The majesty of Denali’s north slope filled the Turbine Otter’s windscreen. Thin, wispy clouds obscured the summit of North America’s highest peak, making it appear even more majestic among nearby competing mountains, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter. From our 11,500-foot perch, we could see climbers trudging through snow, lugging plastic sleds loaded with gear. They will spend as many as three weeks trekking from the base camp at 7,200 feet to the summit and back, stopping at ever-higher camps to allow their bodies to acclimate to the thinning atmosphere.
For us, the Otter made quick work of the trip—although at our altitude, we were little more than halfway up the 20,320-foot mountain. Piloted by K2 Aviation’s Jeff Babcock, the fully loaded nine-passenger Otter easily snaked its way among mountain peaks as we traversed the area around Denali, the Ruth, North Fork, and other glaciers looking like wide, twisting highways climbing to and fro up the mountainsides. We circled once high over the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, named for the man who pioneered flightseeing and aircraft access to the Denali region.
We headed down the Kahiltna Glacier and Babcock pointed to the left. “There’s our landing site.” It looked like every other snow-covered valley, but as we descended, I started to make out the tracks from other skiplanes, and then the tents and equipment that make up the Kahiltna Base Camp. There, K2 and other tour operators pay a full-time coordinator for the climbing season to assist climbers as they prepare for the ascent.
With the retractable skis extended below the wheels, Babcock expertly brought the 55-year-old de Havilland up the Kahiltna Glacier and plunked it carefully onto the deep snow, adding power at touchdown to swing it around for a later down-glacier departure. We piled out, anxious to take in the view from 7,200 feet msl, enjoying the bright blue skies and crisp air. The snow boots provided by K2 Aviation proved helpful as we trudged through several inches of new snow. With the Otter in the foreground and Denali in the background, it became clear to me how important general aviation is to the economy of Alaska.
The author (left) with AOPA Alaska Regional Representative Tom George; Adam White, president of the Alaska Airmen’s Association; and Jeannie and Mike Sullivan, AOPA Northwest Regional Representative with K2 Aviation’s Turbine Otter at the Kahiltna Base Camp.
With tourism among the top industries in the forty-ninth state, GA aircraft play an important role in providing access to remote locations. People from around the world come to climb Denali, others like us just to enjoy the majesty from some lower perspective. General aviation makes that possible. But it’s not about just tourism. During my few days in Alaska to speak to the Alaska Airmen’s Association at its annual trade show and convention, I came to respect and appreciate the versatility in general aviation for the many varied missions necessary to support residents spread across remote communities. C–46 Commandos and legendary Douglas DC–3s still ply the skies, continuously moving large amounts of supplies to communities accessible only by air. Airports in Alaska aren’t a nice-to-have, they are a necessity. Every community has at least a small gravel strip, which often forms the hub of the town the way a railroad station or river dock did in pioneer towns of the West.
Individuals own and operate airplanes the way many in the Lower 48 own pickup trucks. When asked, pilots in Alaska don’t tell you what kind of airplane they own, they also include the landing gear of choice for the season. “I have a Cessna 185 on floats.” “My Super Cub is on skis, but I’m about to switch to tundra tires.” “I’m about to swap the skis on my Maule for wheels.” There’s an entire maintenance infrastructure in the state set up just to help owners switch from one landing-gear system to another—and to do so quickly as the seasons change.
Although this trip was my second to Alaska, it was my first to really interact with local pilots. I came away impressed by their safety culture. Some pilots there (as everywhere) have a reputation for daredevil approaches to aviation; however, most seem to approach flying with great care, taking their responsibilities as aviators very seriously.