Illustrations by Avalon Nuovo
On an otherwise unremarkable Alaskan day, four teenage boys decided to kill themselves in the village of Nulato. They got a shotgun and a bottle, built a campfire down the road and told their families all the things they needed to tell so no one missed them or worried or went looking. They passed the bottle, told their stories, cried their tears and made their promises. Then one of them pointed the gun at himself, pulled the trigger and died.
The other three boys panicked. There was no more shooting that night in Nulato. The suicide pact was exposed, phone calls were made and the Alaska State Troopers flew in from their post 35 miles away. The next morning, in Fairbanks, we were readying a pilot to fly out for the dead boy when the school district counselor called us for a ride. He lived in Nulato and needed to get back home. He knew the boys as if they were his own and he was devastated.
Near the village airport’s gravel strip a truck was waiting for the plane. The three men in the truck bed stood beside the body as the plane taxied up. The pilot knew them all, knew they were there because they could handle it – they could hold their emotions in check. The counselor asked about the other boys, about the families.
After a few minutes, the pilot took one end of the body bag; another man held the other and they climbed up the steps into the cabin of the Piper Navajo plane. The pilot strapped the body down, then walked back outside to say goodbye. The counselor climbed into the back of the truck with the others and they watched and waited as the engines started and the plane took off. Then, for the next hour and a half, it was just our company pilot and the dead boy, flying along the Yukon River and heading back to town.
In the mid-1990s I worked as a dispatcher for a bush commuter and air taxi service based in Fairbanks, Alaska. The company was like dozens of others in the state, operating multiple small aircraft carrying a combination of passengers, cargo and mail. We flew everything from sled dogs, snowmachines and groceries to firefighting crews, high school sports teams and prisoners. For a few years we also operated the state contract for transportation of the recently deceased in Interior Alaska, or what we dubbed the “Dead Body Contract.”
The State of Alaska medical examiner is located in Anchorage and all bodies in cases of unnatural or unexpected deaths requiring an autopsy must be transported there. Between the larger towns and cities, this transportation is primarily accomplished by Alaska Airlines, but most of the runways in Alaska are too small for jet traffic. So about twenty years ago a contract was announced for air taxis operating twin-engine aircraft in the Interior and, as our owner proudly announced one afternoon, we were the low bidders.
Then he walked into his office, shut the door and left the rest of us to deal with it.
Regardless of the circumstances resulting in a questionable death, whether suicide, accident, murder or mystery, the contract meant that we were part of the aftermath – and we knew we were going to be busy. (Alaska is one of the most violent states in the entire U.S., consistently ranked first or second in suicide, shootings, and alcohol-related deaths.) We had flown grieving families to funerals for years, but now we had to become accustomed to seeing Interior Alaska’s tragedies as part of our job, and all too often, the dead were people we knew.
One of our regular passengers walked in the door on a Friday afternoon cheerfully announcing he had spent every last dime while in town. “I’ve got nothing left but my ticket home!” he told us with a grin. “I had all the fun and now I need to get back to work.”
He lived in Chalkyitsik, a tiny village just north of the Arctic Circle with a population of less than one hundred. He walked out to the plane laughing and telling stories all the way.
But on Monday morning the Alaska State Troopers called us to go back for his body. He had gotten into an alcohol-fueled argument Sunday night with a cousin who stabbed him to death.
The same pilot flew both flights. “He was so happy,” the pilot told us Monday night, shaking his head. “He had a good time in town and he was just so happy to be getting back to fishing and seeing his family.”
During the years we flew the contract, no discernible patterns emerged. There were no villages more dangerous than others, none more prone to particular brands of death.
There were four-wheelers that rolled off roads, trucks that crashed into buildings, and snowmachines that slammed into trees. People were shot dead in arguments fueled by fear and fraught with love gone wrong. We flew people who died from stabbing, drowning, hanging and drug overdose.
