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Young Pilots See Career In Little Town of Bethel

Alaska Airlines donation to flight school helps keep key hub linked to rest of state

2/11/2010 10:50:50 AM

To understand how dependent Bethel is on aviation, it helps to fly over the town. Located 340 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, and 40 miles inland from the Bering Sea, there are only 10 miles of paved roads and none that connect to any highway system. The flat, treeless tundra appears to roll on forever, with ice roads and snow machine trails providing the main pathways in winter to some 56 Native Alaskan villages in the surrounding Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta plain.

In this landscape, aviation may provide the best opportunity for young people to find a career that allows them to stay in the area, develop marketable skills and contribute to their community.

Those prospects are improving, thanks to the Yuut Yaqungviat Flight School. Alaska Airlines executives visited Bethel recently and presented $15,000 to the school from the Alaska Airlines Foundation. The grant will help local residents, the majority of whom are Native Alaskans, obtain their pilot and airframe and power plant mechanic licenses.

While the population of Bethel is just 5,800, the town is a key commercial, government and transportation hub. It is accessible only by airplane, except for a barge that arrives once or twice in the summer. As a result, Bethel Airport is the third busiest in the state for passengers (after Anchorage and Fairbanks) and second for cargo. Alaska Airlines flies three roundtrips a day between Bethel and Anchorage.

"It may be little, but it's mighty," says Christine Klein, deputy commissioner of aviation for the state of Alaska. Aviation is a much larger part of the economy in Alaska than elsewhere, she adds, accounting for one in every 10 jobs in the state and $3.5 billion in revenue.

Founded in 2000, Yuut Yaqungviat Flight School has a high placement rate for students who complete the two-year private pilot certificate program, says John Amik, co-director of the school. Of 25 students who finished the program, 16 are actively working as pilots for Yute Air, Grant Aviation, Frontier Alaska, Hageland Aviation and other airlines, he says.

The pilot training program has been so successful the school has received state grants to start the airframe and power plant training program, which will operate out of the new hangar. There is just as much demand for aviation mechanics in Alaska as there is for pilots, Amik says.

"Historically, a revolving door of professionals leave the Bethel area. This outmigration is a loss of potential revenue for the region," Amik says. "Yuut Yaqungviat has helped young adults capture a sense of purpose, hope and self-respect."

Upon presenting the donation from the Alaska Airlines Foundation in a ceremony in the new hangar, Bill MacKay, Alaska Airlines' senior vice president-Alaska, said he hoped the school's success would be mutually beneficial to the community and the aviation industry, including Alaska Airlines.

"We would very much like to see more Native Alaskan pilots working their way into our cockpits," MacKay said.

Other good news is coming out of Bethel. Last fall, the airport opened a new $22 million runway, which has improved capacity and safety. While the runway is too short for jets, it will help ease congestion by allowing smaller aircraft to land and free up the longer runway for Alaska Airlines flights.

Alaska Airlines employs 27 people at its Bethel station.

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