Filson‘s ‘Above Alaska’ film highlights the meaning behind this land for those who live and work here, and the reasons why so many make the move north. Bush Pilot Michael Gold joins this conversation by sharing with us his story about leaving California’s coast to fly in the Last Frontier.
Soon after walking into the office of Talkeetna Air Taxi, you realize the place is special. A small group of aviation personnel sits in the back, prepping for the day’s flights. They constantly monitor weather forecasts and check the day’s bush planes. Then, climbers and skiers from around the world begin to crowd the small space.
Infectious excitement and energy exist between these doors. It’s immediately clear why hundreds of applicants apply each year to pilot here, even before developing a relationship with the surrounding mountains.
“I wanted to be deep in the wilderness, which to me is the ultimate medium to fly in,” Michael Gold, a Talkeetna Air Taxi bush pilot, told me about flying in Alaska.
Interview: Talkeetna Air Taxi Pilot Michael Gold
It takes a uniquely qualified pilot to fly in these mountains. And Gold has the experience and personality to match. His upbringing, mentors, and approach to flying in one of the biggest mountain ranges in the world all come into play.
GearJunkie: Tell us a little bit about your initial entry into flying.
Gold: Interestingly, I grew up in a family of artists and musicians. I was dedicated to music at a really early age. Even so, it always seemed I had a disposition geared towards flying. As a child, I would constantly go to the airport and was always building model airplanes.
In high school, I would travel north to Orcas Island every summer with my best friend to spend time at his cabin. His father would buy us each a flying lesson at this dusty old flight school. This was really the jumping-off point for me. The combination of flying in the Beaver — one of the coolest airplanes ever — and being able to sit in the left seat of a Cessna really set the hook.
During my last year studying jazz piano at the California Institute of the Arts, I had free time to begin working more, so I started taking flying lessons. It took me about a year and a half to obtain my private pilot license [PPL].
How did you overcome the inherent barriers to entry to become a bush pilot?
I often visited the local airport to talk with pilots and absorb as much information as I could. It was truly a process of osmosis, as I didn’t have the funds to begin taking flight lessons.
The biggest burden is that a person needs 250 flight hours in order to obtain their commercial pilot license. Most people spend this time training and gathering the handful of other ratings needed, but this costs even more money because, at that point, you’re paying for an instructor as well. With my PPL, I was able to rent planes while also making friends at the airport who would let me borrow theirs.
Eventually, I started to repair an older plane for a gentleman who wasn’t using it anymore. A mechanic friend guided me through getting the plane back in working order. Simultaneously, I reached 250 flight hours. I was able to acquire my commercial license efficiently — and monetarily, even more so.
From here, I started towing advertisement banners. With the money I made from this, I was able to purchase the plane I had helped fix. I rented a hangar for the airplane I bought, which also doubled as my apartment.
At this point, I was still touring with my band and living quite marginally to make it happen. All the while, I was thinking back to the Kenmore Beaver airplanes at Orcas Island and knew I wanted to fly bush planes.
Mentors seem especially important in this field of work. Who was yours?
Throughout the period where I was building flight time, there was a gentleman named Clay Phelps who ran the flight school where I received my commercial ratings. He was a third-generation aviator and was really entrenched in the [flight] world. He was the one who set me up with my airplane and provided a lot of important guidance when I was younger.
My other huge mentor was, and still is, Paul Roderick from Talkeetna Air Taxi. He knows the ins and outs of the Alaska Range better than anyone. He made me adjust to the realities of flying small aircraft in the mountains and forced me to gather the necessary experience.
Landing a job at one of the premier air taxi services isn’t easy. Where did you gain the necessary flight time and experience?
After shopping around my resume in Anchorage, I took a job with Grant Aviation out of Bethel, Alaska. That [job] had me flying Cessna airplanes to smaller, native villages. It’s sort of a rite of passage for bush pilots to go and spend some time there.
Photo Credit: Gabby FaurotThis was a great place for me to explore my own personal limits and learn more about how dynamic flying in Alaska can be. It’s a completely different world out that way. All of a sudden, most of the people around you are speaking Yup’ik and eating fermented whale meat. I spent a year there, and it completely changed my perspective on the whole flying game.
What are some of the risks associated with flying in the mountains?
It’s mostly weather and snow conditions. In terms of glacier landings, flat light is one of the biggest concerns we as pilots deal with. You can turn up a valley and have a nice, oblique angle on it, but once you’re properly aligned, you find yourself with difficult lighting and have no idea how far off the ground you are. Diffused sunlight from an overcast or blocked sun reduces contrast and can make it more difficult to see the surface of the snow. That can be a fairly precarious situation.
We’re also thinking about snow conditions, which out here can be variable. Situations that are generally mellow — say having the plane stuck in deep snow or getting stuck on the uphill — can become really serious if the weather is closing in. The consequences of blowing it here are significant, so you always need to have the big picture in mind.
What’s the most important trait a bush pilot can have?
There’s a sweet spot between confidence and humility. A lot of the pilots I look up to balance this combination well. Your confidence isn’t born out of ego; it’s born out of experience. Clay [Phelps] really helped me develop these attributes.
It can be hairy flying out here. Can you share one of your more gripping stories with us?
There was a time on the glacier where I was moving slowly trying to get the plane loaded with my passengers’ gear. This was my first year as a pilot for TAT, and I had the broadcasted forecast out of Talkeetna, but I wasn’t savvy on Alaska Range weather.
Lisa, the basecamp manager on the Kahiltna Glacier, yelled up to me that I needed to get out fast because poor weather was moving in. I reset quickly, got everyone safely loaded, and hit it down the runway. Midway through, I received a radio call telling me to abort the takeoff. I didn’t know if my airplane was on fire or what was going on.
I pulled my power back, and we ended up sliding all the way down to the end of the runway. The weather window was closing, and there was another group of climbers that needed to fly out of the range. My plane was too heavy to easily climb back up the hill, so I messaged Lisa to ask if she could tell everyone in base camp to meet down at my plane. I ended up having every climber in camp help unload my plane and haul the entire load back uphill.
Anyway, we were able to reset and take off. We’re climbing out, and I get into an area known as Little Switzerland. Now, it’s a sea of clouds. Paul [Roderick] is in a plane flying the other climbing party right behind me and asks me what I’m going to do. I thought about it and said, “I don’t know.”
He told me to look past the ridgeline to my left and explained that there’s always an exit hole here with this style of weather. Sure enough, he was spot-on.
I have this memory of circling down towards this craggy glacier. We snaked through the glacier and were able to easily make our way back to Talkeetna. The situation was a bit marginal but was a significant moment for our mentor-mentee relationship.
Watch “Above Alaska” below for others piloting the Last Frontier.