Alaska bush pilots fly as reality-TV stars

GOING 'WILD': Series focuses on Unalakleet flight service.

December 18, 2010 

Who is the tiny woman in the ads on Discovery Channel for "Flying Wild Alaska," a new series about bush pilots? The one driving heavy equipment and telling the camera that ice road truckers -- heroes of a rival reality show -- are a bunch of sissies?

That would be Ferno Tweto of Unalakleet, who stars in the series along with her family. Except "sissies" isn't exactly the word she uses.

With the show scheduled to premiere Jan. 5, Tweto's Alaska series already promises more f-bombs and pranks per hour than Sarah Palin's, which has been showing on The Learning Channel for weeks now. More villages too, with 10 episodes following Era Alaska pilots as they deliver everything from soda pops to sled dogs to coffins across the state.

"In the end it's going to be more about Bush living," said Jim Tweto, Ferno's husband and an Era co-owner. "The pluses of it, and then there's some negative things there too. We talk about suicides and a lot of death. ... But mostly it's just about flying airplanes in rural Alaska."

For nearly three months film crews rode shotgun in cockpits or trailed in planes of their own. They caught a loon smacking into a Cessna 207, and pilots landing on sandbars and struggling to deliver a wedding cake unscathed for a ceremony in Koyuk.

The series is the latest in an avalanche of reality shows set in Alaska as producers mine the state for salty characters and rough-and-tumble, death-defying stories.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska" follows the former governor fishing, hunting, camping and snowmachining. "Gold Rush: Alaska" is a strike-it-rich drama set against the stumbling economy, and 2009's "Alaska State Troopers" was a kind of "Cops" on snowmachines.

Expect the shows to keep coming as long as the viewers do. Palin's show was a smash in its debut, pulling a record 5 million viewers for TLC, but subsequent shows have not reached that level.

The "Gold Rush" show notched the biggest premiere episode for a Discovery Channel series since Alaska-based "Deadliest Catch" in 2005, said executive producer Christo Doyle.

Doyle oversees 14 shows for Discovery, including "Dirty Jobs," "Swamp Loggers" and "Brew Masters."

Among them, Unalakleet-based "Flying Wild Alaska" with its cast of Tweto family members and pilots is a priority, he said. "The network is in love with this show."

NO ACCIDENTS

Non-military pilots in Alaska died at 41 times the rate of the average U.S. worker between 2003 and 2008, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

And that's an improvement over past decades.

The Twetos said there were no accidents during filming of the show, shot from August to November, though it came during a high-profile year for Alaska plane crashes.

"I had written into the contract that I get to review all these episodes so I can make sure that they don't inadvertently show something that's not legal just because they took it out of context," Jim Tweto said.

The Twetos agreed to film the series to boost the career of their aspiring-actress daughter, 23-year-old Ariel, who is studying communications at Chapman University in California and hopes to one day host a show of her own.

A former Unalakleet and East High School athlete, Ariel became a fan favorite in appearances on the ABC obstacle-course game show "Wipeout." (Look her up on YouTube.) A friend working on that show later traveled to Alaska and began pitching a series about Tweto's family to networks, she said.

After a few false starts, Discovery bit, she said.

Her sister Ayla, 24, is training to be a paramedic in Anchorage but visited Unalakleet on weekends and also appears in the show. Another sister, 21-year-old Elaine, spent the fall in London. Both are pilots.

Ferno's parents started an air-taxi company in Unalakleet, where Jim -- a former boat builder whose off-airport landings are featured on the series -- worked as a pilot.

"I used to load his planes," Ferno said.

Ariel said her parents, wary at first, now love the cameras.

At one point during filming, Ferno said, she re-enacted a scene from a soap opera -- maybe "All My Children" -- with Era pilot Doug "Hollywood" Stewart, who studied acting in New York and had worked as an extra on the program years ago.

"He put his foot up on a stool and said his one little line," she said.

Another pilot, Doug Doherty of Nome, said crews filmed him landing a delivery of explosives for whaling harpoons, and shot him flying sled dogs to Iditarod champion Lance Mackey in Fairbanks.

Discovery wanted Mackey on the show and Mackey -- a friend who stays with Doherty in Nome -- wanted coastal dogs hardened to fierce winds, the pilot said.

With a film crew in Unalakleet this weekend for follow-up interviews, some of the pilots said they haven't seen full episodes.

John Ponts, who first came to Alaska for a skateboard exhibition at the Alaska State Fair, watched teaser footage and liked what he saw. Short, two-second clips of roaring bush planes. Likely the same shots used in the ads -- sharp turns and tundra river landings, shot from cockpits, chase planes or cameras mounted on the aircraft.

"Airplane porn. I don't know how else I'd describe it," Ponts said.

DOUBLE DIPPING

Ponts, 30, spent the summer flying in and out of a North Slope hunting camp where Palin, in one of her shows, stopped to shoot a caribou, and as a result appears in both reality series.

The two series just miss each other on the cable TV schedule, with the eight-week run of "Sarah Palin's Alaska" wrapping as "Flying Wild Alaska" begins.

"I think I'm the villain in the show, so I can scare off all the unwanted tourists that Sarah Palin is bringing in," Ferno joked.

She spoke Thursday from the Twetos' home in Unalakleet, a Norton Sound village of about 700 people and a windy stop on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Words thinned and echoed over the distant phone connection.

Temperatures had only recently started to warm above 25 below, said Ferno, who is Inupiaq. She's been trying to find a musk ox wool gown -- sleeveless -- for Ariel to wear to the show's premiere in California, she said.

When the episodes begin to air in Unalakleet the Twetos will have to hit a neighbor's house to watch. They only get one channel at home.

"I'm really pushing to get (a) dish out here," Ferno said.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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