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Thread: So what is it like to be bush pilot in Alaska?

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    Member kantill's Avatar
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    Default So what is it like to be bush pilot in Alaska?

    Well like the title says I have been trying to find out more about this. I did some searching on line and one guy says it "long hours and low pay". So I am asking you guys what is it like, the work, the pay, the "benefits" if any and any other things that us non-pilots have not thought of. I have always wanted to learn to fly and I am trying to find a different career choice that will get outside, instead behind a computer all day.

    Thanks

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    98% shear boring...........2% stark raving terror.

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    The days of the REAL ALASKAN BUSH PILOTS are long gone.
    Some of the traditions and lore stay alive with folks who fly these days, and that is about the best way we can keep history alive.
    You just have to take some of the books and TV shows with a big spoon full of salt.

    The National Geographic folks have been up here a couple times this year filming for a TV show about Alaskan Bush Pilots. But they wanted pilots to create situations that would look cool on TV. When they talked with me, regular flights that normally occur here but no-where else were still not enough.. ... Plus the head-chick-in-charge was surprised when Homer was not on the outskirts of Anchorage...It was her first trip to AK, so you would think she would have done a little research... NOPE... They had not even accounted for fall colors in the new film footage to be linked with the stuff from mid-summer. If the National Geographic folks don't know how big Alaska really is, or when fall happens,,, how many other things they preach are not correct.

    If you really want to fly in tough spots for crappy pay, join up with one of the Missionary flight operations in South America or Africa..
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    Member kantill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Float Pilot View Post
    If you really want to fly in tough spots for crappy pay, join up with one of the Missionary flight operations in South America or Africa..
    No I was hoping for good pay, learning the hot spots for hunting, fishing and camping. I really don't have some romantic idea of it, that's why I am trying to find the "real" info about it. Again things like pay, is there a market for pilots or is it like my career you throw a stone in a crowd you'll hit five techs.

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    To give you an example of the pilot saturation level. I near a mid-sized town by Alaskan standards. Around 4000-7000 (summer) people within the zip code radius of 16-20 miles.

    Within that area there are 166 full-time-resident pilots. (carpet baggers not included)
    Of those 63 are commercial pilots or ATPs.
    Of those commercial pilots, about 25-35 of them fly full time as their primary occupation.
    Many who do, also have other sources of income or they inherited a family business.
    In other words there are 30 local commercial pilots who have to do something other than fly to feed their families.

    I get to do this flying stuff because I am retired from two other careers (police and military where I actually was paid well.) so I can make up the loss. But then again my wife still has a good job and we also have two other side business's.
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    Thanks Float Pilot, that's the kind of info I was looking for, I still want to learn to fly someday.

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    Well ditto for what FP said. I flew up here in the early mid 80's but fro recreation. Same now that I have a plane.

    I am by no means a bush pilot but will be playing in the dirt and lakes before to long.

    From the folk I've met & talked to that fly Part 135, almost all have other sources of incomes like FP said. A few I know fly for the big carriers. Like Penn Air, Northern Air Cargo or Fed Ex. Those are pretty good jobs where you can survive just flying. OW it's just like FP said.

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    Member Float Pilot's Avatar
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    From what I have seen over the last few years there is one niche in avaiation that would probably be a good bet.
    Get your A&P and then your I&A and specialize in Avionics. The newer advanced avionics systems are too much for the old timer A&Ps. In fact they are too much for most pilots. Anyone who is good with that stuff will have a nice steady job all year long.
    While the young pilots are spending the winter in mommy's basement, you will be down at the hanger making a paycheck.

    My youngest son is using his GI bill to do just that. Plus he did that same job on helos for the Army.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Float Pilot View Post
    From what I have seen over the last few years there is one niche in avaiation that would probably be a good bet.
    Get your A&P and then your I&A and specialize in Avionics. The newer advanced avionics systems are too much for the old timer A&Ps. In fact they are too much for most pilots. Anyone who is good with that stuff will have a nice steady job all year long.
    While the young pilots are spending the winter in mommy's basement, you will be down at the hanger making a paycheck.

    My youngest son is using his GI bill to do just that. Plus he did that same job on helos for the Army.
    You are definitely correct on the advanced avionics. Friend of mine does just that. He does civilian work for the air force and coast guard, gets to fly in neat planes like AWACS, [some of this stuff can only be diagnosed airborne] always has lots of work and makes good money and never has to worry about making it home at night. He flys his own plane when he WANTS to, for pleasure, which is what you want.

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    Member kantill's Avatar
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    Can you guys let me know a school in or around Anchorage that teaches that, so I can check it out.

    Thanks.

