Tips and secrets from 'Flying Wild Alaska' pilots

October 13, 2012

Alaska John Ponts (left), Luke Hickerson (second from left), and Doug Stewart (right).

The Discovery Channel’s Flying Wild Alaska pilots—John Ponts, Doug Stewart, and Luke Hickerson—traveled south to Palm Springs, Calif., for AOPA Aviation Summit to share flying tips with pilots and encourage future aviators. AOPA asked the pilots-turned-celebrities what it’s like flying for a TV show in Alaska, their pet peeves, and more. As you’ll see, their newfound fame hasn’t gone to their heads. These serious (but comical) aviators put safety first and provide advice on communication, backcountry flying, and more.

John Ponts

Ponts, who moved to Alaska to pursue a flying career because “I wanted to go to a state bigger than Texas,” says a key lesson he’s learned over the years is that “communication between crew is critical.”

AOPA: What was your scariest moment in an airplane?
Ponts: Every time my co-pilot takes controls.

AOPA: What’s your funniest passenger story?
Ponts: Mugsy—Passenger from Unalakleet, Alaska. "Mugsy, if you can't find your teeth, you can't fly!"—Jim Tweto

AOPA: Tell us your flying pet peeve.
Ponts: Giving the controls to my co-pilot

AOPA: What are some of your favorite GA airports and why?
Ponts: Southwest Alaska, Kwigillingok, Chefornak. These runways are not for the meek and mild. It's like landing on a motocross track with whoops. Placement is mandatory especially in a crosswind.

AOPA: Have you ever done an improvised field repair (if so, what)?
Ponts: I had to do an improvised field repair on my co-pilot’s attitude once.

Doug Stewart

Stewart jokes that one of the most difficult aspects of flying for the Discovery Channel’s Flying Wild Alaska was “competing with Luke and Ponts for camera time.” He became involved in the show when a friend asked him to help Ariel Tweto with the pilot episode.

AOPA: What was your first airplane?
Stewart: My first airplane was a Cessna 150. I was a senior in high school and I rented it for 11 bucks an hour.

AOPA: Could you share a backcountry flying tip?
Stewart: I've been lost before. Knowing when to turn around is key. Don't bullshit yourself. In other words, if you're lost, don't convince yourself that you're not.

AOPA: What was your most unusual cargo?
Stewart: Dead body. It's always spooky for me to be alone in the plane with a dead body.

AOPA: What is the hardest part about flying for a living and having it filmed for a TV show?
Stewart: Competing with Luke and Ponts for camera time.

AOPA: What’s it like flying in the summer and winter (endless sun to endless nights)?
Stewart: Get as much sun as you can in the summer and buy a happy lamp for the winter.

Luke Hickerson

Hickerson, born and raised in Alaska, encourages student pilots to fly different aircraft: “You may find you enjoy a certain type of flying that you didn't know existed.” Hickerson reminds pilots, especially backcountry pilots, that go-arounds are free and cautions against complacency.

AOPA: What’s the hardest part about flying for a living and having it filmed for a TV show?
Hickerson: Trying to keep my flights on schedule. The added delay from the camera crew was difficult at times.

AOPA: What’s it like flying in the summer and winter (endless sun to endless nights)?
Hickerson: I really enjoy night flying, or in our case "day flying" in the dark.

AOPA: Tell us your flying pet peeve.
Hickerson: I do not like a messy cockpit.

AOPA: Share one lesson you learned after your checkride.
Hickerson: Take things one at a time.

AOPA: What’s the most interesting encounter you’ve had with wildlife?
Hickerson: The polar bears in Kaktovik get a little too curious from time to time.