Most flights are fairly routine for pilot Mike Stedman. But there have been some memorable journeys.
Such as passengers making their “final approach.”
“There are people you’ve known a long time, people who are from here who are flying because it’s their last time,” he said. “I remember Don Plummer, (who formerly owned the Skagway Inn with his wife Sioux). He had lung cancer and was coming home to die. I gave him a trip to the glaciers. I’ll never forget it.”
Stedman, co-owner of the regional air service Alaska Seaplanes and the flight seeing company Wings Airways, knew from an early age that flying was his passion when he received a toy plane for his second birthday.
For Stedman, who grew up in Sitka and now lives in Juneau, flying was rooted in his family. His 93-year-old uncle Bill became a pilot in 1941, although he no longer flies, and his parents met when they worked for the former Alaska Coastal Airlines, now Alaska Airlines.
Mike followed in his uncle’s footsteps, earning his pilot’s license in 1980. Now he mainly flies a deHavilland Otter, a 10-passenger, single-engine, propeller-driven amphibious plane.
The best part of flying over Alaska, he said, is the panoramic views of the majestic landscape.
“The Northern part of Southeast Alaska has some of the best scenery you could find anywhere in the world,” Stedman said. He added that choosing a favorite place to fly is an impossible task. “There are so many places that are phenomenal. The scenery is fabulous, unbelievably beautiful.”
When pressed, though, Stedman said that he finds the Johns Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay, in the panhandle West of Juneau, his favorite landscape. “It’s just spectacular,” he said. “The whole thing. It’s a big package that really tantalizes your senses. You’ve got Mt. Fairweather, the Amphitheater, as they call it, the rock formations. There’s lots of ice in the water and early in the season you can see seals popping up.”
Stedman’s Alaska Seaplanes transports cargo, mail and, of course, passengers, on scheduled and chartered flights to picturesque destinations such as Skagway, Sitka, Hoonah and Pelican.
But don’t call him a bush pilot.
“It doesn’t ring true anymore,” he said. “It’s an anachronism. Back then they didn’t have radios, GPS, radar. It’s a lot safer now.”
Stedman said while his planes have GPS, they only fly under VFR, or Visual Flight Rules, meaning the weather must be clear enough to see where the aircraft is going. He is a member of the state’s Medallion Foundation, which helps carriers create a safe flying culture by setting higher flying standards than what the Federal Aviation Administration requires.
Stedman loves showing off the beauty of his home state. But there have been flights that involved more than just surveying the landscape — some of which even involved saving lives. Stedman has rescued heart attack victims from cruise ships and has made flights-for-life to small villages. In those situations Stedman lands on the water and a “lightering boat,” or small vessel similar to a lifeboat, ferries victims to the plane.
One of the best ways to see the vast expanse and beauty of Southeast Alaska is via a flightseeing excursion. Two highly recommended businesses are:
(1) Mountain Flying Service owned by Paul Swanstrom in Haines/Skagway
(2) Wings Airways managed by Holly Johnson in Juneau
Stedman said he is slowing down a bit, and that he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren and fishing for king salmon. But there is one trip he still wants to make.
Mount Denali, Alaska’s 20,310-ft. peak, the highest in North America.
“I’ve been there on the ground, but I’ve never flown around it,” Stedman said. “That would be really cool.”