Flying Wild, Alaska Bush Pilots Keep 49th State on the Move
Sitting in a passenger jump seat, my nose was pressed hard against the single-engine Cessna's window as the rugged Alaskan coastline passed by several thousand feet below.
From our beginning point on the Tsiu River not far from the Bering Glacier, I had a bird's-eye aerial view of the spectacularly wild – and desolate – wilderness found in our nation's incomparable and grand Last Frontier.
An unabashed window-seat junkie who loves looking at the terrain below an aircraft, I found myself enjoying the ride immensely as I reflected back on one of my lifetime's most memorable fishing trips.
Near the midpoint of our westward journey towards Cordova and the airport where my outbound commercial flight back to Texas would be waiting, I noticed a particularly rugged stretch of coastline and a jagged point of land that rose quickly from the beach below.
As the waves of the Gulf of Alaska fiercely pounded the sand below, I noticed that the rocks and evergreen trees growing on the wild turf were partially obscured by the heavy mist and low clouds being driven by the incessant wind that blows in the region.
Only later, after the big bouncing rubber tires of Charles Allen's plane had set down, did I realize the magnitude of that moment as I left Allen's Alaska Expedition Company encampment.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
"Burkhead, that was close," said Allen, a wildlife biologist, fishing lodge owner and Alaskan bush pilot.
"Close in what way?" I queried back as we unloaded my gear after a week of glorious fly rod action for silver salmon weighing upwards of 15 pounds.
"I almost put us down back there," said Allen. "The conditions were deteriorating quickly and the visibility was dropping fast. In fact, I had already made up my mind that if the situation didn't improve when we passed by the next point out in front of us, I was going to set us down on the beach and wait things out."
"Set us down on the beach?" I responded with a bit of surprise.
"Yes sir," responded Allen, a longtime friend despite my outdoors naivety. "Lynn, it was starting to get a little bit serious."
And then he paused ever so slightly before uttering a statement that I still remember clearly to this day, nearly a decade after the fact.
"I learned a long time ago that when it comes to bush pilots flying around Alaska, that there are just two kinds of people at the controls. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. But in Alaska, there aren't any old, bold pilots."
Indeed. And such mystery, danger and sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat intrigue adds even more layers to the rich adventure of living and playing in the outdoors, Alaskan style.
Which might help to explain the fascination that exists anytime I get a chance to watch programming on Outdoor Channel that deals with hunting, fishing and day-to-day living in the rugged and vast 49th state.
Shows like Flying Wild Alaska, which chronicles the lives and livelihood of the Tweto family as they operate the family-owned flying business, Era Alaska.
With no freeways and few roads of any kind, such airborne travel is a far cry from the figures littering the waiting area of an urban airport gate in the Lower 48, some sleepily and some impatiently.
In Alaska, the ability to travel by air is literally the lifeline for the state, from flights ferrying hunters and anglers deep into the wild to the act of delivering food, medicine and necessary supplies for rural inhabitants living near the coastline, in the deep woods and on the expansive tundra.
And all along the way, these Alaskan pilots are asked to do so while riding the sharp edge that exists between being a bold pilot that is daring enough to get through and keep commerce flowing or an emergency situation resolved, all the while being a wise old pilot who understands when it's time to back off the throttle.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
It's heady stuff, this business of landing on sandy river banks, of making sure big rubber tires are properly inflated, of understanding the role that thermal currents play and of knowing how much weight is in the belly of the beast while also realizing how much fuel is waiting in reserve.
Meanwhile, safely tucked in on the ground many miles away in Texas, wannabe outdoor adventurers like yours truly dream and plan of return trips to the Land of the Midnight Sun to sample Alaska's vast wealth of outdoor riches yet again.
From hefty leopard spotted rainbows on the Kanektok River to stalking a caribou on the spongy tundra to the tagging of a big bull moose downed with my bow – as Denali looms in the background – my nightly dreams are often filled with Alaskan adventure.
Adventure that I hope to experience several times over again before my journey on this earth is complete.
In the meantime, I'll fondly recall past adventures, dream of new ones and live vicariously each week through the lives – and stories – of others like the Tweto family as I await the arrival of my own new stories to tell my children and perhaps, even their children.
Dreams and stories that are fueled by those big and empty skies being opened up thanks to the work of Alaskan bush pilots. They are pilots that literally fly on the edge of the unknown, deep in the heart of wild Alaska.
Watch Flying Wild Alaska on Outdoor Channel:
- Mondays at 2 p.m. ET
- Mondays at 10 p.m. ET
- Saturdays at 12 a.m. ET