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Fearless Fliers in Alaska

Cindy Scarr

In the Alaskan tundra, fierce winds and hostile terrain isolate hundreds of villagers from humanity, food supplies, and medical aid. The pilots of Era Aviation bridge the yawning divide with their bush planes, specially outfitted to brave the subzero temperatures and hurricane-speed winds that are practically humdrum to Northern Alaskans.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

“Planes are for Alaska what semi-trailer trucks are for the lower world,” says Susan Aikens, supervisor of the Kavik River Camp, one of the remotest outposts in Alaska. Though the camp is equipped with Wi-Fi capability as well as phones, the closest big city is Fairbanks, 500 miles (800 km) to the south, and the closest road is 80 miles (130 km) to the east.

Aikens lives in the Kavik camp year-round, much of the time alone. “I like the challenge that it brings to me,” she says. “It’s not a forgiving environment. One thing you can say about Alaska is it either gets into your blood or it doesn’t. And if it gets into your system, then no matter where you go, there’s a calling to come back.”

The only way for Susan to receive supplies is by bush plane — a general aviation aircraft usually used in the African bush, the Alaskan and Canadian tundra, and the Australian outback. By the second week of September, it’s already -5°F (-20°C) to -10°F (-23°C) in Kavik, and she’s taking possession of the last delivery she’ll get for the next nine months. The next one will arrive in June of the following year.

“If I don’t get it in with the bush pilots, there is no getting it,” she puts it bluntly. “If I need anything, if I get hurt, planes are the only way I can get assistance.”

At no time was that more true than when Susan was attacked and dragged off by a grizzly bear. “I got attacked by a grizzly two years ago,” she told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News. “I had to sew my own head together, my arm, and before my legs gave out, I went across the river, found the bear, shot him, GPSed it, called the trooper, and there I lay.” The trooper alerted the bush pilots, who sent a plane to save her.

“I don’t know many people who can live through a grizzly attack and then tell the story and laugh about it,” says pilot John Ponts, who flies in Susan’s supplies. Ponts, an adventure-seeking, ex-professional skateboarder, traded in his skateboard for the excitement and “real freedom” flying the skies of rural Alaska. He currently works for Era Aviation, the largest regional aviation company in Alaska. And in Northern Alaska, where standard transportation stands no chance against the elements, the bush plane industry is a vital tool of survival.


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