Author's note: There are more than 250 operators in Alaska licensed under Parts 121 and 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations as air carriers, air taxis and charter providers. They are based in all areas of the state from Southeast to the North Slope, from the Interior to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Companies range in size from single pilot owner-operators to rosters that include dozens of captains and co-pilots. They fly everything from single-engine Cessna 185s to de Havilland Dash 8 twin turbo-props carrying up to 37 passengers. The range and depth of Alaska’s aviation industry is as vast as the state it serves. In this occasional series, Bush Pilot will highlight the diversity of that industry and introduce readers to the many different ways that aviation is an integral part of Alaska life and business.
Founded in 1980 by partners Kitty Banner and Kimball Forest -- who took advantage of their first initials to give the air taxi its mountainesque sounding name -- K2 Aviation is an air taxi operation based in Talkeetna, the jumping-off point to North America's highest peak, Mt. McKinley. After being sold to Jim and Julie Okonek in 1981 and operated by them until 1996, K2 was then purchased by the Rust family who also own and operate Rust’s Flying Service. While Rust’s is based at Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, K2 remains in Talkeetna and is deeply associated with Denali flightseeing tours and local charters.
With a fleet that includes Cessna 185s, de Havilland Beavers and Otters, a Cherokee Six and a Piper Navajo, K2 has aircraft that fly on floats, skis and wheels. They excel at “off-airport” work and provide transportation services for a wide range of Alaska activities both inside and outside of Denali National Park.
“We have lodge and cabin clients needing supplies and general transportation, as well as providing support for mining companies, land surveying, government charters and fuel hauling,” said Operations Manager Suzanne Rust. In the past they have also chartered for oil companies on the North Slope.
The bulk of K2’s business, however, still resides in the park. As one of only four air taxis -- the others are Sheldon Air Services, Fly Denali and Talkeetna Air Taxi -- to hold concessions permitting glacier landings on Mount McKinley, there are a wide range of tourism and mountaineering companies who rely on K2 and return to them year after year. According to Rust, the park is central to everything K2 does.
“There are 6 million acres in the park that we share with visitors every year," Rust said. "It’s a trip of a lifetime for people and we don’t forget that. The park is truly an amazing place and we value the opportunity to share it with everyone who comes here.
“What we hope,” she continued, “is that they will leave and never forget it.”
Visitors to Talkeetna are quick to realize that aviation is one of the town’s central industries and flying out of there usually means flying into the park and flying on or near “The Mountain.”
“Aviation is a way of life for people here,” Rust said. “It’s a very different way of life then what people are used to from Outside.”
In the years since the unique capabilities of pioneer Talkeetna bush pilots Don Sheldon and Cliff Hudson made the small community famous in climbing circles, a lot has changed. K2 and other Talkeetna-based air services band together to hire a base camp manager. Communications technology keeps the air services in touch with base camp.
“There are blogging climbers now!” Rust laughed.
This technology allows them to create a workable schedule during the busy climbing/tourist season, while keeping one eye on the constantly-changing weather. “We don’t want to miss a [flying] window,” explains Rust. “We are constantly anticipating when we need to be picking someone up.”
In many ways, K2 is an example of how much aviation has had to evolve in Alaska. The company is still providing the same basic service that Banner and Forest promised more than 30 years ago and certainly operate in the echo of all those pilots who flew on McKinley before them. But they now use GPS and satellite phones to keep a far greater degree of control on the schedule then was possible in the past, all while reaching out via longtime guides and the web to promise a park flying experience that will satisfy visitors' dreams.
“No day is ever the same for us,” Rust said. But clearly, wherever the job takes them, K2 Aviation is excited to share the ride.
Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.
Correction: The base camp manager on Mount McKinley is hired by K2 and other Talkeetna-based air services working together.