve gone through a goldilocks selection of instructors and contract pilots who flew with me, while I did photographic mapping or air chemistry measurements. As a research professor at the University, I won grants, built payloads, bought planes, and made a career. This took me to some unexpected places, into unmanned flight, and even the NASA astronaut selection process, twice. As the bottom fell out of the University’s budget, though, it could no longer even manage the funding I brought in. I saw no choice but to leave.
So here I am now, alone in the cockpit, learning to fly again simply for the pleasure of it, my original love, after all. The waypoints and destinations of Southcentral are still unfamiliar to me, and flying without work seems strange. Today, I’m passing over the Little Su, and then the Susitna, and turning north toward the Yentna. I see a floatplane landing at Figure Eight Lake and another, beneath me, headed for Lake Creek. The skies aren’t so big in this neighborhood. As in life, it’s important to listen and watch for others, and broadcast my own intentions.
There’s never been a better time, though, to explore this island in a self-contained vessel, with or without your co-isolates. No hotels, no restaurants, no closed communities: just day trips and camping for me this summer. Out here, in this glacial wasted valley, I see last week’s rains have made the shrubs alive and green again. The Sleeping Lady’s white blankets are melting back in the sun. The rivers aren’t high, but they aren’t dry either. I follow the features of the land and match them with the names on the sectional chart: Bell Island, Flat Horn Lake, Alexander Creek. Beyond are Beluga and Strandline Lakes, where I’ve gone to see the glacial outbursts.
Slowly, I’m building familiarity with the landscape, as well as the quiet cockpit. Maybe soon, I’ll coax my husband onboard. Without revenue, though, my days of flying won’t last forever; better to take them now. If you don’t fly, get out for a bike ride, a walk, a wheelchair stroll. Find new paths, and learn new routes; feel the muscle of your own mind again. Here, on this temporary island, may be a rare moment for both great discomfort and pure joy.
Jessica Cherry, PhD is a scientist, writer, and commercial airplane pilot living in Anchorage and Fairbanks. She writes the weekly Hindcast column for the Anchorage Press