The ice is finally gone from Lake Hood, and pilots are swapping skis for floats or conventional landing gear and readying their aircraft for the summer flying season. It’s the perfect time for the twenty-first annual Great Alaska Aviation Gathering in Anchorage, where pilots rendezvous to catch up with friends, network, shop for gear, and learn about what’s going on in the aviation industry.
More than 25,000 aviation enthusiasts attended the show May 5 and 6 at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and 300 exhibitors and an aircraft display filled the FedEx maintenance hangar and ramp, as well as the UPS ramp next door. Snow-capped Chugach mountains to the east provided a breathtaking backdrop for the aircraft display, while the sounds of airliners taking off and landing at the Class C airport punctuated the educational and inspirational seminars in a white heated tent outside the FedEx hangar.
Buzz at the start of the show May 5 was that the ice had melted off Lake Hood and pilots could start flying on floats. AOPA Airport Support Network volunteers who gathered for a reception in a tower cab behind the Alaska Aviation Museum overlooking the lake had a prime view of aircraft taking off to celebrate the start of the season.
Dee Hanson, former executive director of the Alaska Airmen Association, started the show in 1998 and said the event is strategically timed to hit at the beginning of the season “when people are getting excited about flying” and are “dusting off” their airplanes. Hanson, the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer at Lake Hood, had gathered with 15 airport volunteers from around the state for a reception with AOPA President Mark Baker and other association staff members.
Adam White, the Alaska Airmen Association’s government and legislative affairs leader, said the show provides an opportunity for groups to network and “to get decision makers together face to face. A lot happens here.”
AOPA President Mark Baker updated attendees on the association’s efforts to stop so-called ATC privatization with the help of hundreds of thousands of pilots across and country, as well as its initiative to encourage airports to provide public access, competition among fixed-base operations on fields, and transparency of fees.
“It has been a busy year,” Baker said, “a really busy year.”
AOPA Senior Vice President of Aviation Strategy and Programs Katie Pribyl updated pilots on the association’s You Can Fly program that is creating science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum for high schools as well as awarding 20 $5,000 scholarships to students; working to reduce the flight training dropout rate by developing best practices and providing resources for flight schools; encouraging more pilots to form or join flying clubs; and getting rusty pilots back in the left seat in active flying status.
For other attendees, the show was as much about work as it was friends and family. Dennis Twaddle, chief inspector for Part 135 operator Bering Air based in Nome, came to the show to “see what’s going on in the industry, see old friends, make new acquaintances.” But this year, he also had a more personal reason—spending time with his daughter who isn’t quite two years old. His wife gave birth to twins two weeks before the show in Anchorage, and they were stable still in the neonatal intensive care unit during the event. He and his wife took some time away from the hospital to spend with their other daughter because she is too young to be permitted into the NICU. Twaddle caught up with coworkers while his daughter played with an orange balloon around the company’s beige Cessna Caravan on display inside the FedEx hangar.
Outside, pilots, often with their families in tow, braved strong winds to walk around the aircraft on display, ranging from an experimental Super Cub to FedEx and UPS heavies to a Boeing C–17 Globemaster III from Anchorage’s Elmendorf Air Force Base.
Jim Bliss, a Super Cub pilot based in Anchorage, marveled at an experimental PA–18 splattered with mud. “Man, the stuff they do with these Super Cubs is unreal,” he said as he checked out its new Beringer Aero landing gear. “I’m waiting for someone to put a turbine in a Super Cub. I think that would be a dandy deal.”
Super Cubs are popular aircraft in Alaska, and a PA–18 was given away during the end of the show as the grand prize in a raffle the Alaska Airmen Association hosted to help raise funds for advocacy and youth outreach efforts in the state.
At the event that brings the state’s aviation community together in one place for two days, it seemed fitting that Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed a proclamation at the show declaring May aviation appreciation month in the state. Walker said the state depends on aviation, adding that “every day is aviation appreciation day in Alaska.”