Well … I’m back where I started, flying a C-207 (fondly called a Sled by some) in Bethel, Alaska. Bethel is where many an aspiring Alaskan pilot gets his first shot at air taxi work. However, pilots have been known to get right back on the jet when they step out of the Alaska Airlines terminal. A hardy few stick around and make a living here. My hat goes off to them.
Bethel is located in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta on the Kuskokwim River, and has a population of just over 6,000 people. The town also serves as a hub for roughly 28 nearby villages. There used to be 13+ outfits operating out of the Bethel airport (PABE), all grabbing a portion of the lucrative bypass mail. The bypass mail system was set up as a way for groceries and other supplies to be delivered in a cost effective way to remote villages. It also served to keep passenger travel affordable. There was a restructuring of this mail system several years ago. After all the dust settled, there were only five air taxis left in town.
I’m up here working for the only all-cargo outfit, Ryan Air. It’s been good to come back and see what’s changed. So far it’s remarkably similar to what I experienced in 1995. A few more people, newer runways, and the airport is a little less hectic. Maybe that’s because I’m not dealing with passengers this go around … or it may be that with fewer air taxis on the field there is less of a scramble to get airborne when the weather hits the Part 135 minimums (500 ft ceiling, 2 miles vis, or 1,000 ft and 1 mile). I seem to remember 20 or more Cessna 207s lined up waiting for a “special” out of the surface area back in the 90s. Once clear of the zone the weather always, miraculously, got better. It’s the right of the earlier generation to claim it was harder “back in the day.”
The flying landscape has changed a bit and that’s changed the way pilots operate. Today, there are more IFR capable planes and more approaches available out in the villages. Despite these changes, the Bethel tower still issues lots of special VFR clearances. In fact, there are written rules for getting a special out of Bethel. It’s rule “Sierra”: outbound special VFR aircraft fly the 090 or 270 degree radials. Inbounds fly the 055, 135, 235 or 335 degree radials. Planes are allowed in and out as “trains” keeping visual separation from one another. The ADS-B “capstone” system was started here in the early 2000s and has simplified this procedure quite a bit as well.
The job remains the same, and I suspect it has been this way since Harold Gilliam flew the Kuskokwim. There’s a reason the FAA designates it Air Taxi. You’re an airborne taxi driver. You deliver people and supplies to nearby towns on a vague schedule. It’s pretty common to pick up passengers who are waiting at the village strip for another airline. 9 of the villages are within 30 NM of Bethel, so many flights are really short (one village is less than 6 NM away). It’s not uncommon to do 20 or more takeoffs and landings a day.
Work days usually run from 8 am until 7 pm. The legal duty day is 14 hours long, and you can expect to put in a 14 hour day a couple of days a week. Sundays often have a reduced schedule so you get a little break. Most companies pay a daily rate, with a kicker if you put in a lot of flight hours on your shift. So, you’ll be compensated for your time. Pay varies drastically depending on what you fly and how long you’ve been around. It can be as low as $190 a day, or $400+ per day. If you stick with one company you will end up somewhere in the higher range (it will take a few years).
Most companies run pilots in shifts: either 2 weeks on 2 weeks off, 20 days on 10 days off, or some other variation. If you want to live in Bethel full time your company will be stoked! They see it as being committed to the community, as well as giving them access to an “on call” pilot for fill in work.
As for the airports, most of them have new 2,500-3,500 ft runways. There are a few holdouts, notably Kwigillingok (Kwig), Chefornak, Kipnuk, Newtock and Tununak. Every town also seems to have sprouted a tower of some sort. so beware if you’re buzzing along close to the ground. Generally the YK Delta is flatland, and it’s possible to fly a whole day and never climb above 500 feet. The few hills around are out at Nelson Island, Scammon Bay, and a series of mud volcanos en route to Hopper Bay.
There is a thriving social scene in Bethel, which is good as winters are long and outdoor activities are limited. There are often house parties on the weekends. These range from wine and opera singing (no kidding–Shapley, who did my IOE, was a trained opera singer before taking up flying!) to frat house-like scenes at some of the pilot houses. Pick your poison. (For a humorous but very accurate portrayal of a pilot’s exploits in Kotzebue read CloudDancer’s Alaskan Chronicles).
There are also local cultural events at the Camai Center. These include the Camai Dance Festival (worth going to). There are also sport teams you can join. Basketball is huge in Western AK! The Kusko 300 is a very reputable sled dog race that is often used as a tune up for the Iditarod. Personally, I’d get a fat-tired mountain bike and take advantage of the sno-go trails and the ice road on the Kuskokwim. I once started to run from Bethel to Nome up the ice road. Some injuries turned the trip into a running and skiing adventure with airplane portages (courtesy of Jim Tweto) whenever the going got tough. (It’s better to be well connected then strong!)
In the summer there are some legendary salmon streams nearby. The village of Quinahak attracts celebrities from around the world to fish the Kanektok river. Hunting is also good, but to do either fishing or hunting it would be best to have access to a boat and/or an airplane.
So, if you step off the jet and are tempted to jump back onboard, my advice is to wait a while. Maybe Bethel will grow on you.
All the air taxis provide the same basic service to the community. There are pluses and minuses to working for any of them. You have to find the right fit for you. Bethel is a hub where many pilots start flying in Alaska, so most of these companies are used to receiving resumes with lower time on them, and they will hire newer pilots. As always, it’s best to show up in person. Ryan, Grant, Yute and Era all have offices in Anchorage. That said, if you actually showed up in Bethel it would get you huge bonus points!
Air Taxi Operators
Government Flying Jobs
We’re working on an interview with someone at US Fish and Wildlife. It looks like a cool, stable flying job with some interesting flying and some office time as well.
The Alaska State Troopers are also on the list, just keep in mind that you’d be a law enforcement officer with an aviation specialty.
Search and Rescue
Yuut-Yaqungviat Flight School is probably one of the more unique flight schools around, and they pay their instructors pretty well (I’ve heard rumors of up to 40K a year).