Alaska Bush Pilots

January 12, 2011

Discovery Channel's Flying Wild Alaska Review

fyingwildalaskalogo.jpgOn Friday night Discovery Channel will introduce their viewers to the Tweto family in the premiere of Flying Wild Alaska. Jim Tweto, his wife Ferno, and two daughters, Ariel and Ayla, are at the helm of Unalakleet-based Era Airlines, Alaska's largest regional airline. Calling Era an airline seems like an unfair characterization that simplifies the business he built. Instead think of bush pilots flying in the most challenging conditions day after day to deliver people and goods to some of the most remote locations in the country.

Discovery Channel has had great success with a formula that combines quirky families with unique and interesting businesses. Last night I had the privileged to view the series premiere of Flying Wild Alaska. As a pilot, this show was right up my alley. I think this show also has great potential to engage the standard Discovery Channel viewer and generate greater interest in aviation. The Twetos follow in the footsteps of the Teutuls of American Chopper and the Pelletiers of American Loggers in sharing their interesting day-to-day lives with viewers nationwide.

In business most people say they wear multiple hats. Jim Tweto takes this saying to a new level. In the premiere he serves as bush pilot, fuels aircraft, manages flight operations, schedules pilots, teaches his daughter to marshal aircraft and oversees a fuel crisis that has potential of grounding a significant portion of his fleet. He does all this with some of the most basic tools, including the master airline flight schedule that he keeps on a sheet of handwritten paper folded in his pocket. Eighteen-hour days are common for this dedicated businessman who has grown a one plane operation to a 70+ aircraft airline that operates across an area the size of one-third of the continental United States.

flyingwildalaska.jpgThe first episode focuses on introducing viewers to the family and importance of the work they do. Era Airlines provides a lifeline to remote towns in Alaska that are not connected by roads, its home base in Unakleet is itself separated from the Alaskan highway system by hundreds of miles of uninhabited tundra. Era airlines transports supplies and passengers to some of the most inaccessible areas on the planet. One of the first flights the viewer rides along on is to the remote airstrip at Kavik, permanent population 1.

Most pilots have at one time or another dreamed of becoming a bush pilot. This show gives them a first hand look at what it is like to push the boundaries of an aircraft's operating limitation while landing and departing from off-airport locations. Combine that with learning about an interesting and challenging business and I believe Discovery has another hit on their hands.

Pilots may find that the show explains aviation jargon and knowledge in a way that would be rudimentary to them. For instance in the premiere episode significant time was dedicated to explaining the effects of water in fuel, how the rudder effects a plane and what thinner air does to a plane's performance. Hopefully by doing so they will bring in a broader viewership and help educate those viewers about aviation. Discovery Channel Executive Producer Christo Doyle explains, "We don't just take you into the wild world of flying in remote Western Alaska; instead, through the eyes of the Tweto family and their free-spirited bush pilots, we also reveal how the last frontier in the United States survives." The result is a show that pilots can enjoy for all the aviation related material and that non-pilots may enjoys though learning about aviation and through unique storylines.

The ten episode season premieres on Discovery Channel this Friday at 9pm Eastern/Pacific and 8pm Central. Check out the preview below and enjoy the full episode later this week.

Update: The show has quickly become one of Discovery Channels most popular shows. As a result Flying Wild Alaska is preparing for a second season! Learn more...

July 31, 2007

Tally the Aviation Enthusiast

tally_barney.jpgI thought I would share a photo of my favorite new aviation enthusiast TallyDog. She is seen here playing with her new favorite toy, a plush bi-plane, which we have named "Barney the Barnstormer".

Tally is my six month old Golden Retriever puppy. She is named after my favorite little town in Alaska, Talkeetna. Talkeetna is home of a great general aviation airstrip and Talkeetna Air Taxi which offers amazing site seeing flights of Denali is based there. Supposedly Talkeetna that inspired the fictitious town of Cicely from Northern Exposure.

I am not sure if I will push aviation further on her and get her in a plane anytime soon. I have always kind laughed in the pilot catalogs with those headsets made specifically to protect a dogs ears like Mutt Muffs.

