Bush Pilot

National Geographic's female factor on 'Alaska Wing Men'

In Alaska, you don't have to be big city to be a big story. At least, not when you're Zaz Staheli.

The National Geographic show "Alaska Wing Men" is in its second season now, and features the 24-year-old Kiana pilot, along with a number of other wing men from around the state. Staheli is the only female pilot featured this season, making her place in a field historically dominated by men.

Staheli, her father Lee and her younger brother Lee all fly with the air taxi service her grandfather (also Lee) started in the 1960s -- Lee's Sea Air. It's a family thing.

If you ask Staheli what got her into flying, she'll tell you there's never been a moment she wasn't. "I was born and raised flying," she said.

On the record, she's been a pilot for eight years, and wasted no time tacking up her credentials. She took her first solo flight at midnight on her 16th birthday -- the soonest she could legally go up alone -- and it wasn't in the warm nighttime glow of an Arctic Alaska summer. It was in March, in the dark and snow of Fairbanks.

Not breaking from tradition, she ticked off her next two goals as soon as it was legal to do so, acquiring her private pilot's license at 17 and her commercial license at 18.

"I love being up here (in Alaska) and flying because there's miles and miles of nothing," Staheli said. "I'm a village girl, and probably always will be."


Staheli has spent her share of time outside the village, going to school in Fairbanks and spending a summer in Seattle. She earned two associate's degrees and one bachelor's degree from UAF, where she studied aviation, aviation tech and biological sciences. But time in the bustle did not a city girl make.

"All the people, all the traffic, it's just not my cup of tea," Staheli said.

She and her 4-year-old son, Joe, are currently based out of Kiana, and their life is certainly one based on family -- especially when it comes to appearing on national TV.

In fact, when National Geographic first approached the Staheli family about featuring their air taxi service in the show, Staheli's dad gave them a big negative.

"That sparked their interest even more," Staheli said. "They kept calling."

And eventually, the family gave the OK. Initially, the show was meant to feature the family business as a whole, Staheli said, as her parents Lee and Heanie, brother Lee and sister Lexy are all pilots as well. But locations and school schedules got in the way, and the Staheli segments ended up focusing on Zaz -- though she's quick to point out it's no solo job.

"It's a family owned and operated business," she said. "It takes all of us to make it work, not just one."

That business includes the array of air travel demands that are part and parcel of living in a world without roads.

"We're an air taxi service. We go when people call," Staheli said. "And you never know when they're going to call or where they're going to want to go."

It's not uncommon for her to be a school-bus driver one day, shuttling the basketball team to a game, and the next day serve as prisoner transport for the Alaska State Troopers.

Regardless, she and her Cherokee Six aircraft take on the responsibility of getting kids, families and her own skin safely from point A to point B -- a task slightly complicated at first by a lens lurking over her shoulder.

"It's hard to have a camera on you 24-7," Staheli said. "Just because, if things aren't working right, it's hard to have that aspect. You have somebody watching."

Not to mention there aren't any hotels in Kiana for the camera guys to shuffle off to after the wheels touch down for the day.

They were all working and living together.

"So, gotta get along," she said.

The show was filmed last March and part of last summer, and is currently airing on the National Geographic channel. Staheli said there was brief mention of cameras returning to Kiana for another season of shooting, but that she and her family would have to discuss it should that be put on the table.

Besides her life and love of flying, Staheli has no shortage of other pursuits. She was recently accepted into dental school at two universities, a four-year program that would take her out of state should she choose to go.


But that's not an easy departure to make. "It's not only the flying, it's your friends, family," Staheli said. "When you come from a village of 350 people, everybody knows everybody. There's more of a sense of community. I lived in Seattle for a summer and I never met my neighbors."

So while her near future is as yet undecided, you can make a few sure bets on Zaz Staheli -- she loves to fly, she loves Alaska and you can catch her at it on Fridays, 8 and 11 p.m. EST.

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.

Hannah Heimbuch

Hannah Heimbuch is a reporter for The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman.