Alaska is unlike any of the other states of the United States when it comes to connecting its various cities, towns and villages. The sheer vastness of the state makes it difficult to imagine for those who have not travelled there. The land area of Alaska is over half a million square miles, larger than California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona put together.
At 20,625 square miles, the largest National Park in the United States is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska. The states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, and part of Rhode Island would fit in the park.
A glance at a road map of Alaska reveals that the main cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, as well as other populated areas, are connected by a good highway system. One can even drive down to the Lower 48 on the Alaska Highway. But a drive to the state capitol, Juneau, cannot be accomplished without an 80 mile-long ferryboat ride. The map also reveals that vast areas of Alaska have no roads to speak of, but it does have hundreds of small communities spread throughout thousands of square miles of wilderness.
Over 90% of the state is inaccessible by road. Its immensity aside, brutal weather and rugged terrain make road building throughout the state a prohibitively difficult and expensive undertaking. High mountain ranges run for hundreds of miles, preventing easy access or direct connections. As a matter of fact, over 250 communities in Alaska have no road access to the outside world, and those not served by scheduled commuter air service are served by air taxi operators.
As a result, airplanes have taken the place of cars, trucks, and busses, by connecting towns, villages, fishing and hunting camps, mines, oil fields, and other inhabited places in what Alaskans call, The Great Land. Air carriers like Era Alaska, Alaska Airlines, PenAir, Grant Aviation, Bering Air, and Wright Air Service, provide scheduled air service to more than 125 small towns and villages throughout Alaska.
One might be surprised to find that a village like St. Mary’s, with a population of only 531 people, has 18 scheduled flights a week to Anchorage, 400 miles away. Besides people, almost everything possible gets packed and flown aboard airplanes. Crates of fish, coolers filled with king crab, groceries, building supplies, moose antlers, snow shoes and boat motors, are all transported by air within Alaska. Even pizza gets delivered by air. If one lives in one of the 29 villages served by Bering Air in Nome, a pizza can be ordered from Airport Pizza and Bering Air will fly it out for free.
In addition to the scheduled carriers, dozens of aircraft charter companies exist to fly people and goods around the state. Climbers can fly with K-2 Aviation to a base camp at Mount McKinley (Denali), the highest mountain in North America. Companies like Rust’s Flying Service and Katmai Air, carry fishermen, hunters, tourists and residents alike into remote lakes, camps and lodges.
The proportional number of pilots in Alaska reflects the importance of aircraft to the state. In the U.S. as a whole, one in every 642 people is an airplane pilot, while one in every 103 people in Alaska is a pilot. That is 6.24 times as many pilots per capita in Alaska as in the United States.
Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman’s Charter Plane Experience
The figure for airplanes is even more remarkable. There is approximately one general aviation airplane (meaning non airline or military) for every 1,035 people in the United States while there is approximately one airplane for every 81 people in Alaska, working out to 12.8 times as many planes per capita in Alaska.
In Alaska, airplanes are not limited to landing on airport runways. Those that fly in the winter frequently fit skis to their airplanes and often land off-runway on snowy terrain. And because there are so many lakes and rivers, seaplanes are a common sight. For example, nestled beside the Anchorage International Airport is the Lake Hood Seaplane base, the largest in the world, with over 1,000 seaplanes based there.
What does all this mean? It means that aviation is far more important to the daily lives of people in Alaska than anywhere else in the country. For those that live in remote villages far from metropolitan centers like Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, air travel is the only way to go much of anywhere. As such they depend on commercial aviation and, especially, the commuter airlines, to connect them with the rest of the world.
Air travel, however, comes with some risk. Alaska has long been famous among pilots for having some of the most difficult and severe flying conditions in the world. Sub-zero temperatures, low ceilings, freezing rain, fog, mountain winds, blizzards, winter darkness, enormous stretches of ice-covered mountains, and bleak snow covered tundra, challenge even the most experienced pilots that choose to fly there. In addition, many of the aids that pilots take for granted elsewhere, such as facilities that provide up-to-date weather information, are not always available in the wilderness of Alaska. Alaska demands the utmost skill and attention to detail from the pilots who fly the airplanes and the crews that maintain them. Even minor mistakes can lead to tragedy.
Interesting story; a pilot from the lower United States, vacationing in Alaska, went to an aviation outfit to inquire about a flying job. The manager explained that a minimum of 2,000 hours of flight experience was required to even be considered. The pilot was encouraged by this information, until the manager added, with a slight smile, that 1,000 of those hours must be in Alaska. Requiring this number of hours of experience is just one of the many ways that those who fly there, work to keep their passengers as safe as possible.