Jim Tweto spent decades forging a reputation throughout Western Alaska as a talented and generous pilot before — and after — he gained celebrity through his family’s reality TV show, the Discovery Channel series “Flying Wild Alaska.”
Tweto, 68, died Friday in a plane crash 35 miles northeast of Shaktoolik that also killed 45-year-old Idaho outdoor guide Shane Reynolds. The crash generated international headlines due to Tweto’s role on the show.
At a celebration of life Tuesday evening at the Alaska Aviation Museum, Tweto was remembered not for his celebrity but as a generous and humble man fueled by his dedication to aviation and the communities of the region he served from his home in Unalakleet.
Five planes flew over a crowd of more than 300 gathered at the edge of the Lake Hood Seaplane Base before the group packed into the museum to share stories of a hard-working pilot who sometimes waved off payment for emergency travels such as funeral services.
Elmer Bekoalok met Tweto several decades ago after a friend went missing while snowmachining near Shaktoolik. Bekoalok called Tweto to charter a search and rescue flight. Tweto dropped what he was doing and left immediately to help, Bekoalok said. And when the missing man was found shortly after he arrived, Tweto took Bekoalok for a flight anyway.
When they landed, Tweto told Bekoalok he was a good man for trying to help his friend. The flight was free.
“For a complete stranger to do and say something nice like that, it really goes a long way,” Bekoalok said.
Tweto had a relentless work ethic and was a jack of all trades, said Ben Pedersen, who worked as a pilot for Tweto in Unalakleet. He did everything, including pouring concrete at the hangar and loading cargo into planes.
His wife, Ferno Tweto, personally greeted attendees before a brief service Tuesday evening. Even after working a long day, she said, her husband always had time to bring his daughters out to a picnic or spend time with them.
“Above all, we never doubted his love for us,” she said.
Tweto considered the pilots who worked for him to be family and opened up his home to many of them who worked in Unalakleet, Ferno Tweto said.
“Even after retiring, he’d tell me of all the pilots upgrading and he’d be so proud of the guys and girls that he knew were doing so well,” she said.
Tweto first came to Alaska from Minnesota on a hockey scholarship then worked throughout the state as a welder for the Army Corps of Engineers before becoming a boat builder in Shaktoolik and then Unalakleet. He played a major role in the development of rural aviation in Alaska, where communities rely on small planes not only for trips in and out of remote villages but vital cargo like groceries and mail.
Tweto was a co-owner of Hageland Aviation Services and then Era Alaska, which later became Ravn Air Group. He was bought out of the company in 2015. He retired after that but was still a prominent figure in Western Alaska, said Luke Hickerson, a friend who worked for Tweto as a pilot.
Tweto continued flying after his retirement and worked for Golden Eagle Outfitters, which was owned by a friend, according to an obituary prepared by his family and distributed at the service.
Tweto and his family were featured in “Flying Wild Alaska” when it aired during 2011 and 2012. The show was described in reviews when it aired as “perhaps the most honest of the Alaska-based reality series.” Tweto played himself, the pilot-owner of Era Alaska flying into a barrage of challenging situations while juggling a busy flight service.
The National Transportation Safety Board is just beginning an investigation into last week’s crash.
Tweto was working for Golden Eagle Outfitters on Friday and had departed from Unalakleet to pick up two hunters including Reynolds from a remote camp northeast of Shaktoolik, said Clint Johnson, the agency’s Alaska chief. He planned to make two trips, picking up a hunter and some of the gear each time, Johnson said.
The hunter who remained at camp saw the plane crash as it took off but failed to climb, Alaska State Troopers said. The hunter activated an SOS notification on his InReach device after seeing the crash, officials said.
Tweto and Reynolds died at the scene.
It isn’t immediately clear what caused the crash, Johnson said. Bad weather at the crash site over the weekend delayed the arrival of NTSB officials. An investigator traveled to Nome on Monday with a representative from the plane’s airframe manufacturer and they reached the site Tuesday, he said.
The NTSB is coordinating with Golden Eagle Outfitters to recover the wreckage of the Cessna 180 Tweto was flying, Johnson said.