Flying in Alaska

I regularly attend aviation events all over the country and have been doing so for around 40 years. I always enjoy seeing the numbers and variety of aircraft at these events, whether the event is primarily for sport aviation enthusiasts or features high-end business aircraft.

Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun always amaze me by the sheer numbers of aircraft that are on the field at any one time. The business events impress me with the size and scope of the planes used in corporate flying. The Reno Air Races are fun to watch for the simple power, speed and, yes, the daring of many of those pilots.

But, for absolute fascination, there is nothing like driving around Lake Spenard and Lake Hood in Anchorage and viewing the multitude of airplanes. This is the only tower-controlled floatplane facility anywhere and, with the number of planes based here and the extent of the operations, it is easy to understand why some control is helpful.

I’m writing this while attending the Alaska State Aviation Trade Show & Conference, which took place in Anchorage May 1-2. I’ve already run into people I know from virtually every corner of the United States and Canada. The show is located in the FedEx hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and the interior is filled with exhibitors, while the ramp is packed with aircraft ranging from antiques to sport planes to cabin class bizjets.

But, what continually surprises and thrills me every time I come up here and have the opportunity to look around, is the number of aircraft and pilots. There are 613,745 pilots in the United States, according to FAA data from 2008. In Alaska, about 10,000 people have pilot certificates and about that same number of aircraft are registered in the state. And, it is often said that if everyone in Alaska who flew had a pilot certificate and current medical, the numbers would probably be a heck of a lot higher.

Of course, we all know that Alaskans use general aviation like the rest of the country uses the interstate highway system to get around. However, in Alaska, there aren’t roads leading to every town and hamlet so the airplane is it … wheels, skis or floats, summer, fall, winter and spring, big or little plane. They are used to transport people, to fly students to school, to deliver mail, food and other supplies. Emergency hospital runs are by airplane, of course.

I can only imagine what flying would be like if the attitude toward general aviation was as positive in the rest of the states as it is in Alaska. There are parts of the lower 48 where general aviation is treasured and used much more than in others … the upper Midwest states stick out in my mind, particularly Montana. The large areas between relatively small communities makes flying as attractive to folks in Montana as it is to those in Alaska.

Perhaps if we tore up the interstate highway system, flying would increase in utilization and popularity throughout the country. Or if we could just educate the public to the convenience, the efficiency and, yes, the relative safety of general aviation, we would be able to get more people to join us in the skies. Educating folks seems like a perpetual project, one that has obviously worked in Alaska.

While the use of aircraft has obviously sunk into the mainstream of Alaskans, I discovered something surprising today. With all the flying, I assumed Alaska had one of the most complete and extensive aviation divisions of any state in the union. Boy was I surprised to learn that there is no aeronautics division or aviation specific department of the Alaska Department of Transportation. Instead, the state is split into three regions and each of those has a department responsible for all aspects of transportation. Unfortunately, none of those regions have specific aviation arms. The net result is that support and coverage varies from region to region.

The state owns about 215 airports, while municipalities own another 35 or 40. When you count in the privately owned strips that are registered in the state, the total comes to around 700, according to knowledgeable folks up here.

The problem is that the state operations provide little professional or experienced airport management. They are good engineers but don’t have much in the way of experience in managing airports.

Just in the last few months an organization has been formed of Alaska airport management people. The goal is to improve management. Now the group is trying to get the DOT to join in and help upgrade operations.

I’m really surprised that a state with such extensive use of aviation hasn’t long been a leader among state aeronautics divisions. Let’s hope something positive comes out of the realization that the state airports need more assistance and leadership.

I did point out to the folks to be careful what they wish for — they might just get more government participation and that isn’t always the best course of action. It’s going to be interesting to see what ultimately results.

Dave Sclair was co-publisher of General Aviation News from 1970-2000.


  1. says

    Alsek Air Service, Inc.
    PO Box 489
    Yakutat, AK 99689
    (907) 784-3231
    Fax (907) 784-3256

    As Dave Sclair points out in his article, Flying in Alaska, in the May 25, 2010 issue of GA News, it would be wonderful if the airports in Alaska could be effectively run by real aviation people. Instead, we have people who are in well-paid administrative positions, getting on the job training to do a job they know nothing about. Dogs can be toilet trained to use a newspaper instead of the carpet but that does not mean they know why they do it. The same can be said for those who are in charge of running the airports in Alaska. Unless someone has background in aviation, they do not understand the intricate workings of an airport and they are just using a newspaper rather than the carpet. Some of them see it from a money point of view that doesn’t necessarily mean the decisions are in the best interest of the aviation community or for that matter the community as a whole.

    The Alaska airports don’t need more government; they need people who know what they’re doing. They need people who will make decisions based on the best interest of established operators and not fairytales as told by conmen and dreamers. Aviation is a serious commodity in Alaska and the State of Alaska Airport Leasing needs experienced leadership to support aviation, as aviation supports the communities and the state.

    The year-round basic operator is being pushed aside for non-aviation businesses. Aviation businesses are being put under more regulations that non-aviation businesses do not need to adhere to. We have heavy security (TSA) rules we must maintain within our property, our pilots must undergo background checks and pre-hire as well as random drug/alcohol screening and storm water run-off programs. However, the non-aviation leaseholder is allowed to maintain a building that is not secure with openings all around the outside and non-secure entrances on the front of the building allowing for unaccompanied access to the ramp area.. The air taxi operator’s business can only be conducted at the airport. In many communities in Alaska there is no property available to operate a private airport. Non-aviation business can be setup any place — so why does aviation leasing feel compelled to dole out valuable aviation property to people who have nothing to do with aviation or the services required by aviation based businesses or transient pilots?

    While the rest of the country is on technology overload Alaska is still the great frontier. Many people move to Alaska to get away from the hustle and bustle of too many people and too much technology but they still require the services of experienced Alaska pilots who deliver their mail, groceries, fuel and supplies.

    We do not need more government to run rural Alaska airports. We need people with real common sense, good judgment and real world aviation experience.

  2. says

    I enjoyed your article about Alaska aviation this week. Last year my Dad and I made a “bucket list” trip from Kansas to Alaska in a Cessna 172. Like many pilots I dream of chucking it all and moving to Alaska. I manage a GA airport in central KS and would be interested in learning more about Alaska’s recent efforts to bring more professional management to their airfields. If you could forward contact information or a website address for that group, I would truly appreciate it.

    About once a year I check in with Ben via email as he and I attended the EAA Air Academy together in ’85. Still lots of good memories from that trip to Oshkosh. You guys put out a great publication and I look forward the online stories every day.

    Tom Chandler
    McPherson Airport Manager

  3. chris jans says

    As an Alaskan resident and aircraft owner, I have this reply. Alaska is a state that wants or needs little regulation. The government is not the friend of the Alaskans who fly, live and stay under the radar in bush communities. Let Anchorage and Fairbanks pilots get government help and money. Those of us who live and fly in the bush (and quite a few pilots in both cities) don’t care for anyone screwing up the status quo. Alaska has the most freedom for flyers in North America – don’t screw it up with more oversight and regulation that would surely come with the feds. That being said -none all of us follow FAA regulations and fly safe.

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