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The Only Thing Fiercer Than an Alaskan Winter? The Intelligently Brave Pilots Who Fly It

by Ashlea Halpern

posted on February 05, 2019

Photo Courtesy: iStock

Leighan Falley is a third-generation aviator, born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. Before she earned her pilot’s license, she spent a decade mountain guiding in Denali National Park. In 2015, she joined the crew at Talkeetna Air Taxi and now spends her days ferrying mountain climbers to and from Denali’s basecamp, making deliveries to remote areas of the Alaska Range, and taking wide-eyed tourists to see some of North America’s most scenic landscapes. As a painter, a mother of two young girls, and a lifelong Alaskan, she never takes the mountains — or the area’s unpredictable weather — for granted. (To wit: When outdoor gear brand Yeti shot “Denali’s Raven,” a short movie about Falley, she and the film crew got stuck on the mountain for six nights—proof that Alaska don’t play.) We recently caught up with Falley to find out more about her unique job, and what it’s really like to work as a glacier pilot in the 49th state.

(Photo Courtesy: Frédéric Lagrange)

“My grandparents were both pilots. So was my father, and my auntie as well. My grandparents owned aircrafts, so instead of taking a commercial jet, they would fly from the Puget Sound area up to Alaska to visit us. My grandmother was actually the 70th woman in the nation to get her pilot's license. That was in the 1950s. Being a pilot is such a common thing up here though, it didn’t register to me as anything special.

My first memory of flying is when I was 2 years old. My father owned a two-seater, where the pilot sits in front and the passenger sits behind. I remember being strapped into the back of his airplane with this enormous Malamute. I remember the way the dog smelled and just looking out the window, seeing Fairbanks, Alaska below us.

Fairbanks is the same latitude as Siberia, so we share a similar climate and daylight cycles. But it also has rolling hills — kind of like Appalachia. Only 5-to-10-percent of Alaska is accessible by road; you really have to be a pilot to see the rest. Mountain climbing was the first way I felt I could explore the state. I guided for nearly a decade, but climbed for years before that. Being a Denali guide is brutal work. It’s really cold, it’s physically demanding, and it's emotionally draining. You always have close calls, especially on personal trips where you take more risks. The twin summits of Denali act as an accelerator for wind moving between them. If you're on the northern end, the semi-mythical ‘White Wind’ — this unstoppable force of nature — can be quite powerful. On my first trip to Denali in 2002, there was a blizzard. I remember going airborne in our tents, slamming into the snow, and then rolling. The tent caught on fire, too, because we were cooking in the vestibule when it happened. Mountain guiding is not a long-term career. Flying was always Plan B.

People laugh when I say this, but being a bush pilot over the jagged mountains of Alaska is way safer than being a mountain guide. With climbing, you're moving slowly and you don't have a lot of access to weather forecasts that high up. You could easily be hit by a storm as you move between camps. That causes great duress. With flying, you’re in control of more variables; you can always decide not to go.

Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park. (Photo Courtesy: iStock)

There's this myth that all Alaskan pilots are rogues — lots of bravado and daring. But really, the modern aviator is very cognizant of risk. They’re calm, rational, and intelligently brave. We accept some in order to fly in the first place, but we never cross the line where that risk outweighs the reward. As I tell my passengers, ‘We are not in the business of being dangerous.’ We're moms and dads and we want to come home as much as anybody else.

My favorite planes to fly are our Turbine Otters. They carry ten people or about 2,000 pounds of stuff. They're very powerful, capable airplanes. Even fully loaded, they only need a few hundred feet to land and take off. But sometimes bad weather or high winds prevent you from flying; it’s not unheard of to get stuck on a glacier. We try to avoid that, of course. We do very few glacier landings in winter because the temperatures are very cold, the snow is very deep, and the consequences of getting stuck are so high. With climbers, it's not a big deal because they're staying there anyway. But with passengers — like sightseers from Las Vegas or Dubai, places that don't even have snow — we may not land at all.

The vast majority of our business takes place between April and October. Climbing is at its height from mid-May to mid-June, and then the tourists come after that. Most of what we do this time of year are scenic flights in Denali National Park or bringing fuel and building supplies to lodges and homesteaders. We get some climbers, too. We just flew out two winter soloists: a veteran who has climbed Denali in winter and a German soloist who is new to the Alaska Range. Today we’ve got an Aurora photographer going out. His name is Norio Matsumoto and he’s been coming here for 19 years. We’ll put him on a little glacier near the Alaska Range, where he’ll camp for 40 days in an igloo, photographing the Northern Lights. We're in the business of carrying people from all over the world to grand adventures, so inevitably you're going to meet fascinating characters along the way.

Most people react positively to having a female pilot. I love when parents put their young girls in the co-pilot seat and say what an inspiration I am. Of course, some people still make ignorant comments. It's a big stereotype, right? And I've been stereotyped by a lot of different people — by foreigners, by people from both coasts, by men, by women, by young people, by old people. I hear these comments not only from passengers but from other pilots. I even had a guest refuse to fly with me once — a woman. It happens.

My own daughters are now 1 and 6, and both fly with me. We have our own bush plane, and on our days off, we fly as a family to remote destinations. The Alaska Range is the most beautiful place on the continent. It's always changing with the seasons, the weather, and the light. Winter has this gorgeous low light, and summer has the contrast between the emerald green of the swamps and the valley and the ice castles rising out of the range. Denali in the summertime just shimmers above the canopies. Exploring the state as a family is pretty fun; it’s like driving a car with wings. And I keep having these moments where I say, 'That is the most amazing thing I've ever seen.' Then a few weeks go by, and I’ll be like, 'No, that is the most amazing thing.'

All those Alaskan reality TV shows have been great for tourism. We've seen a huge increase in the number of travelers, which can only be a good thing. An economy based on resource extraction needs to diversify, so showing people the wonders of Alaska is a great way of making a living. There's also a stereotype of all Alaskans being ignorant rednecks of a certain political affiliation. I want to show that Alaskans can be intelligent and progressive — that we can break down stereotypes and care about the rest of the world as well.

I doubt I'll ever retire. When I'm too old to fly, I’ll just be an artist. That’s Plan C. Or I'll write science fiction novels and live in a tipi in the desert. Whatever happens, I'd like to be remembered as a good person, as an ambassador to Alaska, and as a good example of an Alaskan.” — As told to Ashlea Halpern

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