The 16th-annual Great Alaska Aviation Gathering offered something for everyone this weekend, from vendors and planes for sale to the sage advice of a 91-year old World War II pilot who still takes to the skies.
Rex Grey, president of the Alaska Airmen's Association, estimated that more than 20,000 people stopped by the FedEx hangar at Ted Stevens International Airport, where the show took place Saturday and Sunday, to check out the airplanes and reconnect with Alaska's tight-knit aviation community.
What started as a typical trade show has evolved to "more of a social event," Grey said, where aviators who may not cross paths all year have a chance to catch up with each other. The event also serves as a fundraiser for the Alaska Airmen's Association, which puts on the show for free, relying on the help of more than 100 volunteers to carry out two days of aviation fanfare.
The show holds particular pertinence in Alaska, where 82 percent of the state's communities are served year-round only by air. Gray has been a pilot more than 40 years. What he loves most about flying in the Last Frontier is "the freedom we have in Alaska to kind of fly where we want and the beautiful country we have to fly over," he said.
On a bright Sunday morning, folks of all ages crowded the hangar where hundreds of vendors were set up, selling everything from aviation art to GPS tracking software. Outside, dozens of aircraft were on display and people made their rounds from plane to plane.
17,000 hours in the air
Among those in attendance was 91-year-old Col. Mike Hunt, a World War II pilot who still flies. Hunt attends the gathering every year on behalf of the Alaska Commemorative Air Force, an organization dedicated to preserving historic military aircraft while seeking donations to help "keep the legacy alive," he said.
Hunt has logged every flight since he began flying in the 1940s, amassing around 17,000 hours (more than 708 full days) in the skies during his life. "I'm an airplane nut I guess," he laughed.
For aspiring aviation enthusiasts, he offered a simple piece of advice: "Live your dream, and stay focused. Do what you want to do, but stay focused on that goal."
Hunt sat next to his own dark green 1930s Stinson L-13 "grasshopper" that he flew to the event from his Anchorage home. Several other World War II vintage airplanes, including a shiny metal AT-6 Texan, and a newly-restored bright-red 1931 Fairchild Pilgrim, attracted curious onlookers, who peered inside the propellers and cockpits.
100 years of Alaska aviation
These historic airplanes, along with a Mitshubishi A6M Zero and Travel Air SA-6000-A, will head to rural Alaska villages later this month in celebration of the 100th anniversary of aviation in the state, said Jeff Sever, volunteer with the Alaska Air Show Association. Alaska's first flight took place July 3, 1913, in Fairbanks, according to the association.
Sever will fly the AT-6 Texan during the month-long journey, starting in the fishing community of Cordova in Southeast Alaska and ending in Iliamna in Southwest Alaska.
"We're basically a traveling museum. We show up in these villages and towns that just never see these kinds of airplanes, ever." He's happy to give back to the children and communities in rural Alaska. And, if he's lucky, Sever will get a chance to fly the Fairchild Pilgrim, which has just been fully-restored and has yet to take its first flight.
Sever is ready for the summer flying season. "I think we deserve some good weather, so I'm pretty excited."
Attendees at the show on Sunday were there for a variety of reasons. Anchorage resident Steve Stralka said it was something of an educational experience. "I'm just here kind of gathering information," he said, considering whether to pursue becoming a certified pilot.
Kirsten Enanoria, whose father was a pilot, was at the event with her children. She says they attend the show nearly every year. "We just like to come out as a family, hang out and look at stuff," she said as her two children darted around one of the planes parked outside. "They're just excited to run around in the sunshine."
Pilot Phillip Ischi and flight attendant Christie Weaver came to the show in search of a new airplane. "We just sold our first plane, so we're looking to get another one now," he said.
While the raffle to win a 2007 Aviat Husky A1B-180 could have given him the chance to walk away with one for free, it wasn't quite what Ischi was looking for. "We want a (Super) Cub," he said.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com