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North to Alaska: Bayard’s First Trip to the Alaskan Wilderness

This is the first installment in a series I’m calling “North to Alaska.” If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been missing from the lower 48 for a little while. I have spent the past few months up at Talaheim Lodge in Alaska, flying heli-fisherman up to the remote waters there, where they’ll be surrounded by nothing but beautiful valley nestled between towering mountains. Since semi-retiring from Enstrom, I’ve been able to spend more and more time serving as a pilot and mechanic at the lodge.

Before I let you in on the details of my current adventures, I want to explain how I fell in love with the Alaskan wilderness in the first place. To do that, let’s rewind the clock way back to my early days as an Enstrom dealer.

Heli-fishing in Alaska

Call of the Wild

Between 1973 and 2000, I ran a small aircraft repair shop in Eastern Pennsylvania. During that time, I had 5 mechanics working for me, and I was looking for a way to keep the shop busy during a downturn in aviation interest. I considered expanding into the world of helicopters, but to be honest, I couldn’t even spell the word “helicopter” at the time. A local company had purchased an Enstrom and asked me if I was interested in working on it. That was the opening I needed.  I called Enstrom, and they confirmed they were interested in opening a service center in the Philadelphia area.

By the late 80s, I was a certified Enstrom dealer, advertising technical representative services and selling parts. I had business connections all over the world, allowing me to help people figure out what was wrong with their helicopters and sell them the parts to fix it.

Mark Miller, the bush pilot who operates Talaheim Lodge, was one of my parts customers at the time. He flew reindeer herding for a guy in Nome for a few years and received an Enstrom F-28F as part of his compensation for his services.

Talaheim Lodge, present day. Back in 1995, there was no landing strip.

In August of 1995, Mark was having MRGB overheating problems. He tried his best to keep the helicopter flying for a few more weeks to finish the season, but his issues kept getting worse. He finally had to set it down in a tundra meadow near a lake about 15 miles from the lodge and about 65 miles west of Anchorage.

Crews had planned to sling it out of the meadow with a Huey, but they had trouble coming down from a mountain. I was getting ready to send Mark my hydraulic pump puller, when he asked me to fly up to the tundra myself and help him change the transmission myself! I promised I’d get the job done no matter how long it took.

It was a decision that sparked a lifelong love of the Alaskan wilderness.

Removing the hub and transmission

Repairing the Model F

After landing in Anchorage, some Alaskan bush carriers picked me up in a Beaver on floats and flew me to the Talachulitna River, where Mark picked me up in a boat. The lodge Mark had been staying at was about a mile downstream. The next day, we flew out in Mark’s Cessna 180 and a friend’s Super Cub on floats and landed in a nearby lake, before hiking up about 100 yards to the helicopter.

The weather was perfect, so we got right to work. We removed the hub and transmission and slid them down a couple of cataraft rails on a piece of plywood. We were able to transport the parts down to the lake and the 180 by early evening.

The elements weren’t as kind to us the next day, so we stayed back at the lodge. I remember rain pouring down from the sky as I sorted through the hub and swashplates in the workshop. I jacked the swashplate apart using a sawed-off timber and a bottle jack against door jam.

The third day dawned. The skies were bright and sunny again! Mark and I flew back out to the lake and reassembled the helicopter.  We’d flown out another helicopter Mark owned, a model A, which was waiting for us in the valley. By early evening, we were ready to fly both helicopters back to the lodge.

I flew the model A back to the lodge. It was the first time I flew a helicopter in Alaska. Little did I know then, it would be far from the last.

Bayard duPont is the Senior Technical Fellow Product and Technical Representative at Enstrom Helicopter.

About Enstrom Helicopter

From Rudy Enstrom’s early designs in 1943 to initial testing in a Michigan Quarry in 1957 to aircraft operating on six continents, Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has maintained a reputation for safety, value and performance. Based in Menominee, Michigan and proudly made in the United States, Enstrom has a rich history for design innovation. The goal is to provide helicopters to the customer’s exact specification and deliver support and maintenance worldwide.