The Iditarod race has many great stories to tell by the many men and women who help plan it, and travel the trail to help make it successful. Joe Pendergrass is one of the many people who make The Last Great Race on Earth® what it is. Joe is a member of a very special family; he is a veteran pilot volunteer for the Iditarod Air Force (IAF). Within the inner workings of the race are the 28-30 volunteer pilots that are essential to its success.
They are a quiet group of folks who prefer to work inconspicuously in the background delivering the food bags in pre-race set, flying dogs safely back to Anchorage during the race and delivering veterinarians and essential volunteers to the different checkpoints along with anything else that can fit into their 4-seater airplanes with specially adapted skis.
Joe is a reserved, quiet man, unassuming and remarkable. He talked to me a little about how it always amazes him that stranger will sit in his airplane with complete trust in him. He felt that was a huge responsibility. He wears his IAF cap with a lot of pride, and I asked him about the husky logo. To my surprise he told me that he had designed it himself! I asked him if the logo was available on other memorabilia. He told me the fascinating story behind the patch and why it’s reserved just for the family of pilots who risk a lot and give up a lot to support the Iditarod behind the scenes. Each IAF volunteer pilot is given the logo to use and a decal for the plane and even a special commemorative pilot handbook with a picture of their personal airplane on the cover. It’s a special tradition.
Here’s Joe’s accounting of the history of the design of the patch for the IAF. “The patch, which is now the official logo for the Iditarod Air Force was originally the brain child of IAF pilot John Norris It began as a design for a lapel pin in 2001. John and I were co-Chief Pilots at the time for the IAF. He explained to me what he had in mind and I designed the first draft, with the circle along with the words inscribed around it and the wings protruding from each side, it was obvious that I needed help in drawing the husky. I took it to artist, John Van Zyle, who agreed to draw what we wanted on the condition that it would be four our own use and that we didn’t “sell” any of the pins. He drew the husky with the goggle and scarf which were common for pilots to wear in the early days of flying in an open cockpit airplane. I then gave it to my nine your old grand daughter, Jessica Parker, who filled in the appropriate colors. We then sent it to a pin make and New York. After a couple of proofs were sent back and forth, we got our pins and gave on to each pilot. They were an instant hit. A former IAF pilot, the late Bert Novak, took the design to a sign shop and had some “peel and stick” decals made. They were also an immediate hit and they too were distributed to each of the pilots for identifying the planes that are part of the Iditarod Air Force. At some point later, chief Pilot Bert Hanson had the design transferred to a cloth patch to be place on the hats and jackets of the members of the IAF. It was at that time it became the new official logo for the Iditarod Air Force.”
Want to know more? Check out the wonderful book, Adventures of the Iditarod Air Force; True Stories about the Pilots Who Fly the Alaska’s Famous Sled Dog Race by Ted Mattson. Its 29 chapters are full of the sometimes famously funny and sometimes daring acts of courage by the IAF pilots from its first year to the early 1990s.
I asked Joe about giving the Iditarod Air Force more attention for all the hard work they put into The Last Great Race® to recognize their dedication. He simply shrugged it off saying, “Nope it’s about the mushers and the dogs.” The Iditarod Air Force is a close-knit family that prefers to work behind-the-scenes and they like it that way.