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Iditarod's air support

Volunteer pilots serve 'The Last Great Race'

This March marked the running of the fifty-second Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, crossing nearly 1,000 miles of Alaska wilderness in little more than a week. While each team races alone, a volunteer squadron provides air support in Cessna Skywagons.

With the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage on March 2, followed by the official restart in Willow the following day, reaching Nome pushed the most competitive mushers and their teams to their physical limits. (Dallas Seavey won his record sixth Iditarod, overcoming a two-hour penalty for improperly gutting a moose that attacked his team to finish in 9 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes, 8 seconds.)

The famously challenging race leads competitors through remote areas of Alaska, and through it all, the mushers and dogs are supported by the Iditarod Air Force.

The all-volunteer group of over 20 pilots and their airplanes, plus ground-based support staff, fly a variety of supplies, veterinarians, and race officials to and from the mandatory checkpoints along the route. They deliver everything from food and drop bags for racers and their teams to fuel for snowmachines breaking the Iditarod trail ahead of the sleds. The volunteer veterinarians are often from around the world, excited to help support the Iditarod and check and tend to the dog teams throughout the race. Most of the airplanes in the fleet are Cessna 180 or 185 Skywagons operated on hydraulic skis. By the end of the race, the group will have flown close to 1,000 hours. Each pilot, most of whom are ATPs, averages 50 to 70 hours, and about 200 of the total hours were flown before the race putting supplies and people in position.

Musher Wally Robinson agreed to run Josh McNeal's team for the 2024 event, according to the race website, with his friend recuperating from an injury. An Iditarod veteran who moved to Alaska in 1999, Robinson finished eleventh of 28 mushers who finished the race, completing the trek in 9 days, 23 hours, 22 minutes, 22 seconds. Photo by Chris Rose.
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Musher Wally Robinson agreed to run Josh McNeal's team for the 2024 event, according to the race website, with his friend recuperating from an injury. An Iditarod veteran who moved to Alaska in 1999, Robinson finished eleventh of 28 mushers who finished the race, completing the trek in 9 days, 23 hours, 22 minutes, 22 seconds. Photo by Chris Rose.

Click images in the gallery to enlarge and view captions.

Teams pull out of Anchorage, Alaska, on March 2, the ceremonial start of the fifty-second Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The dogs wear paw protection to guard against injury, not the frigid temperatures to which they are exquisitely well-adapted. Photo by Chris Rose. A journey of 975 miles (in even years) begins with an 11-mile dash from Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip. Photo by Chris Rose. Spectators disperse after the last teams pull out of town. Photo by Jamal Warner. Flying along the Iditarod Trail as the racecourse parallels Hunch Creek, north of Takotna, approaching the halfway point. Photo by Alcia Herron. Iditarod Air Force pilot Monte Mabry (with the author aboard) on the return trip from Skwentna. Photo by Chris Rose.
Photo by Chris Rose.
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Photo by Chris Rose.

The flying really ramps up after the official restart. During the race, the IAF, which operates under a unique FAA exemption and follows a hybrid of FAR Part 91 and Part 135 guidelines, uses a hub-and-spoke model to better support the race. The operation comprises not just pilots flying their airplanes; dispatchers, load coordinators, and other support staff deploy to one of three locations. For the earliest checkpoints, IAF dispatches its fleet out of the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage (the official hotel of the Iditarod). From there, it uses McGrath Airport and then Unalakleet Airport as hubs. And the work isn’t over once the race is done—the IAF also hauls out everything and everyone it flies in.

Unsurprisingly, the volunteer aviators' biggest challenge is contending with Alaska’s winter weather. As teams approached the McGrath checkpoint at mile 311, a few bad weather days of perfect whiteout conditions with blowing snow cutting visibility down to the hundreds, and ice, put the day-VFR-only team slightly behind schedule. But the weather’s always changing, and with a break in the clouds and snow, the team made up for lost time before the first mushers arrived.

Mackenzie Fischer, load coordinator in McGrath, sent out 17 flights that afternoon. Mackenzie’s dad, Greg, a longtime IAF volunteer, was assigned to fly to nearby Nikolai in his Skywagon. Mackenzie is a pilot too, although the Super Cub she flies is not quite as suited to hauling people, dogs, and gear as the rest of the fleet.

In McGrath’s dispatch room (fondly labeled the “Iditaroom”), assistant chief pilot Diana Moroney said, “There’s something about Iditarod that once you start running it or volunteering for it you get sucked in for life it seems. And that’s really true.”

She has a unique perspective as an experienced backcountry pilot, a retired Boeing 747 pilot for Atlas Air, and a dog musher who ran the Iditarod 10 times between 1984 and 2005. Her husband Bruce also ran the race twice. They both fly their Skywagon in support of the race, although Diana, as McGrath’s assistant chief pilot, flies less than Bruce, who a few days into the race had already flown nearly 40 hours.

Iditarod in one way or another, said Moroney, “has been our life—my life—since ‘83. The flying is just so much fun. It’s great to fly the trail.”

The race follows the Iditarod National Historic Trail. Learn more about "The Last Great Race," and the air force that supports it, online.

The author, left; AOPA Senior Photographer Chris Rose in the back seat; and pilot Monte Mabry. Photo by Alicia Herron. Heavy snowfall ahead of the race only slightly slowed the logistics operation at McGrath. Photo by Chris Rose. The sun shines on locally based aircraft parked on the ramp at McGrath Airport March 5. Photo by Chris Rose. Mushers and teams run through the darkness approaching the race checkpoint in McGrath, mile 311 of 975 for the 2024 Iditarod. Photo by Chris Rose. Iditarod Air Force missions include picking up dogs at various checkpoints (Nikolai, in this case). Mushers expect that dogs will need to leave the race, usually because of fatigue, and be given a ride back to Anchorage in an airplane. Photo by Chris Rose. Iditarod Air Force pilots report their canine passengers are generally among the most well-behaved, pleasant company one could want. Photo by Chris Rose. Greg Fischer has seen many of his flying days go to the dogs, and his daughter also volunteers with the Iditarod Air Force. Photo by Chris Rose. Iditarod volunteer pilot Ed Kornfield of Anchorage flies his Cessna 180 on one of the first sets of straight skis created for the versatile model. Photo by Chris Rose.
Top teams average more than 100 miles per day, finishing the 975-mile course in just over nine days. Photo by Chris Rose.
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Top teams average more than 100 miles per day, finishing the 975-mile course in just over nine days. Photo by Chris Rose.
Alyssa J. Miller
Alicia Herron
Publications Content Producer
Publications Content Producer Alicia Herron joined AOPA in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. She is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.
Topics: Alaska, People, Public Benefit Flying

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