Posted at 8:53 PM | Post Category: Alaska Bush Pilots, General | Save & Share This Story

November 30, 2004

Alaskan Pilot Rescued

saved.jpgMy infatuation with all things Alaska continues. I read this amazing story of pilot Mike Holman who was stranded in the Alaskan wilderness for over six days before being rescued. Holman, a pilot for United Airlines, was on vacation and flying his Maule ML-7 plane to a cabin 140 southwest of Anchorage but made a crucial error in judgment and went away from his projected flight path to explore the surrounding area. He landed the plane on a beach in the Koyuktolik Bay. Unfortunately, he could not restart the plane when he was ready to depart and the quick Alaskan tide submerged the plane shortly after. He had only enough time to get his survival gear from the plane but did not retrieve the emergency locator transmitter.

I remember being amazed while camping after a night of kayaking in Prince William Sound how quickly the tide came in and how it nearly swallowed the entire campsite while at full tide making the peninsula I was camped on an island for a few hours.

For three days Holman waited near the site of his landing hoping to spot rescue planes or boats but saw nothing. He determined his error of deviating from his intended path put him outside of the search box. He realized he would need to hike for help. The map he had with him showed a cabin within five miles of his location. After a 17-hour trek across treacherous terrain, he was blessed to find a functioning radio within the empty fishing lodge and was able to radio for help. The first rescue attempt on Saturday was called off due to high winds but on Sunday, after six days in the wilderness, Holman was rescued.

CAPBlog wrote some posts on the rescue efforts and the involvement of the Civil Air Patrol. He also gave credit to the Air Force Academy and its training of Holman, as "a graduate of the Air Force Academy, he was prepared for the situation. He had survival gear aboard, and he knew how to use it."

Photo Note: Pilot Mike Holman is greeted by his wife, Nicki, and their children, Charlie, 12, and Laura, 9, Sunday at Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage. Holman was picked up by an Alaska Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter Sunday morning after rescuers found him in a remote bay south of Seldovia. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)

Posted at 9:27 PM | Post Category: Alaska Bush Pilots, General | Comments (0) | Save & Share This Story

September 26, 2004

Don Sheldon - Bush Pilot Extrordinaire

wagerwiththewind.jpgWhile in Alaska I picked up, Wager With the Wind, an interesting looking book about a famous Alaskan Bush Pilot, Don Sheldon. Shortly after purchasing the book I packed the book into my bag to read when I returned home. Days later, while taking a flight seeing tour, our bush pilot explained as we flew into the Don Sheldon Amphitheater that it was named after Alaska's most famous bush pilot who had built a house on the floor of the glacier in the amphitheater. The name sounded familiar but I did not make the connection between the book, that I had purchased, and my pilot's story. Sheldon had flown in all the equipment for the cabin by air. In some cases he broke many aviation regulations by attaching the wood needed for the cabin to the side of his plane.

A few days after returning from Alaska I started the book, mostly to help lessen the effects of my Alaska withdrawl! I was excited to learn the book was about the life of the very bush pilot I had learned about on my flight seeing tour. Additionally, as he was based out of Talkeetna, Alaska for most his life, I enjoyed reading about this town that I had so enjoyed visiting.

Even better than reading about Talkeetna were the amazing tales of Don's life as an Alaskan bush pilot. I had always thought the bush pilot's life was a dangerous and courageous one but had no idea what a risky endevour it really was until I read the book. The fact that Don had a full life of flying that was only interrupted early due to cancer is remarkable.

What I enjoyed most was that he so unselfishly offered his services to those in need. There are several accounts of him making an unheard of flight manuever in order to rescue climbers, ship wrecked boaters or lost hunters. Almost every effort to climb the mountain ranges around Talkeetna including Denali (Mt. McKinley) during the period of 1940 - 1970 likely involved this world renowned bush pilot. Sheldon was heralded for his amazing ability to land on the sides of mountains. Most of his career was spent flying people to some of the most remote locations in Alaska.

The book description states "Don Sheldon has been called 'Alaska's bush pilot among bush pilots'", but he was also just one man in a fragile airplane who, in the end, was solely responsible for each mission he flew, be it a high-risk landing to the rescue of others from certain death in the mountains of Alaska or the routine delivery of supplies to a lonely homesteader."