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    Any university or college with advance aviation degrees (4 year). Anchorage would be more expensive and probably not as good as many outside schools. Particularly since you are an outsider and would have to pay the outsider tuition. So you would end up stuck in Anchorage... which is just like any other city...
    Our economy and social programs can only support so many people and we have exceeded those numbers with people who have fled the lower 48 over the past few years.
    If you sit in front of a computer all day for a living you sure as heck should be ale to find a good affordable college.
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    Yes I am an "outsider" trying to relocate to Alaska and the only reason I said Anchorage is because of what I do for a living it would be the best place to start and have a chance for a job. I only asked because you being in the business you would have a better knowledge of which schools that have better programs than others, so yes I can search online and find all the schools that Alaska has and find the cheapest. Sorry you feel that your state has been overtaken by us lower 48 people and I am trying to add my family to the mix. Sorry that I want a better life for my family than what the lower 48 can offer. Sorry because unless to are a native person your family had to move from someplace as well which probably upset someone else who already lived there before you. My goals are to get away from Anchorage and other cities and find some peace and quiet of my own, do some hunting and fishing and not brother anyone nor them me.

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    I am one of the 30 or so full time pilots in the Homer area that Float Plane is talking about, I will answer the question not from an economic point of view because it seems to have been covered (I also own a business on the side). We fly Cessna 206s. In the winter, the majority of our flying is to three villages across the bay, two of which are fly in only for about a third of the winter. We fly mail, store freight, passengers, dogs, the village school sports teams, wounded eagles, and the occasional medevac. The weirdest thing I have flown was a box of frozen salmon from Homer to Nanwalek (talk about bringing sand to the beach) Our 135 is for VFR only, and given the lack of lights in the villages we only fly during daytime. We do get the occasional charter to other places around, my longest so far was to Cold Bay. The summer can be very busy, 120 hours a month sometimes, we still fly the villages, but add on the trips to Katmai, and Lake Clark national parks for bear viewing, hunting camps, fish camps, and many more charters, we do a lot of off airport stuff in the summer, mostly beaches, some gravel bars and some just flat areas. I love my job, this is my fourth year and I still enjoy going to work every day. I am sort of a rarity because I enjoy the tourists and really like the villagers. I have seen some incredible stuff, put planes into places I never would have dreamed of when I was flying a Gulfstream, and, have scared the crap out of myself more than once. The weather changes fast which can be a challenge, it also can be very, very different just a few miles away. In the four years I have been here I know of five major crashes, and many more bent metal episodes and that is just involving folks just around Homer. As I tell the folks I train up for the company: In the end, all we do is fly single engine Cessnas.
    The winner isn't the person with the most gold when they die, but rather, the person with the most stories.

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    ok, I'll put a little POSITIVE spin on this.... I flew out of homer as well and Kenai for 6 years, didn't get rich, but lived pretty comfortably, I was single, and yes I flew alot, averaged 120hrs/month all year long. mid 90's. I now fly for FedEx, and am compensated quite well, and fly a whole lot less. I am now married with 2 kids, and life is pretty good. I know of a bunch of friends that still fly the bush, out in bethal or nome, and make good money as well. So you can make money up here primarily flying if YOU WANT to. YES the weather is a bit rough, but we don't have too many tornadoes, and alot less thunderstorms, but ALOT more icing, and lots of rocks to fly around.

    I agree a good avionics tech could do VERY well here, once you get a good reputation, there will be NO need to advertise.
    Good luck and keep researching, life is what you make of it!

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    Thanks for the feed back TBLOOMA, and I will have some time before I can start on my career reboot. First thing is to get up there and get my family settled. The main reason I thought about this career is a few reasons, one I have always wanted to learn to fly and even if I don't become a pilot I will take some classes. Second the fact the main form of transportation in Alaska in plane. I have also looked into the forest service, parks and recs and game warden. I am not looking to get rich just to be able to support a family and have some left over a rainy day. Again thanks for the input from all of you even the "negative" because it helps to get all the points of view on this topic.

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    I was a bush pilot in Kodiak for many years as well a short while in Los-Anchorage. I flew many types of float planes including Beavers, 206s, 185s, and a 180 as well as Saratogas, Islanders and 206s on wheels. Also flew the Herc in the bush, but that was a bit different. I fly for an airline now, but my heart will always be in the bush flying.

    I was hired in Kodiak in 1988 with just 500 hours. I flew 800 hours that year and about that many most subsequent years. It was some of the most fun, challenging, scary flying I have ever done. But it is definitely a young man’s game.

