The Big Idea: Colleen Mondor

Telling stories about fictional characters is hard, but telling stories about real people can be even harder — especially when those stories involve a dangerous job. Author Colleen Mondor confronted this fact head on with her memoir The Map of My Dead Pilots, about her time working for an airline in the wilds of Alaska. Mondor’s here to talk about the balancing act telling true stories requires, and how she walked that line.


If you ask for the short description of The Map of My Dead Pilots, I always say it is about Alaska and flying and how some of the job was crazy cold and all of it was just plain crazy. I can write for pages about what it was like to run operations for a bush commuter out of Fairbanks and how sled dogs truly are the worst cargo in the world and that being the low bidders on the Interior Alaska Dead Body Contract is just as disturbing as you can imagine.

At the “Company” we flew convicts and high school sports teams, live chicks and dead moose, thousands of pounds of dog food and on one particularly memorable day, a multi-tiered wedding cake. I can write about the history of the early pilots and how those larger than life men in open cockpit biplanes created an aviation environment spawning what the NTSB refers to as “bush pilot syndrome” which is still blamed for a large quantity of accidents in the state today.

I could talk and write about all of this but none of it includes the hard part of writing the book, or the issue I am still dealing with after its release.

Map deals with the incidents, accidents and day-to-day experiences of pilots I knew and worked with at a place I refer to as the “Company”. It is specifically about several men who are still alive and well, some of them now flying corporately or in the major airlines in the Lower 48. When we worked together none of us thought I would one day end up writing about the job and there was no small amount of nervousness on their parts when I told them I was working on a book. Map has been a project over several years and I’m sure that along the way, as much as I said I was staying with it, they probably all thought it was something that would never leave my laptop let alone be read by other people.

When I announced I had signed a deal with Lyons Press, these pilots had to acknowledge that their lives were about to be shared in a way that gave them very little control. What I promised them was that their real names would not be attached to the book and the contemporary characters would all (with the exception of one brief mention that was approved) have aliases. This has proven to be a bit more complicated then I imagined, however, as family and mutual friends have asked for confirmation of their own suspicions (I’ve let the guys field those requests), but I’ve held to it. The real challenge though was never the pilots who came through just fine, but rather the ones who lost their careers and worse.

It is difficult enough to write about what your friends did when everything ended up all right, but to second guess wrong decisions knowing nothing was ever the same again, or to pore over NTSB accident reports that only reveal what happened and never consider why, brings a whole new level of seriousness to the narrative. The investigators are very good at determining where the flaps were set and the condition of the weather, but they never consider what a pilot was thinking in the air or what was happening on the ground before he ever took off. I chose to ask those questions, and thus had to acknowledge the answers I found.

In many respects Map is the final word on aircraft that crashed on the sea ice near Nome, off the end of the runway in Bethel, on an unknown mountainside near Kotzebue and worst of all, into the Yukon River. People will read Map and gain some understanding into what happened in these far flung locations, but they will never know how hard it was to tell those stories well, or not judge too harshly pilots whose final acts were unrecoverable mistakes.

This is when the telling the truth got very dicey but also most important.

In writing The Map of My Dead Pilots, I discovered the Big Idea was finding balance between wanting to protect those who could not, for whatever reason, speak up for themselves and also being as honest as possible about a job that often relied upon a certain level of dishonesty every day. (Flight loads are always exactly at legal weight, the weather is always flyable, the aircraft are always in perfect condition.) Part of why the belief persists that Alaska is a place where the rules do not apply is because so many stories about it have been mythologized for so long. (Look no further than any one of the reality tv programs set in the state for proof of that.)

In aviation the “glory stories” are particularly pervasive and I didn’t want to contribute to that cycle – in fact I wanted to expose it. But I also didn’t want to hurt the friends who were still impacted from accidents years before or the families of those who lost someone dear. It was a fine line to walk and one I continue to worry about. There are parents who will read my book and find out more than they perhaps want to know about their sons, both living and dead, and that is a responsibility I feel quite heavy on my heart. I didn’t want to do anyone wrong, because even when the crashing was their own faults, no one deserved to be judged harshly by me or anyone else years later.

The final verdict is still out on just how well I accomplished this high wire act; I’m waiting to hear from some friends who are featured prominently throughout the book. I hope I did them proud, of course, but I also hope I have shown just how much the stories we tell each other still matter, and that they don’t need false glory to make them any more powerful then they have always been.


The Map of My Dead Pilots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt presented in the Anchorage Press. Visit the book page. Follow Mondor on Twitter.

33 Comments on “The Big Idea: Colleen Mondor”

  1. Typo alert: one does not “pour” over a report; the proper verb is “pore”. Spellcheckers never catches that one…

    Please delete comment after correction…

  2. Success breeds pilots and the first baby step is to start reading books about aviation. Any plans to take lessons yet?

