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Alaska has 6 times more pilots per capita than any other place in the US contributing $3.8 billion to the state. Here’s why they’re essential.

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Bush plane in Denali National Park shuttling tourists and workers.
Bush plane in Denali National Park shuttling tourists and workers.

  • Alaska has a long history of aviation, with bush pilots being the unsung heroes of the state’s rural populations.
  • Bush pilots are essential for transporting supplies, food, and people to hard-to-reach places across Alaska.
  • Flying bush comes with risks as pilots navigate Alaska’s harsh weather patterns and mountainous terrain.
Alaska operates the country’s largest aviation system, covering nearly 2.5 million square miles, creating over 35,000 jobs, and generating $3.8 billion for the state.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: Alaska Department of Transportation

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.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: Alaska Department of Transportation

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.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: Bush Air

Because of the remote locations and mostly unprepared landing strips, many made of dirt, sand, or ice, bush pilots must be extremely resourceful and skilled.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: Alaska Department of Transportation

Today, there are six times as many pilots and 16 times as many aircraft per capita and in Alaska than anywhere else in the US.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Since the first bush pilots flocked to The Last Frontier after World War I, they have played a key role in developing the Alaska Territory, both before and after it became a US state in 1959.

First commercial flight in Alaska in 1925.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: Museum of Flight

Bush pilots had plenty of work in the years after the war, transporting Alaska’s premium resources like gold, fur, and oil.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: Museum of Flight

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.

Wien Alaska Airways.
Wien Alaska Airways.

Source: Academic

Wien was founded by infamous Alaskan aviator Noel Wien, known as “the father of Alaska bush flying.” His efforts earned him a place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Noel Wien with aircraft in Candle, Alaska in 1927.
Noel Wien with aircraft in Candle, Alaska in 1927.

Source: National Aviation

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.

Pilots flying school children.
Pilots flying school children.

Source: Men’s Journal

Bush pilots not only hauled cargo around the state but also acted as rescuers. They plucked stranded climbers from the sides of mountains and searched for downed planes in the vast wilderness.

Alaskan bush flying.
Alaskan bush flying.

Source: History Net

They also worked as hunting guides and provided essential communication to small communities, many of which had weak electric lines that did not always work.

Alaskan bush plane arrives at local village in the 1950s.
Alaskan bush plane arrives at local village in the 1950s.

Source: Men’s Journal, History Net

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.

Supplies being unloaded from a plane that flew from Anchorage to the small village of Hooper Bay, Alaska.
Supplies being unloaded from a plane that flew from Anchorage to the small village of Hooper Bay, Alaska.

Source: Men’s Journal

Without bush pilots, search and rescue operations would be limited and communication between communities would be minimal.

Bush plane in Denali National Park shuttling tourists and workers.
Bush plane in Denali National Park shuttling tourists and workers.

Source: Homer News

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.

Air ambulance picking up a mountain ranger in Denali National Park.
Air ambulance picking up a mountain ranger in Denali National Park.

Source: Alaska Department of Transportation

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.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Source: Men’s Journal

However, Alaskan aviation is less regulated with fewer safeguards in place.

Bush plane taking off from a frozen lake in Alaska.
Bush plane taking off from a frozen lake in Alaska.

Source: ProPublica

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.

Flying over Denali National Park.
Flying over Denali National Park.

Source: ProPublica

Nevertheless, many companies are upgrading their equipment and policies to keep their pilots and customers safe. Furthermore, operators are replacing their outdated aircraft with newer, safer planes.

Bush plane in Talkeetna, Alaska.
Bush plane in Talkeetna, Alaska.

Source: FAA

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.

Weather station in Alaska.
Weather station in Alaska.

Source: Homer News, FAA

“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.”

Bush plane parked on gravel runway.
Bush plane parked on gravel runway.

Source: Homer News

Read the original article on Business Insider