Flying in Alaska is a bucket-list item for many pilots: The allure of seeing the state’s beautiful, diverse landscape from a bird’s-eye view, the excitement of flying to remote places only accessible by air; the freedom of aviating in wide-open spaces without worrying about airspace.
Up-and-coming glacier pilot Leighan Falley, AOPA’s newest Opinion Leaders blogger, will take you into the life of an Alaska pilot, from what it’s like to fly and gain experience in the state to tackling misconceptions about bush pilots and the dangers of flying in mountainous terrain or in remote areas. She’ll give you an inside look at life as a pilot, adventurer, coworker, and mother.
The third-generation female aviator is an Alaska native from Fairbanks who now lives in Talkeetna near the Alaska Range and flies a de Havilland Beaver or turbine Otter for Talkeetna Air Taxi. The Alaska Range enchanted Falley as a young girl, and she became a mountain guide for about 10 years, leading expeditions up Denali, and reaching the summit of the 20,320-foot mountain six times. After a decade of mountaineering, Falley turned to aviation as a career because she and her husband were expecting their first daughter.
“I held that private pilot license for a long time while I was working as a mountain guide. And then I found out I was expecting a daughter, and I thought, well, time to turn that private pilot license into the commercial license,” said Falley, who earned her pilot certificate in 2004. Now, she has about 2,000 hours and flies hikers and sightseers into the Alaska Range almost every day. “Honestly, people laugh when I say this, but flying a single-engine airplane around the mountains of the Alaska Range is a lot safer than being a mountain guide.”
Being so familiar with the mountains from climbing them and flying as a passenger on the air taxis to get to base came on the mountain gave Falley an advantage over other pilots new to the Alaska Range, she said.
“Knowing where I was, seeing how different pilots handled the weather, the load, the snow, and seeing different decision-making processes from the perspective of a passenger I think gave me a leg up on some of the training and decision making that is taught to the newer pilots,” she said.
When she’s not flying a de Havilland Beaver or turbine Otter for work, she’s flying her Piper PA-22 with a tailwheel conversion on tundra tires.
“If the weather is sunny, our tiedown is vacant the whole weekend. We’re really good about getting out as a family in the airplane and going camping as often as the weather will permit, and the family just loves it,” Falley said. “The roads only access a mere fraction of the state of Alaska, so you really have to have an airplane to see the rest of it. An airplane up here is basically just like a great car camping vehicle for a family, so you can still have your kid and take them to these wildly remote places as well.”
Falley knows she’s living many pilots’ dreams, saying she’s “pretty lucky.” Now you can follow her adventures each month in AOPA Opinion Leaders. Check out her first post, “I left my wallet in Mystic Pass."