There is a place -- a cold, mountainous, low-VFR place -- where stick-and-rudder skills and an innate ability for pilotage is not just helpful ... it's required for survival. But if you want to do more than be a flying bus driver, Alaska has challenges and rewards for the aviation professional.
December 24, 2003
Airlines ... Corporate ... Airlines ... Corporate ... Airlines ... Corporate ...
You -- you're the odd one. You joined the aviation fraternity for something entirely different. Hauling 50 RJ passengers crammed into an aluminum tube from "A" to "B" as an air transport driver is not your cup of tea. Catering to the whims of a bunch of "suits" tucked into the back of a bizjet is about as exciting to you as watching paint dry. Damn the six-figure income -- you want to fly!
Where can you get air almost every day and feel like you make a difference? Where can you get to know your regulars by name or have a sense of accomplishment when -- without this flight -- there might not be food on the table or medicine for the sick? Where, in the practice of your profession, can you feel the presence of the "Great Spirit" in towering mountain ranges or the vast tundra? Where can you fill your soul with the wonder of flight as it is meant to be?
Alaska. Go north to Alaska.
Nowhere on the planet is the need for air travel more pertinent to everyday existence than in the 49th state. In many regions of Alaska you just can't get there from here without wings. If you have the mind and the will to participate as an airman in Alaska's aviation system, it's just about time to start packing.
Although there are a number of commuter operations flying turbo-props in Alaska -- and service provided by Alaska Airlines in its Boeing 737s -- the most common pilot employment is FAR 135 work in "stretch" single-engine aircraft such as the Cessna 206 and Cherokee 6. Those regulations specify that an aviator have acquired at least 500 hours of flight time and a Commercial Pilot Certificate to fly single-engine air taxi in VFR conditions. However, the large operators based near the popular cities of Anchorage, Nome, Fairbanks and Juneau typically require 1,000-1,500 hours of total time including some Alaska time. Although most job hunters heading northward from the "lower 48" may not have Alaska time, good mountain time -- say, in the Colorado Rockies -- might be a suitable trade to some employers. A seaplane rating is a definite plus since many enterprises operate both ASEL and ASES equipment.
A (Remote) Place For Low-Timers
Even if a flying-job seeker in Alaska has just crossed the 500-hour threshold, work can still be had. Expect to hook up with operators based in such exotic places as Kotzebue, Bethel, Cordova, or Noorvik. If you watch re-runs of the TV series "Northern Exposure," you will get the idea. The nearest "Big Mac" will probably be 350 miles or more away. Working in the far-out hinterland, you will be ferrying an assortment of native Alaskans, mail, and freight to gravel or sand strips in conditions that may leave you shivering in more ways than one.
On the other hand, if you do have at least 4 figures worth of flight time etched in the logbook, you might land a flying gig transporting "high rollers" arriving from Seattle to upscale lodges buried in the woods near a grass strip or backcountry lake. You might also snag a position as a scenic pilot based in one of the few metropolitan areas.
Very rare job opportunities might be discovered near urban areas as a flight instructor. One Fairbanks-based CFI says, "You've really got to know somebody. If it were not for a close acquaintance already working here, I'd be slinging burgers." Be that as it may, securing a CFI position is a great was to build Alaska time and network, according to several air-taxi operators.
Flatlanders Need Not Apply
Before packing up the SUV and trucking north, a reality check is in order.
For the pilot who has never ventured north of Washington State, Minnesota, or Vermont, images of Alaska flying are fueled by spectacular photos from travel magazines and tales of adventure, real and imagined. The local pros, however, caution anybody to think carefully about career decisions involving Alaska flying.
Ask pilots from the "Lower 48" about what leaves lasting impressions concerning their Alaska experiences, and many chime in with these: culture shock; expense; extremely difficult flying conditions at times; and hard work. Add to that magnificent beauty and incomparable flying experiences.
Most of the outlying communities are "damp." For those inclined to have a "cold one" after a grueling day loading and unloading a thousand pounds of cargo, they will find that some outposts do not have alcohol for sale, although it is permissible to possess.
The cost of a small apartment in a place like Bethel could range from $1,200 to $1,700 monthly. The expense of "climatizing" oneself with special boots, gloves and clothing can wear out the credit card. A gallon of milk can run over $6.00.
Not Your Standard Charter
Flying in Alaskan territory can be extremely challenging. Pilots should remember that all single-engine air-taxi operators fly under VFR rules when hauling passengers. That can be a 500-foot ceiling and 2 miles visibility in uncontrolled airspace. With VORs few and far between, that means a lot of seat-of-the-pants, low-level flying using nothing more than shorelines, rivers, and scattered landmarks to guide the flight. Even with GPS to show the way, it is not uncommon to experience white-out conditions when two-mile visibility limited by snow showers blends in with the snow-covered tundra. It is clear that the pucker factor can be accelerated dramatically in such circumstances.
Folks at the Alaskan Flying Network of Kenai recommend that Alaska-bound job seekers come up with a firm understanding of NDB navigational techniques, a strong foundation in pilotage and dead-reckoning skills, and the ability to perform take-offs and landings into short and soft strips at gross weight.
The advice is genuine. Alaska continues to rank at the top of the accident list, causing a recent aviation insurance crisis. Premiums are astronomical, and a number of operators have closed their doors.
Pilot compensation at first glance seems to be fairly decent, starting somewhere about $40.00 per hour and up. But, as one disgruntled pilot states, "What my operator didn't tell me was that I would be paid by the flight hour not for the time loading and un-loading boxes or de-icing the wings with my fingertips; or for time waiting for the weather to improve."
Swash-Bucklers Not Wanted
There has been an intentional omission of the term "Bush Pilot" in this article so far. When we southerners think Alaska, we naturally romanticize the Bush Pilot.
The image of the swash-buckling, devil-may-care, rules-bustin', always-on-the-edge-of-danger-and-adventure aviator is one that Alaskans try to minimize if not eliminate. The majority of Alaska pilots are proud of their safety efforts, their respect for the FARs and their great reverence for Mother Nature. The traditional notion of Bush Pilot runs contrary to the image that the Alaskan piloting community is trying to project. This is not to be confused with pilots flying "in the bush." These are the airmen who fly hunters into the backcountry for big game or fishermen into icy waters offering prize trophies.
So, if all of this sounds grand, then early spring is the time to trek northward. Don't wait until May or you will be too late. Alaska flying is seasonal, so book a flight into ANC. Make your reservations at a Motel 6, print off 50 resumes on the laser printer, and bring your credit cards. Grab a $10.00 reindeer omelet at Gwennie's to shore up the energy and start making contacts. The locals have this to say: "Don't bother mailing resumes. You have to bring yourself up, knock on the doors, talk to Chief Pilots, and be prepared to start work tomorrow."
Can You Start Right Now?
They are not fooling.
A CFI from Colorado presented herself for an interview with Ryan Air some time ago. She was interviewed on the 29th and started ground-school training on the 30th.
If flying in one of the last aviation frontiers is appealing, even if just for a season or two, then determine the position for which you are most qualified. If a CFI or Scenic Pilot position is what you are opting for, research phone directories and the Internet for flight schools and air-tour guides. Get copies of the Sunday Anchorage newspaper, because operators do advertise openings. Obtain a list of air-taxi companies from the FAA offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau by sending a S.A.S.E. Check monthly periodicals like Air Jobs Digest. Scout through major outdoor hunting and fishing magazines to discover names of the large Alaskan lodges that may be hiring pilots.
Alaska aviation is gigantic. Chances are, whether for a few months or a lifetime, a flying opportunity awaits. Just head northbound!