As the largest, but least densely populated state in the US, Alaska poses a few challenges when it comes to seeing the entire state. Most of it is unreachable by road or boat. In fact 20 percent is reachable by roads, 20 percent by waterway, and the remaining 60 percent is only reachable by air. Which is why I spent a lot of time taking photos from planes while I was in Alaska.
It’s no surprise then that 1 in 78 people own their own plane in Alaska, and 1 in 61 are pilots. You can begin flying solo as a licensed pilot at 14 years old, and can carry passengers at 16 years old. That means that in Alaska, teenagers can fly before they can drive. I’m not talking about big planes like what you see at the Boeing Plant tour in Seattle – no, Alaska only has a couple of big airports. I’m talking about small bush planes.
You’ll find small, dirt airstrips all over Alaska; in back yards, parks, mountains, and there are even planes that land on glaciers. Bush planes get their name because ‘the Bush’ is a word used for describing the wilderness area in Alaska (and Australia). When you are in the Alaska Bush you are in the middle of nowhere. Bush pilots fly there their small aircraft from one small place in the Bush to the other.
What to Expect on Alaska Bush Flights
During my 3 weeks traveling to remote Alaska towns, I flew a number of Alaska Bush flights and met a number of pilots – all equally amazing (and hunky). It never ceased to amaze me how incredibly laid back the pilots were. Be aware of these few things that are essential to know when you take Alaska Bush flights:
• There are strict restrictions on weight and this isn’t a situation where you simply pay more money and take on a larger bag. There really isn’t room.
• Since you are in back country don’t be surprised if there are guns on the plane. On my flight from Wrangel St. Elias National Park there were a couple of people who had rifles as part of their luggage. They went in the back storage compartment just like any other luggage.
• Many people carry bear spray in Alaska, and that is a big no no on a small plane. So if you are carrying bear spray, make sure you let the pilot know and they will duct tape it to the outside of the plane for safety reasons.
• You will get a set of headphones to wear where you can communicate with the pilot and hear any of his/her instructions. The planes are quite loud so headphones are necessary.
• Be prepared to be in a small space with no legroom or overheads. Whatever you carry on is placed in your lap. Don’t worry – the flights are short.
My one carry-on was always my camera as I spent most of my time shooting pictures out of the window at the amazing scenery.
Alaska From Above Photography
Bush Flight – K2 Aviation Talkeetna Flightseeing
If you don’t have time to hike into the heart of Denali National Park, you can take a plane, land in Denali on a glacier or lake, and then hike from there. I used K2 Aviation out of Talkeetna with pilot Chip. Chip was a bush pilot in summer, and a ski/snow junkie in the winter. He was also a free diver, remote rescue worker, and all around good guy. Chip explained the plane to us and all of the ‘safety info’ – but like his laid back personality, the float plane also seemed rather laid back. He described it as an old pickup truck that just lumbered along. And that was an accurate description – I felt as if I were in my Grandpa’s old farm pick up.
Bush Flight – Wrangell Mountain Air to Wrangel St Elias National Park
Wrangell Mountain Air was my smallest flight yet. Our pilot, Austin, didn’t even ask our names as we boarded! I think he figured if we made our way all the way there to the gravel airstrip and the numbers jived with the total they were supposed to take then why bother with paperwork. It was a beautifully clear day, with the fall colors just coming out. I let out gasps as we flew by mountain peaks at 18,000 feet and Austin would even tip the wing to show us something more clearly. We also flew over the top of glaciers and saw the old abandoned copper mines perched on the mountain sides.
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I was a guest of Alaska Tourism during these trips, however all opinions are my own.