Flying in a real live Alaska  bush plane is a spectacular way to see the state, and it’s also the only practical way to access the vast majority of Alaska’s roadless areas. You will never forget your first flight over Alaska, whether it’s a floatplane heading to Misty Fiords National Monument  or a tiny Super Cub taking you to a remote Arctic camp.
These airlines have regularly scheduled, though expensive, flights to towns and attractions that either have no public ground transportation or simply can’t be reached overland—which accounts for more than three-quarters of the state. For many people who live in Alaska’s bush, these planes provide a lifeline of mail, food, and supplies.
The planes seat 2–12 passengers, and they fly for the regular fare no matter how many passengers are aboard (if the weather is cooperating).
But if you’re heading to a really remote cabin, fjord, river, glacier, or park, that’s when you’ll encounter the famous Alaskan bush pilots, with their equally famous charter rates, which can make Alaska Airlines’ fares look like the bargain of the century. Still, you’ll have quite a ride—landing on tiny lakes with pontoons, on snow or ice with skis, on gravel bars with big fat tires, loaded to the gills with people, equipment, extra fuel, tools, mail, supplies, and anything else under the sun.
Make sure you agree on all the details beforehand—charges, drop-off and pickup times and locations, emergency and alternative procedures, and tidal considerations. Never be in much of a hurry; time is told differently up here, and many variables come into play, especially the weather.
If you’re well prepared for complications and have a flexible schedule and a loose attitude, one of these bush hops will no doubt be among your most memorable experiences in Alaska, worth every penny and minute that you spend.
As far as what you can expect to pay, most flightseeing operations have preset itineraries and prices. Some companies flying out of the larger towns also have set rates to some of the more popular destinations. However, for most drop-off trips, you pay for the ride according to engine hours, both coming and going. So if your destination is a spot that’s an hour from the airstrip, you pay for four hours of engine time (an hour out and an hour back, twice).
Before you head out into the wild blue yonder, there are a few things you should know. Alaska  has far more than its share of fatal airplane crashes every year, generally 3–4 times the national average for small planes. These have happened to even the best pilots flying for even the most conscientious companies, but certain operators cut corners in safety and allow their pilots to fly under risky weather conditions. You can’t avoid all risks, of course, but you can improve your odds by taking a few precautions of your own.
First and foremost, you should choose your pilot and flight service with care. Just because someone has a pilot’s license and is flying in Alaska doesn’t mean that he or she is a seasoned bush pilot. You’re well within your rights to ask about the pilot’s qualifications, and about time spent flying in Alaska. The oft-repeated saying is, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” Given a choice, you want an “old” one—not so much in chronological years, but one that has been flying in and out of the bush for a good long time.
Ask locally about the air safety record of the various companies. Also ask which companies have the contracts with the Forest Service or other federal agencies, since they tend to be ones that aren’t allowed to take chances. You can also search the Web for accident statistics for a specific company at the National Transportation Safety Board’s website (www.ntsb.gov ).
Even if you’re just going on a 30-minute flightseeing tour, wear clothing appropriate for the ground conditions. Unplanned stops because of weather or mechanical problems aren’t unusual. Warm comfortable hiking clothes, rain gear, and lightweight boots or sturdy shoes make reasonable bush plane apparel.
Weather is a major limiting factor in aviation. Small planes don’t operate on airline-type schedules, with arrivals and departures down to the minute. Leave yourself plenty of leeway when scheduling trips, and don’t pressure your pilot to get you back to the airstrip so you won’t miss your bus, boat, train, dogsled ride, or salmon bake. More than one crash has been the result of subtle or not-so-subtle pressure by clients to fly when it was against the pilot’s better judgment. Never pressure a pilot to fly, and always try to act as a second pair of eyes to look for any signs of danger, such as other aircraft in the vicinity.
Before taking off, your pilot should brief all passengers on the location of safety and survival equipment and airsickness bags, how to exit during an emergency landing (or crash), and the location and function of the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) and survival kit. Ear protection may also be supplied, as most small planes are quite noisy. Just in case, buy a set of foam earplugs at a sporting-goods store before you go to the airport. They cost under $1, weigh nothing, and are perfectly adequate for aircraft noise levels.
You’ll probably be asked how much you weigh (don’t be coy—lives are at stake) and told where you should sit. Weight and balance are critical in little planes, so don’t whine about not getting to sit up front if you’re told otherwise. Many companies place severe restrictions on how much gear they carry, charging excess baggage fees over a certain limit (sometimes less than 50 pounds).
Gear stowage can be a challenge in small planes, especially when transporting people who are heading out on long expeditions. Don’t even think of showing up at the airfield with hard-sided luggage. Internal-frame backpacks, duffel bags, and other soft, easily compressed and stowed items are much easier to handle. Don’t strap sleeping bags and other gear onto the outside of a pack. Lots of small items are much easier to arrange and find homes for than a few bulky things.
Also, if you’re carrying a canister of red pepper spray to deter bears, tell the pilot beforehand and follow directions for stowage. Pilots don’t want the stuff inside the cabin (imagine what might happen if it went off in this enclosed space), but they’ll store it in a float if the plane is so equipped, or you may be able to strap it to a strut with duct tape.
Whenever you fly, leave a flight route, destination, expected departure and arrival times, and a contact number for the flight service with a reliable friend. Then relax and enjoy the scenery. Flying in Alaska  is a tremendous experience, one that relatively few people get to enjoy, and in spite of all the cautionary notes above, it is still a generally safe and reliable way to get to and see the wilderness.