Flying in Alaska

My love for flying in Alaska began with watching bush pilots. During our NOLS semester, we were resupplied once every week and a half or so by Kirk Ellis and his Supercub dubbed “The Hulk.”  Most of that period, we were over 50 miles from the nearest road requiring the food drop offs by plane to be able to continue our trip.  We’d be sitting at camp, straining our ears, trying to see who could be the first one to hear the arrival of the plane.  Soon enough, there would be a faint buzzing and then a dot, visible far off in the distance between the mountains.  Kirk and The Hulk would take one pass over us, bank in and bounce down on tundra tires to a stop within hundreds of feet.  I had rose tinted glasses on and was head over heels with the idea of becoming a bush pilot.

The Hulk and I

Alaska’s vast amount of land and extremely low amount of roads render most of the state inaccessible easily except by air. Many communities are entirely reliant upon air travel for outside goods, supplies and travel.  There are also plenty of researchers, scientists and all kinds of outdoor recreators who use air travel as a means of getting into and out of where they want to go.  The state boasts the highest rate of pilots in the country, with 1 in 16 people having a license to fly.  One is reminded of this constantly, with the numerous small aircraft flying in and out of Alaska’s urban as well as rural areas.

Resupply on the Copper Glacier during my NOLS semester

Once I moved to Alaska, I was around small planes almost constantly.  Navajo Piper Chieftans were used in the company I worked for in Coldfoot to ferry tourists to and from the Arctic and there were also air taxi operators and hunting guides.  Anytime I took to the air as a passenger, I’d keep my eyes glued to the window, marveling at the bird’s eye view of the land below. It wasn’t until I moved to Fairbanks that I had an opportunity to pursue aviation for myself.  Fairbanks is one of the most expensive places in the country to learn how to fly, so I found myself working at a gold mine for a few months in order to build up enough savings to be able to do it all in one go.

The second week of January 2019 I walked into ProFlite of Alaska for my first lesson.  With a temperature of -20F outside, it was far too cold to fly and we spent some time going over preflight inspection and components of the aircraft.  The same held true for my next lesson, but by the third the temperatures had improved for my maiden trip. My instructor was Mike, the co-owner and a no nonsense former marine.  He taxied us out on the runway in a Cessna 152, narrating everything he was doing, and took us up into the sky where I took controls.  “The plane is just a dumb piece of equipment; it does what you tell it to do.” And in that first time up in the air, I learned how to tell the plane what to do.  The importance of the rudder, how to move the ailerons, and how the throttle’s position affects flight performance among other things.

By the second lesson, I was taking off by myself and within 10 hours I was learning how to land.  The experience at times was stress inducing and one that caused a pit in my stomach. Especially when I knew we had to practice certain techniques, like stalls, where I would find ways to get the plane unlevel enough to put us into the start of a spin.  How fun.  After a few lessons, I switched instructors from Mike to Bob, who was on the opposite side of the attitude spectrum.  Where Mike was gruff, direct and didn’t care about presentation, Bob was gentle, kind and more passive.  Flying became even more fun when I switched instructors to Storm, a 20-year-old with an intense passion for all things aviation. 

First solo with the Cessna 152

At 20 hours sometime in mid-February, I soloed for the first time, taking off and landing 3 times on my own.  I was a little nervous, but confident in my abilities. That confidence soon grew as I started to make cross country flights.  Storm and I flew to Manley Hot Springs and Nenana. Even making a somewhat terrifying trip to Manley Hot Springs at night with a new moon.  The time came for my solo cross-country trip and I flew out to Tanana, returning home via Nenana. It was the longest flight I had made to that point and I enjoyed the opportunity to fly by myself and check out new country.  No longer did I feel like just a student, this was real flying.  By early March, I had fulfilled all the requirements and was in preparation for my check ride.  All seemed to be well and I passed the knowledge portion of the test with ease. I was rattled with nerves when it came time to fly and failed on the first maneuver, steep turns.  The next week was full of steep turns and practice of various landings as I tried to ready myself for the next go around.  Sure enough, I passed without problem and found myself with my very own pilot’s license.

Flying over Minto Flats
Checkride passed

My friend Trevor had gotten his pilot’s license about a year before and was looking for someone to share time with as he built hours.  I went down south to Anchorage and we flew together for a few days out of Merrill Field.  Each day was a treat as we had the chance to explore new terrain, blessed with good weather and no solid plans. Once, we flew to Homer and met up with my friend Chris, then flew over the Harding Ice Field by the coast to Seward before returning back to Anchorage.  Another day we flew east to Valdez, having lunch with my friend Madi, then flying up through Thompson Pass to Glenallen and back to Anchorage via the Glenn Highway.  Yet another we flew to Glenallen and then across the Denali Highway, making our way west then south towards Talkeetna. Each day brought about plenty of new sights, more hours and an increasing sense of comfort in an aircraft.

Cessna 150 we flew, parked on a stopover in Seward
Flying in Turnagain Arm

I returned to Fairbanks and immediately set about beginning my instrument training.  The first 20 hours I flew almost exclusively in a simulator, mixing ground study with simulated practical experience.  Instrument was different in that I flew a slightly larger aircraft, a Cessna 172. Storm and I practiced maneuvers in the air, shooting approaches to both runways at Fairbanks as well as Ladd Air Field.  For my long cross-country requirement, we took a day and flew south across the Alaska Range. We landed at Ted Stevens International Airport likely much to the annoyance of the tower, with a half dozen 737s and cargo jets waiting on our approach.  I soured on the lessons after having a bad lesson with Mike. Mid May arrived and with that a return to forestry field work.  I found myself out of time and put the lessons and my pursuit of the rating on pause, where it has remained since.

Above the Alaska Range with a view of Denali (center)

One of my friends from NOLS, Asa, also had the itch to fly and had spent the previous few years flying around Colorado and parts of the west.  He had accumulated a number of different ratings and after getting his instructor’s rating, quit his engineering job and began work in aviation full time.  That experience evolved into an opportunity to fly for Lake Clark Air out of Port Alsworth.  He extended an invitation in June 2019 and I eagerly took him up on it.  I would hike around the surrounding mountains during the days when he was working and we’d spend time on the lake or with his coworkers at night.  We went out flying one of the days, buzzing around in a Piper TriPacer, taking a tour of the park, heading up to Twin Lakes and flying over Dick Proenneke’s cabin.  It was a surreal experience and not one in which I am likely to forget.

Flying through Lake Clark Pass
Turqouise Lake. Lake Clark N.P.

Later that winter, Asa was looking to build some night hours towards his commercial instrument rating so I flew down to Colorado late November to share time. Each night we’d take off from Boulder airport, heading to the various fields nearby.  It was a much different experience than my first white knuckled night flight to Manley Hot Springs.  With the city lights below, it was much easier to have a sense of where you are and what was going on.  We didn’t fly anywhere outside or beyond the Front Range, but accumulated about 10 hours during that time flying to different airports in the region.

As I write this, I have not flown for nearly 2 years since that last trip to Colorado. The major limiting factor at this time is the expense.  Fairbanks has almost no planes available for rent and those that are available are pricey, costing upwards of $145/hour. My skills have no doubt deteriorated during this period and if I were to go back to flying I would need to take a few hours of lessons to bring me back up to speed.  There is a flying club in Anchorage with very low prices, but the distance is too far for me to justify making it a regular trip.  For the time being, I am content with not flying. It would be fun to be able to check out other areas and be able to travel to remote regions.  But with that comes more costs, in both money and time working. Hopefully, one day circumstances will change and I will find myself looking over Alaska from amongst the clouds once more.

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