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Yukon Quest spreads its wings without Iditarod-like air force

Colleen Mondor
Last year, the Yukon Quest grounded its volunteer air force after discussions with the FAA to regulate Quest pilots under a framework modeled upon the IAF failed. Team & Trail photo

In 2008 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moved to exempt the Iditarod from several commercial aviation regulations that the sled dog race was violating by providing nonmonetary compensation to its volunteer pilots. In the years since, the exemption has been extended and expanded as the Iditarod Air Force (IAF) successfully moves toward an operation similar (with some exceptions) to air taxi status.

Turns out, though, the FAA's approach to The Last Great Race isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to other long distance sled dog races that might benefit from aerial support. Last year, the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race grounded its volunteer air force after discussions with the FAA to regulate Quest pilots under a framework modeled upon the IAF failed.

The Quest operated with only four full-time pilots at the time, generally flying less than 100 total hours over a race as long as the Iditarod but with far fewer checkpoints, most of which are on the road system. The Iditarod Air Force is 25 pilots strong and often flies in excess of 1,400 hours over the 22 days that Iditarod Trail Committee and volunteers offer support to race entrants.

And then there's the Quest's international status. Because the race travels between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and ends in Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S., the Quest faced aviation regulations from both countries. It just was not feasible for the Quest to tackle the complicated process necessary to achieve an Iditarod-like FAA exemption.

So the Quest had to find a different way to operate in the air and this year got fully commercial. Carriers like Air Arctic, Everts Air Cargo, Warbelow’s and Wright Air Service (and Alpine Aviation on the Yukon Territory side) became bigger sponsors of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. Ditching the complications of volunteer air support in exchange for relationships with air carriers alleviated the conflicts arising with the FAA.

“We have been incredibly fortunate to have some amazing partners who help the Quest so much,” said Yukon Quest Alaska Director Marti Steury, “they keep us in the air.”

Quest personnel and supplies are now moved by truck or aerial sponsor, including the customs officials on the border and the approximately 5,000 pounds of dog food that must be air-dropped in Eagle (the only checkpoint not road accessible). “We have taken a very small business approach to the race and it works for us,” said Steury. “Fairbanks air carriers have been incredibly supportive and it has made all the difference.”

This fits in the broader approach the Quest has pursued from its beginnings: small business partnerships and sponsorship that's grown steadily on both sides of the border. Moving forward Steury hopes the Quest can steer clear of any of the regulations -- and potential FAA disruptions -- the Iditarod must consider given its special status.

It’s a very different approach than the Iditarod, but for the Yukon Quest, it’s a perfect fit.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com