    I remember standing on the parking float in Kodiak Harbor (before they moved the float planes to Trident basin) in early morning of a crisp November day, sipping a hot chocolate and BSing with all the other pilots. The six or seven Beavers based there were all up on the ramps; all ticking over at idle, warming up for the day’s movement of deer hunters to various parts of the island. As we watched the sun come up, an unusual event in Kodiak, I remember thinking that it just doesn’t get much better than this; a days worth of flying at $50 bucks an hour, in a GREAT airplane, meeting new people and flying in some of the most gorgeous country in the world. What could be better? Or flying right down the spine of the island at 5000’ on another clear, memorable day marveling at the mountain peaks that we almost never get to see in Kodiak. Or of being so late retrieving a set of hunters from their camp that I had to land by car lights in Lilly lake at several hours past dark.

    But I also remember the most challenging times; taking off from the bay near Akhiok with a load of hunters in 40+ knots of wind – sailing back, starting up and tacking over, shutting down and sailing back, and doing it all over again until I got into the big seas but hopefully had enough room to take off. Then taking off towards shore (something a true bush pilot avoids at all costs) into the wind and getting airborne in a hop and a skip, roaring over the village, turning downwind and instantly being out of sight of the village.

    Or of sightseeing across Shelikof straights in Kukak bay with a load of elderly ladies on board – coming out of Kukak and headed back across the straights I noticed that the weather had gotten – um – CRAPPY in the three hours we were watching bears. Had I been alone, I probably would have holed up somewhere and waited for the weather to clear. But what do you do when there are six ladies on board all in their floral print shirts and windbreakers? Stopping in a bay somewhere would instantly put them into a survival situation. So one slows down, gets down close to the water, with flaps out, hand on the throttle, heart in the throat, and follows the beach line hoping that you don’t make a mistake; that you know your route well enough to recognize where you are, and always making sure you can always turn around. I always flew far enough off shore that I could turn around by turning into the shore – that way I could keep it in sight. I learned that technique and thousands of others in the eight years I flew in Kodiak. How to take off in big water (the Beaver will easily handle big seas if they are widely spaced and if the pilot is VERY proactive with the elevator during the takeoff run) as well as flying in big wind and really low vis.

    Then, just when I thought I had it all dialed, I moved to Anchorage and had to learn even more, different techniques, such as those used for fast, murky water and for flying around MANY other planes and actually talking to controllers.

    While it is almost never the same, or boring, bush flying can be fun – but it can also kill you very fast. I have lost many many friends to bush flying. You start out with a big bag of luck and as you gain experience, your bag of luck starts to shrink. You just have to hope that you have enough experience to get your butt out of trouble when your luck runs out.

    If I may make a suggestion, go here, and order these three books. They might seem humorous and far fetched, but every story has actually happened although not necessarily to the author. There are many other fine books on Alaskan flying and Pilots and their lives. Books about Don Sheldon, Harold Gillam, Noel Wien, and a host of others, that will give you a flavor of what is was like.



    As some have said it isn’t that same as it was – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a blast.

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    very well put beaver driver, excellent post!!

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    X2 and I'll look into those books thanks

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    Yute Air 543-3003
    Grant Aviation 543-2000
    JP Air 543-5555
    Hageland Aviation 543-3800
    Yukon Aviation 543-3280
    Yuut Yaqungviat Flight School 543-7209

    There are some numbers for you to call. Ask for the station manager and then ask you questions about hours and pay. Most of the folks flying here will be as close to a "Bush Pilot" as you can get because this is the "Bush", as are many other places off the road network.

    Flying well below minimums is the norm. Be very, very comfortable with IFR as conditions change within only a few miles from where you are going/coming from. Too many times guys drive into the ground when they should not have. If you want to learn to fly right in the middle of the action, this is the place.
    Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence. Albert Einstein

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    Member AK Ray's Avatar
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    Default avionics and stuff

    Alaska is where these new navigation avionics started many years ago with the local FAA engineers and their subcontractors.

    I do not know how well the UofA aviation tech school incorporates the cutting edge stuff into their programs.

    Embry Riddle is one of the largest aero colleges in the US. They have a campus at each of the military bases up here, but I do not think they have public classes. They have a large campus just north of Prescott, AZ. Lot more that just getting an air frame cert. Prescott has a large avionics industry where many cutting edge pieces of equipment are engineered and tested.

    I am not a pilot. I am one of the poor shmucks that have to sit in the right seat and wonder when the idiot in "control" of the plane is going to start putting the flaps down on the approach. "If I punch him in the arm will he panic and kill us, or figure out what is wrong with this landing situation? Should I wildly motion to the flaps and give him a good freaked out look? Why did I wake up from my nap too soon and have to watch the last 20 seconds of my life approach?"

    I do not enjoy flying with "bush" pilots younger than me or ones that have less hours at the controls than I do as a passenger.

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