Personal Stories of America at Work
How a City Boy Trades Driving the Freeways for Flying in the Bush
LA city boy Rob Norberg lives off the grid as a bush pilot in the Alaskan frontier
Conquering a fear of flying
I have been flying for twenty years and work as a seasonal bush pilot for a fishing lodge in Dillingham, Alaska. People stay for a week, and we take them fishing in the wild.
I grew up in LA, so I am a city boy, but I always yearned to see Alaska. For a year or two I read everything I could find on Alaskan bush pilots. Alaska still has that sense of frontier and freedom that allows you to be your own person, be somewhat off the grid, and not be so exposed to the crowds and the rigmarole of society. Flying is the ultimate extension of that because you are going to places only accessible by airplane.
Ironically, I have always had a fear of flying. It wasn’t ever totally comfortable for me, and I think that fear has helped me be safe. Some people think, “How could you even be a bush pilot if you have fear?” But, you face it, you deal with it, and you live with it every day.
Creativity and intuition when nasty weather hits
I am reminded of the risks when an accident happens. A few years back, one of the lodge planes crashed. The pilot was trying to take off on Kodiak River with a heavy load in bad weather. He crashed right into the trees, ripped the wings and the floats off the airplane and flipped over into the trees. Luckily, the fuselage didn’t contact a tree directly because the wings hitting the trees slowed the whole wreck down. Nobody really got hurt, but it could have been fatal.
After you have been doing the same routes for a while, flying can become repetitive, dull, and boring. But when the nasty weather hits, I feel my creativity and intuition kick in. There are different routes you can take which can make the difference between success and failure. One way may be really turbulent and the other isn’t so bad. You have to be calm and feel which one is the right way to go.
A company near us had two airplanes flying back from the same place. One of them made it, and the other disappeared off the map. They didn’t find it until a month later. It had crashed in the ocean. No survivors; everybody gone, just because that pilot had decided to go a different route.
There is going-fishing weather, and there is going-home weather
Statistics show that up here, a pilot in Alaska is the second most dangerous job behind commercial fishermen. We fly around in airplanes out in the bush with unpredictable weather, so no matter how much we try to make it safe, there are always things that can go wrong. Last year, former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens died in a crash seven miles behind our lodge. That day, I had flown that same route four times. I was within a few miles of his crash site about a half hour after his plane crashed and it was one of those weather days when you have to make a decision: “Am I going to try to fly below the clouds?”
Sometimes, I take groups out and fly three to four hours a day in unpopulated country. Nobody else is out there, no air traffic control, no runways, no designated procedures on what you are supposed to do as a pilot. You are just figuring it out every time on your own, looking for different landing spots, looking for debris in the rivers, looking for dangerous conditions.
There is a saying, “There is going-fishing weather, and there is going-home weather.” Some days, it is nice in the morning, so you fly out. The group fishes all day, then a storm system comes in. You don’t want to have people sitting out on a river exposed with no shelter or warmth, so there is a certain amount of pressure to fly in crappy weather to get them home.
I am very thankful that I haven’t injured anybody in an airplane crash. In the type of flying I do, you get direct feedback that you have given somebody an incredible experience. I have had people come back to me and say, “That flight was the highlight of my entire Alaska fishing vacation—flying low on those rivers and through the mountains and seeing the scenery we saw: the bear, the moose, all the wildlife.”
Maybe I’m not meant to live a mainstream existence
I work in the summer, and I have the winter off. I don’t mind that I am not in one place because I get to travel and see family and friends in other states and places. I wouldn’t get that opportunity if I were stuck in a 9-to-5 job year-round with only two weeks of vacation. It took me a long time to accept the fact that maybe I’m just not meant to live a mainstream existence.
I did experiment with coming back to the city and getting a property management job. But I hated the long commute, I was tired all the time, and I did not look forward to going to work. I have never felt that with flying. I fly an hour or two, take a big long break in the middle of the day, go hiking, take a nap, rest, go fishing, and fly back in the afternoon.
Will I be a grumpy old bush pilot? Maybe. But the vigor and enthusiasm I bring to it every year that I go back is dependent on my attitude. I feel lucky that I found my vocation. I’m taking it year by year, and this is as good as it gets right now.
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