The Seattle Times wrote "We'll wager this is one book you won't be able to put down!" I can attest to that! I think every anyone would enjoy this book but it is an absolute must read for any pilot.

Posted at 10:35 PM | Post Category: Alaska Bush Pilots, Book Review, General | Comments (86) | Save & Share This Story

September 15, 2004

Sandy Jamieson - Alaskan Bush Pilot & Artist

jamieson_predator_control.jpgWhile in Alaska I came across the work of a talented and humorous artist named Sandy Jamieson. I was originally drawn to a painting of his because it included an airplane. But I was taken by the way he merged aviation, wildlife and an amusing wit to create a wonderful collection of paintings.

At the time I bought just a postcard-size print of one of his painting called Predator Control (right). But I have a feeling I will likely purchase a full size painting in the future. Predator Control portrays two wolves hunting from the skies while flying a Piper Super Cub. Although hunting from an aircraft is illegal in Alaska, Jamieson writes that it still goes on from time to time. He says "I like to imagine there are wolves who dream of taking to the air in their own version of predator control."

I also really enjoy a painting called "Security Checkpoint" which portrays Santa's Sleigh being forced to go through a security check before take-off.

According to his website Sandy Jamieson is a working guide and pilot for most of the year in the wildest parts of Northern Alaska and during the dark winter, he retreats to his log studio to work as an artist and illustrator. He is the pilot of a Cessna 170 floatplane.

I encourage you to visit Sandy Jamieson's website.

Posted at 9:19 PM | Post Category: Alaska Bush Pilots, General | Comments (0) | Save & Share This Story

September 8, 2004

Alaskan Adventure!

As I mentioned in a previous post I have just returned from an awesome vacation to Alaska. I have included some of my photos in this post & also created a photo page that has scenery and wildlife shots.

My wife and I flew to Alaska on Saturday, August 28. We selected optimal seats on the Northwest 757 using Much of the view was obstructed by clouds but as we neared the Alaskan Border we saw the peaks of St. Elias Mountains (see photo) which contain the highest peaks in Canada. Seeing this got me excited for the adventure ahead.

floatplanebase_2.jpgWhen we arrived, our friend Nikki met us at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport then drove us to her house in the suburbs. On our way there, I was stunned by the number of float planes I saw flying in the area. It was obvious that Alaska was a general aviation friendly state. I snapped a photo (right) of some float planes docked at Lake Hood Seaplane Base, not far from Anchorage International.

We were travelling with a few other friends so our host dropped us off to make a return trip to the airport for the next arrivals. Meanwhile our friend Tom, Nikki's husband, took us on a search for moose. Tom is a C-130 pilot based at Elmendorf Air Force Base. I enjoyed seeing the variety of planes sitting on the tarmac including C-130s, F-15s and a few transient C-5's, which are the Air Force's largest plane. Our quest was succesfull when we found a female moose on the side of the road.

After all our friends arrived we packed an RV (see photo) and departed for Denali National Park the next morning. The drive takes almost five hours but was enjoyable due to the scenery. The fall colors were beautiful. Though many mountain peaks were obscured by a layer of smoke, the result of Alaska's largest forest fire in recorded history. It is estimated that an area the size of Massachusetts has been burned thus far.

moose_small.jpgDenali is a neat park that there is only one access road. Most people can only ride this road on a National Park Tour Bus. But they do allow those who are camping within the park to also drive down this road. We took this road as far as our campsite - Teklanika. We stayed at Teklanika for two days while enjoying its beautiful scenery (See photos) and wildlife (see photos) from the bus and our hikes.

As we were driving out of the park on Tuesday we saw a moose and pulled over to take some pictures. He decided to cross the road right in front of me and I captured the picture to the right. Seeing the bears, moose and caribou of Denali have generated fantastic memories I will never forget.

