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Alaska's sky highway: the pilots and planes that keep Alaska connected

  • Author: Jamey Bradbury
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 23, 2015

A shoe box with wings. A flying bathtub. There's not one perfect way to describe the SC-7 Skyvan parked behind the offices of Alaska Air Taxi. But one thing's certain: It doesn't seem possible that something so ungainly could fly.

But it flies. With Alaska Air Taxi owner Jack Barber at the helm, it's flown all over the state, carrying cargo as varied as groceries, ATVs, fuel—horses. Roughly a third of Alaska's population is reachable only by boat or airplane, so pilots like Barber serve as a lifeline to the Bush. Skyvans, Cessnas and de Havilland Beavers are often the only option for getting people and cargo in and out of remote communities.

For decades, pilots have flown small cargo loads and mail to the Bush, mostly in planes like the Cessna 207, a single-engine freight hauler with 1,100-pound payload capacity that Lee Ryan, vice president of Ryan Air, calls "the mainstay of Bush aviation." But planes like the Skyvan and Ryan Air's CASA 212-200, which can haul 5,000-pounds of freight, now make it possible to get oversized goods to villages quickly, year-round. The change has radically impacted the lives of those who live off the road system.

"Before, if an individual in Kwigillingok wanted a king-sized bed, they had to wait until the big boat showed up in the summertime to deliver it," according to Wilfred "Boyuck" Ryan, president of Ryan Air. "With the type of airplanes we focused on, we could bring that king-sized bed in year round."

No matter how large or small an item is, if it's going to the Bush, it's going by plane. This keeps larger village hubs, like Ryan Air's Emmonak Station, busy, with 10 to 20 flights from several carriers arriving and departing each day.

On the ground, station manager John Allen Crane coordinates mail delivery to the local post office. The ground crew transfers cargo destined for nearby villages to even smaller aircraft, like the Cessna 207. Deliveries with the larger CASA 212, meanwhile, are limited. "We're not FedEx," Crane has to remind his customers. "It's going to take a few days for your freight to get to the village."

Meanwhile, Crane starts making phone calls. While he's happy to deliver cargo to Emmonak customers for a small delivery fee, most folks prefer to swing by the airport and pick up their orders.

"You get to meet a lot of people and know everybody by face," he says.

There's a lot that sets flying in remote Alaska apart from flying elsewhere—harsh weather, short, sometimes unmaintained runways—but this might be the most unusual aspect of flying in the Bush. The divide between passengers, pilots and crew is virtually nonexistent.

"You jump on an airliner, the pilots are locked in the cockpit," says Lee Ryan. "You rarely see them. Up here, the pilot's right there with you."

"It's a unique experience for a pilot to get to know the people riding in the back," adds Cleve McDonald. For 46 years, he made his living as an airline pilot, primarily with Alaska Airlines, flying into communities like Dutch Harbor, Bethel and Ketchikan. "I figure every three months, we'd completely empty those places out, the number of people flying in and out. They greet you by name, you know their kids. They learn to appreciate the fact, when you say, 'We're not going today,' they know it's probably a good call."

The relationship between Bush pilots and the people who depend upon them goes beyond simple respect. Business owners, like Ed Ward of the Kodiak Brown Bear Center, place complete trust in their regular pilots.

"They're the first contact our clients have, so we have to know they're going to represent our company well," Ward says. "Everything we have, be it fuel, food, building supplies—everything comes in or goes out on a floatplane. And if something we request isn't available, we trust the pilot to find a good substitute so we can make a go of it."

It's not cheap to get supplies to places off the road system, so pilots double as puzzle-solvers, figuring out how to make the most of the space available on each aircraft. Sometimes that means tying a refrigerator to the float of a de Havilland Beaver.

Flying has changed a lot since the early Bush pilot days—so much so that Lee Ryan claims, "We're not Bush pilots anymore. We're pilots who fly in the Bush." Weather cameras, GPS and even cell phones make it easier for pilots to stay connected and gather information on destinations.

But the basics never change. As a young pilot, Boyuck Ryan learned the names of every creek, river, hill and cove along his regular routes; later, he taught them to his son, along with how to read the weather and how to fly without relying on newfangled technologies.

The relationship between pilots and the people of remote Alaska hasn't changed, either, except to grow stronger. If a mechanical problem grounded Boyuck Ryan in Kasigluk, he says, "I'd have a warm place to stay, dinner, breakfast the next morning. When you fly from village to village in one of these small planes, you realize just how big our state is. But as a pilot, you meet people, develop relationships and the whole state starts to seem like a small community."

This story appeared in the May 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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