  3. I like pretty much all the Big Ideas, but I especially like the ones that aren’t science fiction related. There are some real gems that are featured.

  4. The scary thing is not the part where I bought this on Kindle immediately after reading the above; it’s that I bought it to keep all my other Alaska-pilot books company. I think I have at least three (four if you count Jimmy Doolittle’s autobiography which has a lot about Alaska and a lot about flying but not that much about the two together as I recall). That’s not including the ones about flying in the lower 48 or elsewhere in the world, of course. What can I say? We have a two-pilot household.

  5. Sounds like a must-get for sure, like a two-generations-later companion to Ernest Gann’s marvelous “Fate is the Hunter” (the book, that is, not the gawdawful movie supposedly made from it). I think I learned more about commercial aviation, from the pilot’s POV, from that than from anything else, and I’ll definitely look forwarding to reading this one.

  6. Wow, there goes one book I won’t be writing.

    When she mentions the plane that crashed off the end of the runway in Bethel, Alaska, I was an Airport Station manger in Bethel for a cargo airline that owned a plane that did that 10 years ago. Makes me wonder if it’s the same incident or a different one since more than one plane missed Bethels’ runway.

    I haven’t read it and I don’t know if I will since I’ve been telling stories about my time spent living in Bush Alaska to friends and family for years(and I would hate for her stories to color mine). But even unread, I highly recommend this book because all the crazy stuff she talks about and more goes on out there.

    and just for your enjoyment here’s a partial list of the little villages I used to send out my bush pilots to fly to in weather that as long as it was clear and above -40F (yes folks, at -35F degrees we were flying) we were good to go.
    Tuntutuliak, Kongiganok, Kwethluk, Nunapitchuk, Tuluksak and about 25 other villages up and down the Kuskokwim River and along the western coast.

  7. I used to fly way way back when. Still try to get behind the controls once in a blue moon. (I’m no longer certified, so I’ll hire an instructor, but then I get to log the time too.)

    Its an amazing feeling.

    There are also a couple of times where I just lucky to survive. Things can go so wrong, so fast, when you are in the air.

    at the same time, I think one of the biggest causes of small aircraft crashes is simply running out of gas. the mundane can kill you as easily as anything else up there.

  8. I flew for several years. You don’t ever lose the license, but like Greg, I am no longer current. I occasionally think about taking it up again.

    And like Greg says, the penalty for small stupid mistakes can be fatal. I have had several friends who have died in small plane crashes. And I have to confess to coming very close myself, due to pure stupidity. The penalty for dumb in a plane far outpaces the penalty for dumb in an automobile.

  9. I just bought two copies for presents. Thanks so much for your BIG IDEA presentations. I’ve found so many good books this way. :-)

  10. Rick – it sounds like you and I had a lot of friends in common because all of those villages you mention are quite familiar to me!

    Mike B – “Fate is the Hunter” is one of my all time favorite books; Gann was an amazing writer and what a life he lived.

    Thanks for catching the typo guys…I have no idea how I missed it!

    I hope all of you who bought MAP enjoy it very very much.

  11. @Jdhall – I, too, have my license though I haven’t flown in a while. I’ve heard the failure profile of flying called a decision hole and that no one small mistake will kill you. It’s that each small mistake puts you deeper and deeper into that hole and harder and harder to get out. Eventually, the hole kills you.

    @Ms Mondor – this book looks terrific. My brother was a CFI/CFII, etc., and spent a summer trying to hustle up a job in Alaska as a bush pilot. Glad he never quite found one! This will be under his Christmas tree.

  12. I saw the cover and immediately thought this is the perfect give for someone I know. Wife confirmed and we’re ordering it tonight along with some other stuff from Amazon. Oh, and the article was good too. :)

  13. “…being the low bidders on the Interior Alaska Dead Body Contract is just as disturbing as you can imagine.”

    That’s pretty disturbing. This is officially on my ‘books to buy’ list – Thanks!

  14. Sounds like a fascinating book. My folks live in Alaska now and my dad is big on anything Alaska-history related. I think I found a Christmas present for him!

  15. @Ms Mondor (and anyone else interested): Assuming you haven’t already got it or seen it, check out my personal favorite among fictional (and geographically unrelated) counterparts, David Graham’s “Down to a Sunless Sea”. While there’s a rather lengthy social-background buildup to it, the gripping premise is that nuclear war breaks out (and is quickly over, of course) while a great many commercial and private flights are in mid-flight, and there’s no immediately apparent place to land.

  16. @Jdhall – I, too, have my license though I haven’t flown in a while. I’ve heard the failure profile of flying called a decision hole and that no one small mistake will kill you. It’s that each small mistake puts you deeper and deeper into that hole and harder and harder to get out. Eventually, the hole kills you.

