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What is an Alaska bush pilot?

Colleen Mondor
No one travels to Anchorage on a covered wagon. A Cessna 206 is not a horse. Yet cowboys are to pilots as the frontier is to Alaska and bush flying remains for many pilots a romantic notion of exploring uncharted wilderness, self reliant and free. Burke Mees photo

Alaska bush pilots have romanced the Alaskan landscape some 90 years, since the days that Ben Eielson, Russ Merrill and Joe Crosson -- legends of early Alaska aviation -- captured hearts and headlines across the country. Flying wild into the wilderness motivates scores of young men and women to earn their pilot licensure and look North. 

But who is a bush pilot? What does bush pilot flying involve? There's not a lot of consensus about what a bush pilot does, except that he or she navigates Alaska's wild and roadless geography. A cover story in last month's Flight Training magazine continues the tradition of romancing the bush and even acknowledges some of the hard truths of flying off the grid.

In "ALASKA: The Ultimate Flight Training Environment," Kathy Dondzila writes of “flying with Bush Pilots above the Arctic Circle” with Kingdom Air Corps, at the Brooks Range Bible Camp 37 miles north of Bettles. Kingdom Air Corps is not a flight school but offers aviation-themed summer Bible camps to children and training for pilot-certified missionaries on how to operate in a "Bush environment." Kingdom isn't alone; Alaska Cub Training Specialists in Wasilla offers pilots a “bush checkout” along with formation flight opportunities through a variety of Bush Alaska-themed trips. Each company emphasizes off-airport landing, mountainous terrain and operating outside more familiar aviation environments.

Dondzila on the barebones nature of such flying:

The splendor of the wilderness is matched with challenges. Weather information is scarce, aircraft need to be maintained with minimal equipment, fuel is carefully monitored, and mountain flying knowledge is crucial. The nearest source for weather information was Bettles. However, at our remote location we had no satellite phone and no cell service, so we could not call them for a briefing. While Alaska has 179 weather cams around the state, including one at Anaktuvuk Pass (an hour north, to which we flew several times), we could not access them, as we had no Internet. So, when weather was marginal, the chief pilot would take off in one of the smaller airplanes to take a look at the conditions. He would fly toward Bettles, if conditions allowed, contact Bettles 10 miles out for a briefing, and bring us back the report.

Bettles, population 15, is considered the entry point for Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range. It is about 150 miles from Fairbanks, the nearest paved airport, and while it does offer many of the comforts of home (Dondzila gleefully mentions the welcome availability of Klondike Bars), it also is a place from another time. Flying here requires thinking beyond the obvious despite access to flight service and telephones. Bush pilots in Bettles and elsewhere, today, may also be mechanics, too.

Here's Dondzila:

The best bush pilots are also airframe and powerplant mechanics, able to fix squawks wherever they occur. Our Cessna 206, which had been working perfectly on arrival at camp, showed no manifold pressure on the second day. Fortunately, we had Dan Swenson, our chief mechanic, with us. Swenson saw that the copper tube had broken where the B-nut slides over the feral (a small metal ring placed on the end of the tube). In minutes, he was able to cut and reconnect the tubing with the tools available at camp. Sometimes it’s not that easy, and another aircraft has to fly out to pick up or deliver a part. But in all cases, an A&P needs to be able to work in the location, weather, and circumstances where the airplane has landed — and get the aircraft flying again.

While the days of carrying along a spare propeller are long gone, pilots in adverse and remote environments are indeed smart to become licensed mechanics. A true hallmark of today's bush pilot may then be do-it-yourself repair, regardless of location or circumstance. Search and rescue tech have come along way in Alaska and are getting better all the time, but the terrain and remoteness demand a command of the machine.

Bush pilots, regulation, frontier 

When Harmon Helmericks wrote "The Last of the Bush Pilots," in 1969, he wasn’t lamenting the death of any single individual, but rather the end of an era. Federal aviation regulations and safety standards have shifted the modern expectations for bush flying.

“For many pilots,” writes Dondzila, “their dream job is that of a bush pilot -- the airborne cowboy who must land on gravel bars and slip through mountain passes.”

In truth, no pilot, even in Alaska, must do these things, and even those who fly for lodges and operate in more remote locations, including gravel bars, make their decisions based on the use of 21st-century technology and real-time weather information. The days of risking your life to deliver vaccines are over.

But cowboys are to Alaskan pilots as the frontier is to Alaska; steadfastly evocative comparisons that show no signs of abating.

The Last of the Bush Pilots is out of print but easily available in libraries and inexpensive used copies can be purchased through Abebooks.com.

Colleen Mondor is a licensed pilot who worked for years as lead dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based bush commuter, coordinating flights of everything from prisoners to sled dogs to snowmachines. She has degrees in aviation, history and northern studies is author of The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in AlaskaContact her at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com