Alaska’s Aviation Culture
a Boon to Visitors
Given Alaska’s size, its sparse population and the vast territory inaccessible by road, it’s no surprise that aviation is a huge part of life in the 49th state. From the earliest days of flight, there were pioneers in Alaska that recognized the potential air transportation represented in a state as large as Alaska. But it wasn’t until after World War I that aviation really took off and became an integral part of life in the Last Frontier.
The state’s first commercial airline, Wien Alaska Airways, was established in 1927 and was among the first commercial airlines in the United States. The airline’s founder, Noel Wien, became a legend in Alaska history when he flew an open cockpit biplane from Anchorage’s Park Strip to Fairbanks in July of 1924, and then went on to found the airline, which was based in Nome. From there, aviation in Alaska took off – pilots became romantic figures known for their bravery and skill, and the rapid development of territorial Alaska’s resources like gold, fur and oil meant there was plenty of work for them.
There are nearly limitless opportunities for today’s visitors to experience a bit of that history and the thrill of viewing Alaska’s amazing scenery from the air. Excellent aviation-oriented museums showcase the planes, pilots and personal histories that have shaped Alaska’s aviation culture. In Anchorage, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum features more than 20 planes from different time periods along with historical artifacts and a Hall of Fame that tells the stories of Alaska’s most influential pilots. Just north of Wasilla, the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry explores Alaska’s boom and bust history through the technology and industrial equipment that opened up the land to development. Displays include lots of aviation history. Almost all general-interest museums in Alaska necessarily feature aviation prominently as well since it’s so much a part of the state’s history.
Once you’ve oriented yourself to the history, get up in the air on a flightseeing tour. As it sounds, flightseeing is sightseeing by air, and it is the best way to take in and fully appreciate giant landscape features like glaciers, ice fields, fjords and vast networks of rivers and streams. One of the most popular flightseeing experiences available in the state is encircling the peak of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, in the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve. Other popular options include flying over glaciers and icefields. Several Alaska communities offer experiences like this, but one of the most popular is in Juneau, where flightseeing tours take visitors over the Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau Icefield. South of Juneau in Ketchikan, a flightseeing trip to Misty Fjords National Monument allows visitors to watch dozens of waterfalls crash into the ocean from above and get a bird’s eye perspective on the granite peaks that rise 2,000 to 3,000 feet nearly straight up from the surface of the ocean.
However, there’s lots of great scenery to take in even if your reason for hopping into a “bush plane” is just to get from one place to another. Plenty of amazing destinations in Alaska can only be reached in small planes (seating approximately 12 passengers or less). For example, travelers interested in watching brown bears scoop salmon out of rivers and creeks by the fistful in Katmai National Park and Preserve can fly from Anchorage, Homer or Kodiak to the park while taking in the lush green coastline, mountains and even (inactive) volcanoes along the way. Many remote sport fishing or wilderness lodges rely on small planes to transport their guests. Landings can take place on lakes, rivers or gravel runways and deliver guests nearly to the front door. Finally, one of the most interesting ways to check out life in a few of Alaska’s remote, predominantly Alaska Native villages is to catch the mail plane as it makes its rounds to a cluster of communities along the Yukon River. These quick touch downs in a handful of locations will give you a broad overview of the distances that separate villages, the vast network of rivers and lakes in Interior Alaska and the fact that these roadless communities are still heavily reliant on air transportation, just as they were when Wien Alaska Airways opened for business in the 1920s.
Helicopters also play a big role in Alaska’s flight-related tour options. Rather than just flying over, helicopters offer the opportunity to actually land on the face of a glacier for guided trekking excursions. Similarly, helicopters can quickly and efficiently transport guests to the top of a ridgeline for an unbelievable day hike or to the banks of whichever stream has the best fishing on a given day. Many remote lodges use helicopters to help put guests in touch with experiences just like this. Some even combine fishing with heliskiing, which can be done in the summer in the high, snowy reaches of Alaska mountains that never completely melt.
For more information and to start planning your Alaska aviation adventure, click here.