    @Ms Mondor – this book looks terrific. My brother was a CFI/CFII, etc., and spent a summer trying to hustle up a job in Alaska as a bush pilot. Glad he never quite found one! This will be under his Christmas tree.

  17. My late father was a pilot early in the history of aviation (like, the 20’s and WWII). Many of his stories about his buddies ended: “And then he spun in.” It’s how he expected to go out himself, and he always seemed rather bemused that he lived long enough to lose his license because he could no longer pass the physical. He’d have loved this book. I will read it in his honor.

  18. Way back when I was in my early 20’s, I worked in the Wash. DC area and often, over lunch hour, I’d drive out to Falls Church just to watch activities at and around the little airfield there. One day I finally gave up resisting the attraction of those common (in those days) $5 “sample” lessons and gave it a try … warm clear spring day with little or no breeze.
    Mostly it was just keeping my hands loosely on the wheel to feel his movements, but at one point he turned it over to me. After getting comfortable with straight-and-level for a bit, he said “OK, now try a right turn” … so I banked gently and turned right 90 degrees by the compass, which I think blew his mind lol. “Are you *sure* you’ve never flown before??” I told him no, other than as a commercial passenger, and only once in anything smaller than a Connie or a DC-6 — but I drove a sports car and was accustomed to periodically scanning all my gauges and much of my field of vision.
    He felt I was a natural for getting a single-engine license, but alas in those days I couldn’t come up with the financing so had to pass.

  19. My flying instructor ended every lesson with this reassuring remark: “Cheated death again …”

  20. I’m sure the NTSB has statistics but I can think of a few causes for fatal accidents — e.g., fuel, ice, thunderstorms, density altitude, IFR conditions/VFR pilot, weight & balance) — and they can kill you in the Lower 48 just as in Alaska. And not to mention other accidents not usually fatal such as wind (especially crosswind on an icy runway), landing gear up etc. Every year, inventive pilots think of new ways to kill themselves (and their passengers). Last flying lesson: What usually works doesn’t always work.

  21. MAP was riveting reading – just don’t tell my (not-ever-online) Dad that I read his Christmas gift first! I sure that he’ll enjoy it, too, having flown USAF refueling & transport missions around Alaska in the 1960s.

  22. I sent the link to this post to an elderly colleague who was a bush pilot in the Canadian Northwest Territories in the 1950s, before he decided that becoming an aircraft designer was much safer than being a bush pilot.

    His comment was that the book description sounded like the author was writing the story of his personal experiences. He said that flying dead bodies out of the interior was one of his chores, and that he has vivid memories of cleaning the interior of the aircraft after flying airsick dogs. (“They always got sick and were letting go at both ends – and every prospector I flew had a dog for a companion.”) Almost as much “fun” was when he would fly a moose out for a hunter. “No matter what precautions you took, they still bled all over the interior, and you had to really work to adequately clean the plane afterward, as a precaution against the corrosive effects of the blood.”

    He was also a certified mechanic who had a sideline maintaining aircraft for other people, and has a raft of stories about the maintenance – or its’ complete lack – of many of the private aircraft being used by the locals. For example – when he expressed horror at finding that two of the eight bolts intended to hold the cylinder head on an engine were completely missing, the owner’s response was “The engine still runs fine, they must not be necessary.”

    With best wishes,
    – Tom –

  23. I just finished your book and have a very mixed reaction. I have 2500 hours in almost all kinds of small Cessna aircraft, single and multi engine (as an owner pilot, not for hire). I guess I was looking for a flying story. What you gave me seems to me to be your very personal and painful reactions to the realities of commercial aviation in a remote territory. Your story was much more about YOU than about flying. I doubt that anyone who has ever done much flying was surprised by any of your stories and, since I don’t know you, I am sorry to explain that I find it difficult to care about your remorse and apparent despair. Your use of words, however, was excellent.

  24. I’m sorry you felt that way Tasker – it is a very personal story because it is about pilots I knew in a place where I worked. I would suggest you read “Flying North” by Jean Potter if you are interested in the history of aviation in Alaska – many of the pilots she wrote about were dead when she got to AK and thus she was not so emotionally connected to them. It’s a wonderful book.

    ET – your dad’s experiences sound very much like AK in the 1950s as well. The rules have changed dramatically since then (they are the same rules as the Lower 48 now) but there is almost a disconnect between how things should be and how they are. It’s an interesting conundrum but I’m glad to hear that someone else had to suffer with dogs! (And actually, airsickness was the least of our complaints…. :)

  25. Just wanted to say that I ended up having to order this from Amazon US as UK didn’t have it in stock. I finally read it today and really enjoyed it. I can definitely recommend it if you have an interest in Alaska or in flying!

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