Alaska Bush Flying
Jay Kelley

© 2023   Jay Kelley
All rights reserved

Flying the Alaskan bush is fun, adventurous and exciting. Pilots get to fly in some of the most remote and beautiful locations on the planet, navigating challenging terrain and weather conditions. Bush pilots work independently. They have autonomy and control over each flight. They make their own decisions and are responsible for all safety considerations. Being a bush pilot in Alaska can involve many different types of flying. Flying on floats, wheels, amphibians, and skis can all come into play. On floats you will land and takeoff on rivers, lakes, and salt water locations On wheels, there are often destinations like salt water beaches, grassy hills, gravel bars on rivers, ridges and even mountain tops. On skis, You'll land on snow covered terrain, frozen lakes or rivers, and even glaciers for landings and takeoffs. It all depends on the equipment you are flying, and what kinds of missions are flown by the flight operation you fly for.

Alaska bush pilots transport an amazing variety of cargo and supplies to an amazing variety of remote locations. They conduct search and rescue missions, fly occasional medivacs, do aerial surveys for many reasons, or even deliver parts to disabled commercial fishing boats. They transport clients for fly-out fishing and hunting lodges (often as guides as well). They take tourists on flights through and over gorgeous vistas often with stops at areas of remote beauty. They fly trips to bear viewing locations. They do glacier flights with glacier landings and takeoffs. These are some of the many kinds of missions flown that keep the flying fun, adventurous, and challenging.

As a bush pilot you might live in a small town or remote community. This can offer a unique lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of the city. For some jobs, work time can be flexible with some companies providing week-on week-off work schedules, allowing the pilot to go somewhere else, often with free air transportation to and from.

Airline flying typically pays better than bush flying due to the larger number of paying passengers, and the complexity of the aircraft. Airline pilots are required to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license which requires a flight time minimum of 1500 hours, and is likely more expensive to obtain than a 250 hour commercial license.

Flying for an Alaska flight operation with a commercial license, often requires appropriate ratings for example, instrument and seaplane. Most Alaska bush flying businesses require the minimum total time of 500 hours necessary for operating under FARS Part 135. Sometimes Alaska flight time is preferred or required along with experience in the makes and models of the airplanes in use. These preferences are set by insurance dictates and by company policies.

Many airlines have a favorable view of pilots who have Alaska bush flying experience. A few hundred hours of Alaska bush flying can be a positive influence towards securing a higher paying airline job. This is because Alaska bush flying requires pilots to have excellent judgment and exceptional stick and rudder skills, as they fly challenging terrain and weather conditions and perform takeoffs and landings in all kinds of difficult situations.

While it's true that airline flying has become highly automated, many airlines recognize the importance of their pilots maintaining competency with stick and rudder skills, especially in emergency situations. Alaska bush flying provides the necessity to develop good judgment and hone those skills. Airline flying can offer higher pay with greater job stability, and Alaska bush flying can provide experience beneficial for pilots who are interested in becoming airline pilots.

Alaska bush flying can be attractive for some pilots, but it may not be a year-round option. For instance, some jobs, such as fly-out fishing lodges, hunting lodges, and tourism-related Alaska flight operations, may only operate full time seasonally. However, fly-out fishing lodges pay as much as $12k or more per month (plus tips from their wealthy clients). Fly-out lodges also include free room and board. The income from a mid-spring to mid-fall season of fishing-lodge flying can amount to $50k or more. To be hired as a fishing-lodge pilot can require as much as a thousand hours total time or more with at least two hundred hours on floats as well as time in type. Time in any of the following airplanes can be very helpful in getting a lodge job, i.e. De Havilland beavers, turbine beavers, otters, turbine otters, and sometimes Cessna 206s or 185s, and even Piper Super Cubs for some hunting lodges.

Many Alaska bush pilots are much appreciated members of the communities they serve, transporting people, supplies, and equipment to locations where other modes of transportation are not available. Over time, bush pilots can develop close relationships with the people living in these areas who come to rely on them for everything from medical evacuations to the delivery of mail and essential goods. These connections provide a sense of fulfillment and purpose beyond the simple fun of flying. Many bush pilots report feeling a real sense of satisfaction from knowing that their work is making a tangible difference in the lives of the people they serve. Alaska bush flying offers a unique opportunity to build meaningful relationships with other pilots and with the communities and individuals that depend on bush planes for their daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly needs. For pilots who value connection and community, This aspect of the job can be a major draw.

For those pilots who are not interested in airline flying, a career in Alaska bush flying offers a unique and fulfilling experience that can be highly rewarding both professionally and personally. Some pilots manage to do both, flying the bush part time and flying the big jets on a schedule that works for them.

I definitely enjoyed my Alaska bush flying career and was lucky enough to experience every kind of flying I’ve mentioned plus a whole lot more. I had lots of adventures, a few misadventures, some scary flights, thousands of beautiful and enjoyable flights. I have many great friends to this day because of my three+ decades as an Alaska bush pilot.

Take a look at some of my photos

Back to the FLY ALASKA home page