Whittier - Sea Kayaking
After that adventure we drove south to a tiny town called Whittier. To get to Whittier you have to got through a two mile tunnel that is one way. They have toll gates that change traffic directions every half hour. When you make it through the tunnel you see a small fishing village in which 150 or so of the locals live in one apartment building. I have never seen anything like it. From there we loaded our sea kayaks, rented from Alaskan Sea Kayakers, onto a water taxi and took a 40 minute boat ride to a secluded island in Prince William Sound. We were dropped of there and told we would be picked up the next day. We quickly set up camp then launched our kayaks. We were surrounded by magnificent glaciers on all sides. Many of which were calving and making spectacular thunderous roars in the process.

kayak_small.jpgThe best part of kayaking was interacting with harbor seals and sea otters. They were both very curious and would swim up to the kayaks then swim under and pop-up on the other side. The photo to the right was taken by my friend Tom who organized this trip. He is a great photographer as this photo demonstrates. You can view his work at, I hope you like the site - I built it.

The camping on Williard Island was fun although wet and cold due to a day of light then heavy rain. But, I enjoyed camping miles from people or cities. It was an amazing experience and I look forward to kayaking again.

Seward - Whale Watching
killerwhale_small.jpgOn Friday we visited Seward a port town on the Kenai Peninsula. From there we took a successful whale watching tour. Just an hour into the trip we stopped the boat in a sound that had a humpback whale. Within a few minutes there were four of them in view from the deck of the boat. They were amazing creatures. That would have been enough to quench my whale watching thirst but we were lucky enough to come across a pod of killer whales during the return trip. They swam right for the boat and a few went right under the boat. They were playing with each other as a few kept swimming over the top of one another. I had no idea how cool it would be to see these animals.

Flying in Alaska
On Friday afternoon my wife and I drove by Merrill Field, the busiest general aviation airport in Alaska. There are just under 1,000 aircraft based there. This is amazing especially since less than a mile away is Lake Hood Seaplane Base which has over 700 aircraft based there and Lake Hood Strip Airport with almost 250 land based planes. It is an amazing number of general aviation aircraft but after spending a week in the state it is obvious that aircraft are a primary mode of transportation for some and a secondary mode for many.

glacierlanding_small.jpgA trip to Alaska would not be complete without a flight seeing tour. So my wife and I drove to Talkeetna, which is the town Northern Exposure was based on. The tour was through Talkeetna Air Taxi flying out of the Talkeetna Airport. We flew in a De Havilland Beaver which had ski's and wheels for landing. I heard the Beaver referred to as the workhorse of Alaska aviation several times and I can understand why. It was a great plane. I mentioned to the pilot that I was a new pilot and he invited me to sit in the co-pilot seat which was a thrill. Our flight took us north into the mountains surrounding Denali (Mt. McKinley) which continued to be elusive. This day, it was obscured by clouds. So we flew through the Ruth Gorge which is the deepest in the world including a 4,000 foot thick river of ice. Next, we entered the Don Sheldon Amphitheater which is an area surrounded by enormous mountains on each side but along the floor is a small cabin that was build by Don Sheldon. Mr. Sheldon was a famous bush pilot, and according to legend, flew in all the materials needed to build this secluded shelter.

tightspaces_small.jpgNext we made a glacier landing in these mountains. In order to land on a mountain side glacier the plane lands uphill. That way the plane can turn around and depart by sliding down the glacier. The landing is smooth which I guess you can expect since there was a few inches of snow on top of the ice. We got out and took in the spectacular view. We even yelled once or twice to hear the echos that called back from each direction. Then we got the engine started, to everyone's relief, and started the slide down the mountain. Sure enough the Beaver powered off the glacier and we were back in the air at about 7,000 feet just after take-off. On our return to Talkeetna we flew through some tight gaps in the the mountain range (right). During the flight back we flew over a few moose that were oblivious to our existence. The landing was smooth and the ride was memorable. I would recommend Talkeetna Air Taxi to anyone looking for a great flightseeing trip in Alaska.

Sadly, this was the last real adventure in Alaska. From there we returned to Anchorage to prepare for our return trip to Ohio. No post I could write, story I can tell, or photo I share can ever fairly explain the beauty, uniqueness, or wonder of Alaska justly. But, it sure is fun thinking about it and trying my best to share the journey!

View some of my photos from Alaska.

Posted at 10:05 PM | Post Category: Alaska Bush Pilots, De Havilland Beaver, General | Save & Share This Story