As we enter the heart of the snowy season for North America, Colleen Mondor’s The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska underscores just what that “winter wonderland” often means for those stuck in it—and especially those who fly through it. Mondor spent four years in the 1990s running dispatch operations for a commuter and charter airline out of Fairbanks, Alaska, and saw first-hand the risks of piloting small planes in the wildest territory in the United States.
This fascinating and knowledgeable look at something we often take for granted delves into the history of aviation in Alaska, the story of tragic crashes, and provides indelible portraits of some of the pilots. In the preface, Mondor notes that she was “initially quite reticent to publish this book as a memoir, preferring the more forgiving fiction route as a way to keep the stories true but the names and places less factual.” For The Map of My Dead Pilots, therefore, she’s changed names and locations where necessary.
As you read through the first chapters, in which the pilots fear the cold weather and its effects on their instruments and planes, experience stress when transporting people, and good-naturedly haze the newest recruits, it’s hard not to think of what Mondor’s describing as a kind of war of attrition. The only difference? The enemy is the elements, with this added bonus: “Everyone lied to them.”
The Company lied from the very beginning, promising bigger paychecks, bigger airplanes, and a better schedule…The village agents lied about the weather…Ops almost always lied about the load …A dozen pumpkins for Ruby School weighing one hundred pounds were really thirty pumpkins weighing God knew what.
As you delve deeper into the book, chapters like “The Dead Body Contract,” “Dropping through a Hole in the Sky,” “The Worst Cargo in the World,” and “One Hundred Crash Stories” live up to the drama of their titles. (In case you’re wondering about the worst cargo in the world, here’s a hint: four paws and a harness.) At one point a pilot asks, “What the hell are my choices up there? You can’t see a damn thing, and mountains in all directions.” In The Map of My Dead Pilots, Mondor does a great job of giving readers a well-documented, frank, and clear idea of the harrowing nature of flying in Alaska. It’s not “Northern Exposure meets Air America” as the flap copy reads—it’s actually something much more interesting. Highly recommended.