Spotlight 49: Flying High in Alaska
NOTE: In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mount McKinley to its Athabascan given name, Denali, meaning "the High One."
Few Alaska archetypes are more iconic than that of the Bush pilot. It’s easy to see why: In Alaska, 80 percent of the communities are not connected by road to anywhere else, so the arrival of a bush plane toting food, supplies and mail – not to mention news from friends and family – is literally a lifeline for residents of remote communities.
Early Alaska pilots reached these communities in terrible weather, without access to maps and topographic information taken for granted today. Due to their bravery and skill, pilots took on a mythical status, and in 2013, Alaskans will recognize their role in shaping the state through a series of celebrations and events celebrating the 100th anniversary of aviation in Alaska.
Visitors will be able to take part in several of these events, but perhaps the best way to understand what makes flying in Alaska so special is to book a flightseeing adventure and get a look at Alaska’s grandeur from the air. Whether you want to search for wildlife, cross the Arctic Circle, land on a glacier, reach a remote fishing spot or access a quiet public-use cabin, small planes are a great way to get there.
Almost all Alaska communities have flightseeing or charter air services available, and given the size and scale of Alaska’s topography, it is often the best way to get a true sense of where you are and what surrounds you. From the air, visitors get a great perspective on the geologic action of the ancient glaciers that carved Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan. The monument features long, saltwater fjords with sheer rock walls that climb 3,000 feet directly from the water’s surface; crashing waterfalls; ice-blue glacial lakes; and the towering spruce of the surrounding Tongass National Forest. For example, Near Juneau,’s flightseeing tours soar over Mendenhall Glacier is spectacular from the ground, and an excellent visitor center run by the U.S. Forest Service presents photos and maps of its source, the Juneau Icefield, which is the source of dozens of glaciers in the area, including one of Alaska’s most popular – Mendenhall Glacier. But flying Flying over the icefield in a small plane or helicopter provides a sense of perspective you just can’t get on the ground. is a whole different experience: the unearthly blue color of the ice, the sheer size of the icefield, the number of other glaciers it produces and the way glaciers shape the surrounding landscape are all evident when you see them from above. Similarly, you can’t quite comprehend how big Mount McKinley is without seeing it from the air. The highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, Mount McKinley is without a doubt a very impressive mountain no matter where you see it from – but circling its peak in a small plane gives you a completely different perspective on its size.
Seeing these geologic monsters up close also imparts real respect for Alaska’s aviation pioneers. The first flight in Alaska took place in Fairbanks in 1913, and it was purely for fun. The Wright Brothers had completed their first successful flight just 10 years earlier, and the technology hadn’t yet made it to Alaska. A group of Fairbanks businessmen paid to ship the plane via steamboat from Seattle to Fairbanks to put on a demonstration flight above Weeks Field. Little did they know how aviation would ultimately shape Alaska.
To learn more about the history of aviation in Alaska, you won’t want to miss the Anchorage Museum’s “Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation” exhibit, which runs through August 11, 2013. Year-round, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Center in Anchorage offers aviation history and information. In Wasilla, the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry also features aviation history along with that of Alaska’s highways and railroads.
For true aviation enthusiasts, the Great Alaska Aviation Gathering in Anchorage is a must. Scheduled for May 4-5, 2013, the event draws more than 21,000 attendees and 275 exhibitors for information on industry trends, new products and safety innovations along with live presentations and demonstrations. Every type of aircraft, including sport, general aviation, vintage, experimental, commercial, corporate and military will be represented. In a state with more pilots and aircraft per capita than anywhere else in the country, this is the ultimate aviation show.