We heard the stories of how it happened – “he was angry,” “he was sad,” “he wasn’t paying attention,” “she didn’t mean it,” “it was an accident,” “it was a fight,” “they were drinking,” “they shouldn’t have been out there,” “we don’t know why he did it.”
“You just can’t tell these kids anything,” someone would say, “you just can’t tell them not to do it.”
And the worst one, for the death that was so very, very small: “I put the baby to bed and she didn’t wake up.”
We listened and we nodded and we did what we were paid to do. I called in the pilot, I sent out the plane, I explained, again, endlessly, that “No, nobody can fly onboard with the body.”
We got a phone call from a woman asking if we’d picked up her father’s body yet. We had.
“You going to let me come out and see him?” she asked.
“No,” I said, because I had to.
I knew this woman; we flew her husband often for work, and had flown her whole family out to the village many times.
“You won’t let me?” she asked.
“You know I can’t.”
She came to the airport anyway and stood there sobbing as the plane taxied in, and none of us knew what to say but “I’m sorry – for what happened here, for what happened to you; we are so very sorry.”
Her brother was brought in separately, on a medevac to the hospital. He was the passenger on the snowmachine that ran their father down as he was walking home shortly after midnight. The driver was later sentenced to nine months in jail for criminally negligent homicide and drunken driving; he was 21 years old and it was his third DWI that year.
When we heard one day we had two drowning victims in Koyukuk, no one wanted to go. Finally the chief pilot took the flight. Drowning victims were notoriously difficult to handle and the available pilots all felt that these deaths were going to be more disturbing than any of them were willing to deal with.
The men were out on a boat, fishing on the Yukon River, when they apparently hit something and lost control, falling into the water. The Yukon is a fast moving river, averaging seven miles-per-hour, with an early summer temperature of about fifty degrees. The fishermen never had a chance.
The next day the bodies were found but one of them had become tangled up in the nets and swollen to a size that could not fit in a body bag. His friends had him covered in one of the blue tarps that are so ubiquitous to Alaskan life. He was the Village Public Safety Officer, a truly decent guy who was much admired by everyone; on any other day it would have been his job to wrap up the body.
The pilots loaded the body bags into the cabin of our Piper Navajo aircraft and strapped them down for flight. Hours later we unloaded them in Fairbanks and transferred them to the back of our company van; the cargo guys drove them around the airport with a slip of paper to pass along to Alaska Airlines with the vital information on the deceased. The whole process was neither dignified nor funerary, but we did our best to be respectful. Flying tired aircraft and driving on a dusty dirt road, we did our best.
“We will take care of them,” we said again and again; we said it every time. “We will take care of them.”
The grind of the contract wore on us though. We understood accidents, but the boy who drank himself into oblivion and held a shotgun to his chest bruised our hearts. The parents who heard the shot fired from their bedroom, just a few feet away, were more grief-stricken than anyone could bear. The best friend who hung himself three months later was just another aching reminder that the solutions to preventing teen suicide seemed to be moving further and further out of sight. And then Nulato happened, those four boys setting out that night to kill themselves because that was all they thought they could do. After Nulato, the contract very nearly became impossible.
There is no longer a bidding contract to transport the dead in Alaska. More than ten years ago (this article was written in 2017), the state transferred to a system of individual charters and now aviation companies are contacted on a case-by-case basis when a body must be moved. This is similar to how other state agencies operate, but it is still the aviation companies that load and unload the bodies, still the company employees who are conscripted as immediate grief counselors who must answer the phone and tell families they cannot see the body when it arrives in Fairbanks.
Before you go to work there, they will tell you that aviation in Alaska is an industry that specializes in all that is exciting and romantic and wild. What you find out flying the dead though, is that it is also full of heartache, and no one in the Last Frontier has figured out yet what we can do to heal that bitter and killing wound.
Colleen Mondor is the author of The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska. Her next project is a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition and she writes about researching exploration and aviation history on TinyLetter.com/ColleenMondor.