Why Do So Many Alaskans Fly?
If you knew that your landing strip might be, at best, a short strip of gravel and, at worst, a snowy run nestled beyond a mountain divide or a stretch of frigid lake; if you knew that flight infrastructure is limited and that you might be required because of extreme weather to switch from visual flight rules (VFR) to instrument flight rules (IFR) in a matter of moments; if you knew that colliding with moose or bear while landing was a real hazard or that being stranded in a remote location was a possibility; you might ask why you would want to fly in Alaska?
But the question for many Alaskans is: why wouldn’t you? Alaska’s aviation industry covers nearly 2.5 million square miles, generates nearly $4 billion for the state, and creates 35,000 jobs. In a state that stretches a distance east to west, about the same as from coastal Georgia to San Diego, one in every 50 inhabitants holds a pilot license. Compare that to the contiguous states, where only one in every 710 has the same certification. In fact, Merrill Field in Anchorage, a small airpost covering just 436 acres, copes with half the traffic of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, which is ten times the size.
So why are Alaskans so interested in taking to the air? One answer may be a necessity. The state is covered by vast expanses of wilderness, with roughly 82% of its communities disconnected from the state’s road system. Even in areas with road access, it is often more accessible because of conditions and distances involved to have vehicles shipped to a destination and only used locally.
Traveling to Alaska by car from other parts of the United States is an interesting journey most people wouldn’t take. Alaska is a gigantic state that’s extremely far away from the lower 48. For people who decide to make this trip, it’s advised to bring extra food, water, and gas in case of emergencies, where it’s likely to end up dozens of miles away from your nearest stations. The shortest drivable distance from the Washington/Canadian border to the Canada-Alaska border is an approximate 18-hour, 1,000-mile drive. Seattle is almost 2300 miles from Anchorage and 1,700 miles from Juneau (the latter requires a ferry ride for your car).
Because of this extreme challenge, people look instead at two different shipping methods for their cars. Shipping with an open or enclosed car hauler is the best way to get your car between Alaska and the contiguous 48 United States. Open car is a large semi that usually holds six or more cars on 2 to 3 secured levels of exposed trailer – probably the best choice for older or more durable cars. Enclosed car haulers are closed-space transport trailers not exposed to weather or other elements – likely the best choice for newer, classic, or more expensive cars.
Alaska thus has a long tradition of “bush pilots.” Post World War I, pilots began flying supplies to remote areas of what is now Alaska, and in 1927 the formation of the state’s first commercial aviation operation, Wien Alaska Airlines, created by Noel Wien, cemented aviation as a fixture. Early pilots ferried people, transported mail, and carried cargo for thriving fur, oil, and gold trades. These pilots supplied food and other supplies to remote villages where the only other alternative for travel was by dog sled.
Although infrastructure has increased in today’s Alaska, pilots are still integral to the state’s economy. Bush pilots still act as suppliers to hard-to-reach communities and fly children to school, transport patients to hospitals, and bring needed communications to areas where electricity is unreliable. They are also, of course, an essential part of the state’s tourism industry, acting as hunting guides and operating rescue missions for those who explore Alaska’s wilderness.
But another element of the state’s aviation craze has to do with the beauty of flying even in such a challenging environment. As Gedas Vegys, a veteran pilot of some of North America’s most remote locations, says, “While Alaska remains a complex environment for aviation, it is also an inspiring place for local aviation professionals.” Or, as another local pilot says of the people he sees take to the air, “They are blown away by what they see. In every direction, they ‘run out of eyeball.’”