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Flying in Alaska under the northern lights

by Greg Klupar

2 months ago

Corey Hester believes that in terms of aviation, Alaska truly is the final frontier.

Hester, executive director of the Alaska Airmen Association, an Anchorage-based group, said Alaska is the last place in the United States where pilots have the freedom to fly anywhere, anytime.

“Alaska is the Mecca of flying,” Hester said. “Anyone in aviation comes up here at some point to fly. In the lower 48, pilots are very restricted. Every ten minutes you hear from another air traffic control tower there. In Alaska, you have the freedom to fly when you want and where you want. In Alaska, you can say, ‘I’m going to land near this river or near this mountain.’ You can’t do that in the lower 48.”

“It’s pretty interesting when you can go somewhere using a transportation method that few people can use. You can take a plane to a lake that no one has been to in 200 years. That’s pretty amazing.”

The Airmen are the foremost advocates of flying in Alaska, and Hester said one person in nine is a pilot in the 663,000 square miles that make up “The Last Frontier” known as the State of Alaska.

“There are a lot of facets in aviation that are in demand here,” Hester said. “There’s very high demand for pilots and mechanics and controllers. It’s no hard feat to get a job in aviation in Alaska. It’s a question of what you want and where you want to go and what you want to do.”

In promoting aviation in Alaska, the group receives a major fundraising assist from Alaska Community Partners. Alaska Community Partners is a Skagway-based organization that helps Alaskan nonprofits raise money through raffles.

The Alaska Airmen Association holds an annual raffle known as the Super Cub at the Great Alaska Aviation Gathering in May of each year. The two-day event is designed to promote aviation worldwide at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. This year’s winner of the raffle received a Super Cub plane with two wheel sets and two sets of floats. The 2018 winner was Bryce Palmer of Chugiak, Alaska.

8,750 raffle tickets were sold and ten kiosks designed and placed by Alaska Community Partners throughout the area helped immensely in increasing raffle ticket sales. Ten tickets cost $550, five for $275 and one for $60. All of tickets were sold through Alaska Community Partners kiosks.

Alaska Community Partners works with the Alaska Airmen's Association in Anchorage, Alaska to sell raffle tickets via kiosk machine

The raffle ticket kiosks were set up as part of Alaska Community Partners’ community giveback program, which is designed to help Alaska nonprofits like the Airmen thrive. Funds raised provide valuable services to the aviation community.

“Our annual raffle allows us to assist with outreach and other aviation-related services to our members and the broader Alaskan community,” Hestor said “The work Greg and Olivia have done for us installing and managing our kiosk raffle technology has been incredibly beneficial.”

Part of the Airmen’s work is promoting aviation to the younger generation. The group offers six $2,500 scholarships to prospective aviation students every year. The amount covers about one-fourth of the cost of a pilot’s license. In addition, Alaska Airmen sponsors seminars and other activities to promote aviation to young people.

“We want to catch them as early as we can in junior high school and high school so they catch the aviation bug early,” Hester said. “Right now our plans are to do an interactive presentation and also bring stuff they can touch and feel like reality goggles, which show them what we’re talking about when we talk about aviation. We hope it inspires them to pursue their commercial pilot’s license."

“We’re also expanding our outreach to students in rural areas of Alaska.”

Meanwhile, this year’s annual Aviation Gathering, the 21st, was a smashing success.

“We have people from all over the world attending the event,” Hester said, adding that about 30,000 people attend with 300 companies represented. “It really kicks off the flying season.”

Another focus is on diversifying the membership of the organization. Hester said it is especially important to get young women and minorities interested in aviation.

“We’ve got about 2,000 members and the bulk of the membership is in Alaska, but we’ve also got members scattered throughout the states and other countries,” he said. “The industry is predominantly male but we’re sort of branching out to diversify our pilot membership because promoting aviation among women and people of other backgrounds is something we strive for.”

“It’s an amazing time when you go into a Hispanic community and there are no pilots and the idea of becoming a pilot is far-fetched. But we can enlighten them and show them that they can do this.”

Hester, an Alaska native, caught the aviation bug himself when he was young, inspired by relatives who had their pilot’s license, and he joined the Airmen as executive director because has been involved in the aviation business for most of his life. Prior to joining the Airmen Hester was Commissioner of the Municipal Airports Aviation Advisory Commission in Anchorage.

“In Alaska, our industry is an adventure-seeking industry,” Hester said. “Because of the different climates and terrain you can fly eight hours and you can get ice and snow and sleet along with the mountains and the water. There’s so much diverse geography here, but that makes it dangerous, too. Any commercial airline will take an Alaska pilot because they’re more well-rounded and they have diverse experience.

“Alaska pilots are known as cowboys in the lower 48 because they can land anywhere. For better or worse that’s their reputation. They get a lot of respect in the lower 48. They’re the ones who get a big tip of the hat.”

The annual Super Cub raffle kicks off each year in October and is open to anyone. If you’d like to support the Airmen for a chance to win your own plane, you can purchase your tickets by calling Monday-Friday 8am - 5pm: 907-245-1251. Last year, for the first time ever, tickets sold out two weeks before the drawing so make sure to get your tickets early!

Alaska Airmen's Association sells raffle tickets for their annual Super Cub raffle in Anchorage, Alaska

Flying in Alaska with the Alaska Airmen's Association