Alaska is unique because of its large spans of wilderness that separate 82% of its communities from the state’s road system. This has created challenges for rural towns, but aviation has become an essential solution and a significant way of life in the 49th state.
Many pilots in Alaska are known as “bush pilots” and are responsible for safely flying smaller aircraft into rugged, or “bush,” terrain. A lot of the time, flying is done in harsh weather conditions and far away from help.
However, Alaska aviation truly took off after the creation of Wien Alaska Airways in 1927. The carrier, which was the state’s first commercial airline, ferried people and mail on routes between rural towns like Nome, Candle, and Point Hope.
Continuing through the 20th century, pilots were a lifeline for remote villages, regularly flying supplies, food, and people to and from hard-to-reach places across the state, many of which were detached from roads and had only ever been explored on foot.
Today, bush pilots continue to be the unsung heroes of Alaska. They transport people and goods, contribute to tourism, operate rescue missions, survey power lines, fly kids to school, and ferry pregnant women to hospitals to deliver safely, among other responsibilities.
Moreover, 402 Alaskan communities rely on planes for year-round access, so most of the state would be isolated and residents would be far from essential services. In these rural areas, aircraft regularly take the place of school buses, trucks, cars, and ambulances.
Despite the glory of being a bush pilot, the job does not come without risks. Over time, aviation in the Lower 48 has been heavily regulated with the infrastructure to keep it safe, like designated runways and traffic patterns.
Bush pilots fly in uncontrolled airspace with rapidly changing weather conditions, mountainous terrain, and poorly lit landing sites. Even the most experienced pilots face challenges in Alaska’s unforgiving environment.
Moreover, the FAA is taking steps towards improving Alaska’s safety record by creating the Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative. The agency is making efforts like providing more resources to the state and updating the technology at automated weather stations.
“We teamed up with the aviation community for this comprehensive blueprint for future safety,” FAA administrator Steve Dickson said in a news release. “Now that we have recommendations in hand we’re developing a roadmap to develop them.”