SPONSORED: In 1992, Wade Renfro took to the skies for an introductory flight. A hunter and avid outdoorsman, Renfro thought having a pilot’s license would be the best way to take his Alaska adventures to new heights. After that initial takeoff, he began to think about aviation not just as a means to a new fishing stream or hunting ground, but as a profession.
In the time since, he launched Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures, allowing him to marry these two great loves: flying and sharing true Alaska wilderness experiences year-round with locals and visitors.
Preparing for takeoff
For his first flight as a licensed pilot, Renfro brought his dad to the airport, saying a friend was going to be flying the plane. Once they’d arrived, Renfro confessed that he’d quietly been working on his private pilot’s license. Feeling confident and proud to show his father all he’d accomplished, Renfro readied the aircraft with the necessary checks. Upon takeoff, however, the passenger door popped open. His father, who had always been a nervous flyer, panicked.
“I heard about it all the way home and for many years to come,” Renfro said.
They laugh about it now.
“Since then we’ve flown all over Alaska, (over) tundra, sandbars, mountain tops, snow fields, lakes and rivers. He won’t fly with anyone but me. It’s been an amazing adventure,” Renfro said.
After earning his license, Renfro, who grew up in Valdez, went to Bethel to interview for an entry level flying job with Craig Emery, owner of Craig Air.
“He was the first person that would consider talking to me about being a pilot in Alaska.”
Renfro explained that when he was trying to break into the business, the market had a surplus of pilots and he only met the bare minimum requirements.
“I was the lowest time pilot he had ever considered, and he made it abundantly clear it might not work out,” Renfro said. But he landed the job.
After descent into Bethel at 4:30 a.m. in a -25 degree snowstorm, Renfro was put through a rigorous training program that took almost as many hours as required to acquire a private pilot's license. He flew single-engine Cessnas, worked on airplanes, plowed snow, and whatever else Emery needed. Renfro credits that time for creating the foundation for all his flying and business knowledge for the years to come.
From Craig Air, Renfro obtained a guide license and air taxi operating certificate, and went on to fly for other Alaska-based aviation operations. He once worked two weeks on, spending his free time developing what would become Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures.
Finding cruising altitude
It wasn’t easy getting off the ground.
Renfro’s first fleet consisted of only a Piper PA-18 Super Cub and a PZL Wilga 80. He primarily offered guided and unguided trips to Alaska’s wild backcountry.
“The business was very bare bones compared to now. The office was our house and the hanger was nonexistent,” Renfro said. “I worked on the ramp in the rain, snow and, occasionally, the sunshine.”
Beyond their lean profile, Renfro’s was met with other challenges that they still face today.
As with all remote areas not connected to the road system, operating a business in Bethel has its share of challenges. From an aviation standpoint, the weather is often extreme and isn’t always conducive to flying. The wind blows year-round, and when it doesn’t, Renfro said, a dense fog often forms.
The need for aircraft parts frequently grounds planes for extended periods while they wait for the necessary pieces to be flown in via cargo airlines or USPS. And more transient employees often move on, to be closer to their homes or to bigger markets when they obtain the level of experience needed to secure other jobs.
As they grew, one of the company’s biggest breaks came when Renfro was asked if doing flying for aerial game surveys was in his wheelhouse. Ergo, the business expanded to a year-round, on-demand air taxi service, primarily catering to businesses and school districts. As Renfro built his arsenal of equipment, the company was able to better navigate the unpredictable Bethel climate and further develop their services to include flying locals to and from their villages.
“The wonderful people of the Yukon Delta have made our business possible,” Renfro said. “And, we have made a lot of lifetime friends along the way.”
Now, Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures maintains a bevy of planes; has a small hoard of employees, many of which, Renfro said “have become like family”; and is constantly looking for new avenues to serve its community, such as bypass mail and commuter services.
First National Bank Alaska, Renfro said, has been instrumental in their continued growth.
“Often businesses like ours don’t fall within the scope of traditional lending categories,” Renfro explained. “First National is an Alaska-based company that understands the challenges small businesses face in rural Alaska. They help us thrive in our unconventional markets.”
Reaching new heights
What comes next for the ever growing and evolving business? They’re looking for more ways to give back to the community that has helped Renfro’s succeed.
Renfro’s donates flights to organizations, such as the Lower Kuskokwim School District and to the K300 sled dog race.
“We’ve worked with K300 for many years and enjoy being a part of the sense of community it brings,” Renfro said. “We fly dogs, equipment, people and whatever else needs to go to stopover points in the race. It’s such a great community event and such a privilege to help support it.”
Professionally, their next goal is to expand into the guided wilderness adventure market, and offer more of the low-impact trips.
“We have an amazing group of highly knowledgeable guides and pilots who make up our organization,” Renfro said. “We all love the outdoors and consider it a great privilege to be out in the vast pristine wilderness of the Kilbuck Mountains. We want to share it with like-minded people who want to see one of the last truly pristine places on earth."
This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.