The truth about flying in Alaska


I’ve heard it a lot — even made the same proclamation myself — “Flying in Alaska is different.” Okay, the truth: It’s not.

A while back (when the Cole Brothers Flying Circus was the premiere airshow act) I learned to fly in Indiana. During the Vietnam war I was in a flying club on Guam. I tried to survive as a flight instructor in Southern California. I flew my Piper Pacer around the US and then to Alaska 39 years ago. Now I cruise the Alaska skies in a 1946 Aeronca Champ.

If I exceed the critical angle of attack in the Champ, it will start falling out the sky, whatever sky it’s in. If it’s not pointed straight ahead on touchdown, it will try to swap ends on me just like N3370E did at Brown Field in San Diego.

If I get to the local airport in the early morning before it comes to life I can be the first to break the morning silence with that beautiful airplane noise that only a Champ or Cub or Taylorcraft or ??? can make, as it launches to catch the sunrise.

The teen’s excitement after a first flight is the same, be it a flight over the Knik glacier or around Talofofo Falls on Guam. Sunday brunch at the Talkeentna roadhouse, just a short walk from the airport, is as good as those biscuits and gravy at, was it Chico?

Marginal VFR that turns into unplanned IFR without the required pilot skills is subject to the same laws of physics in Alaska as in Indiana. It just may take longer to recover the bodies.

Rex Gray photo 1The aerodynamic laws are the same in the skies everywhere. The beauty, the joy of flight, happens in the sky. All my Champ needs to do to please me is to have air flowing over its wings (inflight that is). If it’s California air, with a hint of smog, or muggy Indiana air blowing in the open window, or crisp and clear Alaska winter air with unlimited visibilities, the Champ is happy, and so am I.

So what is different in Alaska? The number of pilots. The entire state has a population of less than 800,000. That’s less than half the population of the greater Portland, Oregon, area. The Alaska pilot population is around 8,000. That means 1% of the state’s residents are pilots.

The plane is a big part of everyone’s life in Alaska. Only a small section of the state is accessible by road — everywhere else it’s plane or boat.

In Alaska the plane is used — a lot. It’s a pickup truck, a family RV, a fishing platform, a hunting rig, a fuel truck, a ski lift, a medical connection, a family business, and a dream machine for student pilots. The number of people that have not flown in Alaska is very small.

Alaskan pilots, like pilots everywhere, form a tight community in a large state. We all share in each other’s joys and tragedies. We face the same “threats” (formerly called challenges) as pilots everywhere: The weather, the FAA, state agencies, municipalities, and developers.

The one difference for Alaska pilots is the grassroots organizations that are out there promoting safety and protecting our flying rights and privileges. The Alaskan Airmen’s Association, with more than 2,000 members, has the largest voice in the state.

The first weekend in May was the Great Alaskan Aviation Gathering, which is put on by the Alaska Airmen’s Association. The free event, open to all, was referred to as a trade show for years but has really turned into a spring time ritual for a gathering of Alaskan aviators, families and friends. Aviation vendors from all over the country set up booths at a FedEx maintenance hangar at Ted Stevens International Airport (ANC) in Anchorage. Everybody from Bell Helicopter to mission aviation organizations want to be there. Seminars are held all weekend on a variety of aviation subjects. The weekend ends with someone winning an airplane. The raffle this year was for a 2007 Aviat Husky on amphibious floats and Aeroskis. It was won by Phil Priebe of Anchorage. Proceeds from the raffle help fund the Alaska Airmen’s Association in its efforts to promote and protect general aviation in Alaska.

Like general aviation everywhere, we are challenged all the time in Alaska by taxes, regulations that haven’t been thought out, and airspace re-designation that does not consider the general aviation user. With its large membership, the Airmen’s Association has a strong unified voice and is making a difference for general aviation in Alaska.

An example: The AAA was a proponent of using Spider Track information on flight plans. By working with the FAA and FSS, the AAA was able to get the Spider Track information included as part of the pilot’s FAA flight plan.

The flying — it’s not different in Alaska. It is a way of life in Alaska — that is different. Now that I’m done writing I’m going flying. It looks like a beautiful sunset is on the way. If I get out of here soon enough the mountains will have that beautiful pink glow that one can only get in Alaska. Gone flying!

The Alaska Airmen’s Association is always welcoming new members in helping us to protect general aviation in Alaska. To find out how you can become a member and help, call the office at 800-464-7030 or visit the website at

 Rex Gray is president of the Alaska Airmen’s Association.


  1. says

    To my surprise, I saw my champs tail # N3370E in this article. That Champ is still in San Diego County, (Fallbrook) teaching kids and people to fly.
    To another point: I am in the beginning stages of planning a flying trip to Alaska this summer. Any thoughts, tips and opinions are appreciated…

  2. Harriett Bohnet says

    Greetings to you, Rex. I saw an article about your actions (don’t remember the specifics) involving your passengers on a flight on which you were captain a few years ago, and wondered if that was the Rex Gray we knew in San Diego. It is just too good of a coincidence to not have been you. Greetings to you and your family, and thank you for your good hospitality so many years ago. It is so good to see that your venturing into Alaska turned out so well for you. Also wanted to let you know that Karl passed away a few weeks ago.

  3. Earl G Pilgrim says

    You mentioned a flying club on Guam . Where could you fly to ? Orote didn’t have an airstrip when I was there . Lot of water between Guam , and Saipan . I flew C46s , and C47s from Harmon Field to Saipan , Tinnian , Iwo , Phillipines , and Japan . We also flew cubs , P47 , and P51 after the war
    .In the 60s we started flying to Alaska . My uncle had an airstrip at Stampede which is now part of Mckinley park . The park was supposed to maintain the airstrip , but the last time I was up there it was over grown with willows . We had some great trips flying to , and around Alaska .
    Earl Pilgrim

    • Klar5020 says

      I learned to fly on Guam at the Navy flying club in 78 – 79 We had to do our long cross country by flying from Guam to Rota, Saipan, and Tinian then back to Guam. I don’t remember the distances but we did it in a Cessna 150. It wasn’t far enough for the FAA so I had to do another long cross country when I got to Hawaii. That fulfilled the requirements

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