Flying on the Edge

Thomas Bowen's book chronicles the exhilarating flights of pilot Ike Russell.

Backcountry pilot Ike Russell was probably responsible for a lot of plane crashes. He was in only eight of them himself; the rest involved people trying to follow his example.

"Ike was good enough to land in tight places where other pilots couldn't," said anthropologist Thomas Bowen, one of dozens of scientists Russell flew from Tucson into hidden pockets of northern Mexico and points beyond for fieldwork. "Other pilots would come along, see his tracks down on this short little beach and try to land there. You'd fly over later, and the wreckage would mark their attempt."

Ike Russell died in his own bed in 1980, not in an accident as some of his white-knuckled passengers feared. But Ike legends linger in the air, spreading like contrails. Bowen has compiled stories from nearly 30 people in Backcountry Pilot: Flying Adventures with Ike Russell, published last month by the University of Arizona Press. Contributors include anthropologist Alan Walker, ethnologist Bunny Fontana, conservationist Richard Felger and writer-hellraiser Doug Peacock.

Based now in Wyoming, Bowen is also a research associate at the University of Arizona's Southwest Center, which supported the book financially. In an interview there a couple of weeks ago, Bowen said he got the idea for Backcountry Pilot one night when he was discussing fieldwork with other scientists. "It's hard to talk about field experiences without Ike Russell popping into the picture," he said. "I realized that all of us who flew with him are getting on in age, and if these stories didn't get recorded soon, they'd all be gone."

After a frustrating episode of ranching in the San Pedro Valley, Ike and his family settled in Tucson in 1951 on a few fertile acres between two channels of the Santa Cruz. His wife, Jean, still lives on the grassy, tree-shaded property, tending chickens, a few cows and Ike's grave--independent to the end, Ike insisted on being buried in his back yard.

Not long ago, the Russell family, contributors to the book and other friends gathered just east of the chicken coop to autograph each other's books in an atmosphere as giddy and wistful as a high-school yearbook-signing party. Periodically they would pull themselves away from the tamales and machaca to form a semicircle and tell tales.

Just for the price of gas, Ike had flown them around to collect botanical specimens and interview Seri Indians and sneak the occasional rattlesnake or exotic insect back across the border. This took place mostly in the 1960s and '70s, but the memories were as vivid as if they and Ike had touched down at Ryan Field only an hour before.

"Ike and Jean were important figures in the Tucson intellectual community," Bowen had said the previous day. "Ike's own intellect was towering, and Ike and Jean knew so many of us who were involved in natural history, science and the arts and gave us incredible help. So Ike in that sense is one of the major figures in Tucson history. He had this unusual niche of being a bush pilot who would do just about anything."

In the book, stories abound of Ike landing on--and, luckily, taking off from--tiny, remote beaches; Ike flying low and slow for aerial surveys that would cause other pilots to panic over the possibility of stalling out; Ike delivering medicine and supplies to isolated Mexican communities; Ike spending hours sweet-talking his way past Mexican customs officials when a small bribe could have gotten him through in a few minutes; and Ike waiting out bad weather by landing on some rancher's dirt road, enjoying the startled family's hospitality, and taking off just ahead of a truckload of irate, armed Mexican officials. There's even one tale of Ike ducking a midair shootout after inadvertently landing in a nest of Sinaloa drug smugglers.

The refrain running through about half the book's anecdotes is, "I wondered what I'd gotten myself into."

"One person I asked to contribute to the book wrote back and said, 'I went up several times, was terrified each time, and finally quit,'" Bowen said. "But a person being scared doesn't necessarily mean that there's any danger. Ike flew all those years very close to the margin, but he never killed anybody, and he never injured anybody seriously. But the big question is, was Ike really that good, or was he just lucky?"

Whether by skill or the grace of God, Russell got through more than a few scrapes, some of which were his own fault--most commonly, not bothering to carry enough fuel.

"Ike learned to fly in the 1940s from crop dusters, World War II pilots and people who grew up with open cockpits and engines that quit all the time," Bowen said. "Their view of dealing with an emergency was not to try everything possible to keep emergencies from happening, because that would've been futile with those planes. Instead, they made sure they knew what to do when emergencies came up. Ike could solve problems almost instantly when they came up, so he never worried about them in advance.

"Ike was willing to cut the margin close, but I would hasten to add that everybody I've talked to is adamant that he never took risks intentionally. It's just that Ike did not want to make flying a routine way of getting from point A to point B. If there wasn't some adventure in it, he wasn't interested."

Ike Russell died at age 63 after an incapacitating fight with cancer of the bone marrow. This ended a lifetime of severe respiratory problems that didn't prevent him from flying and hiking all over Mexico, South America and even East Africa.

"He created a life for himself that was highly individual, highly ethical according to his own principles, and by doing all the things he did in the face of chronic pain and fatigue, his life was very inspiring for a lot of people," Bowen said. "But if he knew about this book, he'd probably say, 'I don' know what all the fuss is about; we always got back.'"

Yet as the tales in Backcountry Pilot show, Ike landed short of the runway of perfection. Bowen repeated something Ike's son David had told him: "He was not entirely a saint. The real Ike was far too interesting for anything to be gained by romanticizing him."

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