Local doctor flying with Iditarod Air Force Supporting mushers and race staff for 12th year

 By DARRELL L. BREESE

Alaska Star

Traveling from Anchorage to Nome via dog sled is a monumental challenge, but that doesn’t keep the competitive and adventurous from lining up year after year to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

But few sled dog racers have logged as many miles on the Iditarod Trail as Eagle River doctor and owner of Chugach Family Medicine Tim Skala. While he’s never driven a dog team under the burled arch on Front Street in Nome, the doctor has been taking time off work every year since 1995, flying up and down the trail in support of the race as a member of the all-volunteer Iditarod Air Force.

Skala and his 1961 Cessna 185A journey from checkpoint to checkpoint every March shuttling supplies, veterinarians, other volunteers, food and even dogs. One of 29 pilots in this year’s Iditarod Air Force, he flies just about everything into and out of the various checkpoints along the trail.

He originally came to Alaska in 1974 as a flight surgeon for the 120th Assault Helicopter Company stationed at Fort Richardson.

“My job was to care for the pilots and their families and to promote aviation safety as it related to altitude physiology and medical issues,” Skala said. “In return, the pilots taught me to fly helicopters Hueys, Cobra gunships and Bell Jet Rangers.”

His passion for flying began then and quickly moved from the helicopters to fixed wing pilot aircraft, leading to him getting his pilot’s license in 1976 and purchasing his first plane in 1981.

Skala calls his current flying partner, a white and black-striped Cessna, the ultimate bush hauler.

“It began its life as a 260-horsepower, straight wheel aircraft,” he said. “But its mom wouldn’t recognize it today. It’s far from stock now, having undergone many Alaska modifications.

Among the improvements are a bigger engine, a three blade propeller, enhanced instrument panel, radios and navigation aids. The aircraft is also set up with wheel-skis and a tail ski for the race. Skala claims it’s able to fly at approximately 145 miles per hour while carrying a load of 1,500 pounds, making the plane the workhorse of the team.

As part of the last year’s Iditarod Air Force, Skala helped bring 537 dropped and scratched dogs back to Anchorage, delivered more than 74,513 pounds of dog food, 562 bales of straw, 48 veterinarians, 44 communications volunteers and all of their equipment and over 100 race judges in support of the race.

“We all know they can’t have their race without the supplies, so we get them there,” Skala said. “It’d be frightfully expensive if they had to pay to ship all that gear. So it takes a lot of people that just enjoy the adventure of the race and flying to get the job done.”

Skala said one reason he enjoys being part of the race is getting to the villages - Ruby, Takotna, Unalakleet - and meeting the people.

“Villagers give special status to pilots,” he said. “I think that’s because the villagers grow up in one place and usually stay there except for short jaunts. But pilots have wings to travel far. It’s that freedom to go that they admire.”

Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman tries to send as many supplies as possible to the checkpoints by mail and with race sponsors Northern Air Cargo and PenAir, who carry some of the larger loads. But he said the small plane pilots, with their ability to land on small village airstrips and frozen rivers and lakes, do the bulk of the transporting.

“Flying for the Iditarod is a skill in its own right,” Nordman said. “We’re flying in awfully big country in awfully small airplanes. Though the air force has had accidents during the 30-year history of the race, none have been fatal. The emphasis is on safety. After all, it’s only a dog race.”

To keep things safe, Iditarod officials require that the pilots have at least 1,000 hours of flying time, with 500 hours of that in Alaska. They are also required to have at least 100 hours of winter flying and 100 hours in a ski-equipped plane.

During their trips up and down the trail, the Iditarod Air Force pilots have a bird's-eye view of the dog teams as they make their way to Nome.

“You almost need a plane to keep up with some of the teams,” Skala said. “They’ve turned what used to be a 20-day camping trip into a real race. I don’t think the top teams would be able to go as fast if it weren’t for the air force.”

For Skala and the rest of the Iditarod Air Force, the race began almost a month ago, and it doesn’t end until well after the final dog team reaches Nome.

“We’ve been flying supplies for the last two weeks,” Skala said Friday. “Once the race starts, things really get busy, and we’ll be in the air every day.”

Saturday, the day before the official start of the race in Willow, Skala began making daily flights to and from the checkpoints.

“I’ll spend the first four days in support of the race from Rainy Pass and Rohn back to Anchorage,” Skala said. “After that, I will fly up to Unalakleet and fly out of there for the rest of the race.”

In addition to the difficulties of flying in and out of remote villages on makeshift airstrips, Skala said the trickiest part of the air force is making sure the dogs don’t have any nasty little accidents in the plane.

“You have to make sure they don’t drink right before a flight, and there will no in-flight meal service either,” he quipped. “Then you have to get them out of the plane as fast as you can. Thankfully, in all my years of flying, I’ve only had one dog leave something behind for me after the flight.”

The same thing that attracts the men and their dog teams to the race each year is what keeps Skala coming back.

“It’s all about the adventure,” he said. “I decided to stay in Alaska because of the opportunities for adventure, and flying in support of the Iditarod is the ultimate adventure.

Reach the reporter at darrell.breese@alaskastar.com.