It's May 1995, and Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick lifts off from Alaska's Kahiltna Glacier with a group (which included this writer) that just skied Denali. The then-28-year-old pilot climbs to cruising altitude, pops through a narrow pass en route out of the park, points the nose of the plane down, and suddenly spirals earthward about 5,000 feet at 160 miles per hour to peer at a grizzly bear. Though his passengers' hearts are racing, for Roderick, "it's just another day in the office of an airplane."
For almost 16 years, the Simsbury, Connecticut, native has flown thousands of skiers and climbers (not to mention sightseers) into Denali National Park, first as a pilot for, and then as an owner of, the air taxi business, which he bought in 1996. Since then he's expanded from two to six planes (mostly six-passenger Beavers) and 10 pilots. With three million acres on his permit, he's intimate with virtually every spire, river, icefall, and fall line in the area. "Paul can scope a line from the air, land on a shelf of ice with just enough area for one plane, and then ski the plumb lines," says Danial Doty, a skier who works for Roderick as a pilot and mechanic.
Roderick only flies when the visibility is three miles or more. When the route's clear, he typically makes a 15-minute flight to a glacier, often with his wife, Whitney, where they skin several thousand feet for untracked powder runs before returning to shuttle the day's clients. When your demanding job takes place in America's wildest country, rigorous attention is requisite. "Sometimes you draw on every little thing you know, including intuition, to safely land on a glacier-and be able to take off again."
LEAP OF FAITH
"When Whitney was seven months pregnant, we got stuck in the Talkeetna Mountains, and I had to unload the entire plane to get free. I took off without her, not knowing when I'd be able to land again."
On avoiding a collision with a helicopter in 1996: "I saw him at the last second, but he didn't see me. I banked as hard as I could but still clipped him. The helicopter rotor cut the tail wheel off and left slashes on the plane."
DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT "Fly with at least 50 pounds of emergency gear, because if you get stuck, you can be out there for days."