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Alaska Native Aviators

Education and job opportunities for Rural Alaskan pilots


Pilot Abe David has been flying professionally since 1981 and has been with Yute Air since 2007.

Photo courtesy of Yute Air

With nearly 250 state-owned airports and countless private airstrips in the state, most of them providing access to villages far from any road system, it only makes sense that Alaska Natives—many of whom grow up with more exposure to airplanes than other popular modes of transportation—would make up a portion of the aviation industry that reflects this consistent exposure. However, education opportunities for people in the Bush are few and far between.

One organization that has been addressing this need since January 2004 is Yuut Yaqungviat, LLC, a flight school in Bethel. According to their mission statement, Yuut Yaqungviat is dedicated to training skilled and competent professional pilots utilizing the highest of safety and ethical standards and provides local training opportunities designed to meet industry specific employment needs.

Featuring portraits of their students who recently reached important milestones in their educations, usually flanked by flight instructor Roberto Guererro and FAA Designate Pilot Examiner Michael P. Buckland, the home page of Yuut Yaqungviat flight school in Bethel is both a celebration of achievement and a testament to the school’s investment in the economic productivity of the region’s population.

According to Executive Director James Amik, “Most of our students are from the YK Delta and other regions of Alaska. The flight school provides training to students in the environment they will be flying in as professional pilots. The students are from here and they will want to stay and make flying a career here close to home.”

Yuut Yaqungviat has an average annual enrollment of ten students, the majority of whom have goals of becoming commercial pilots. There are more than 250 full-time commercial pilot positions in the region; 92 percent of the graduates of the commercial certification program are currently flying professionally for Era Aviation, Grant Aviation, and Yute Air Alaska.

According to Amik, “Era Aviation has committed to hire each and every graduate that comes out of the flight school.” However, as Amik adds, it is up to the graduates to do their part to prove themselves as worthy employees and grow in their skills as pilots with their continued experience. It is an opportunity to be taken very seriously.

“Training and retention of local pilots in the region promotes the local economy with long-term jobs, enhancement of ground crews, and village support agents,” Amik says, touting a stream of the program’s benefits for the region’s economy and population. “The program offers quality employment opportunities for young adults in the region and promotes healthy values. People who grew up in the region will offer the best service as pilots with their familiarity with the terrain and having logged many hours benefits local airlines. This results in safer flight outcomes for passengers of the region and fewer turnovers. People feel safe and comfortable flying with someone they know.”

As Amik points out, people from Rural Alaska have a better understanding of what local aviation jobs entail, a greater sense of civic responsibility to their neighbors, and a larger appreciation for the opportunity than nonresidents.

“The turnover of nonresident pilots, support positions in ticketing, ground support, and dispatch positions has been an issue encountered by the [regional] air service industry.”


Walking the Talk

Bethel-based Yute Air is one airline that makes a point of providing opportunities for Alaska Native pilots, as well as graduates of Yuut Yaqungviat school.

According to Operations Manager Dan Knesk, “Yute Air feels it is important to have as many local pilots as we can because their families are our business. The locals are our main customers and Yute Air would not exist without them. It is our goal to provide comfortable, long-term, well-paid jobs to as many local people as we can. Yute Air has been known as the ‘Wings of the People,’ and we take that very seriously with everything we do.”

So seriously, in fact, that the airline makes efforts to cultivate their own pilot pool. “We are currently working on a partnership with a couple of local businesses to help new local pilots gain enough experience to meet the FAA Requirements and then move into a Captain position with Yute Air,” Knesk says. “We are hoping that this partnership will provide another choice for prospective local pilots to attain a flying job with Yute Air which will allow them to serve the villages of their friends and families.

“Over the last few years, the majority of our pilots have come from personal referral of some manner. We generally don’t advertise pilot openings since we usually can fill any open slots through the referral process.”


Meet the Pilots

While Knesk says it’s not in the culture of the people of the YK Delta to brag, Knesk has strong words of praise for the Alaska Native pilots that work for Yute Air, only one of whom, Christian Samuelson, was not available for comment.

“Samuelson started working for Yute quite a few years ago but took a couple years off from Yute and flew for another carrier,” Knesk says. “Luckily, he came back to Yute Air last April and has brought a wealth of knowledge and experience. Samuelson has been flying in the YK Delta for approximately ten years.

“Tristen ‘Buggy’ Carl has been a pilot with Yute Air since August 2008,” Knesk says. “Carl is a graduate of the Yuut Yaqungviat Flight School in Bethel. He is one of our most senior pilots. When Carl is on shift he takes his assigned aircraft to his home village of Kipnuk every night so he can be home with his young son. Carl is also the pilot representative on the Event Review Committee of our Aviation Safety Action Program in which we partner with The Medallion Foundation and the FAA.”

“Growing up, I had tons of exposure to the aviation industry because many of my family members worked as agents for numerous airlines out here,” Carl says, subsequently rattling off a series of former airline companies that long-time Alaskans may remember, including Mark Air, admitting that he can’t remember them all—there were so many.

“When I was really young, I used to follow either my uncle, grandpa, or my mother to the airport to go meet the airplane,” Carl says, “and used to watch the pilots land, and our agents would greet the pilot. And that got me excited. My grandpa used to wait until they took off, and I’d wait there with him, and watch them take off.”

Carl loves what he does, and says it’s a great job for people who like to travel and want a steady, well-paying job—but he stresses the importance of an aspiring pilot’s education, as “lots of reading and math” is involved.

Pilot Abe David has been flying professionally since 1981, and has been with Yute since 2007. David is from Mekoryuk, a village on Nunivak Island, and acquired his commercial training at Village Aviation flight school in Anchorage through a program run by his village corporation. He is also on the village counsel for Mekoryuk. He has lived his entire fifty five years in Alaska and has never left the state.

“Airplanes were a big thing when we were kids,” David says. “Whenever we’d hear that someone is coming from a distance, most of the kids in the community would gather up and try to see who would get there first. Once they arrived, everyone would come from the village and rally round, go down and meet the plane. The different planes that would come were amazing to see.”

What David enjoys most about his job is being able to work outdoors. “I take people out on hunting trips, fishing trips, all the outdoor stuff,” he says. “The outdoors is one of my specialties; You get to meet a lot of people, and you’re serving your own people in the area.”

David encourages Alaska Native people to get started on their careers early if they want to be pilots—a job with income, adventure, and prestige is available for those who are willing to put their minds to it. He urges them to believe in themselves and push for what they want.

“These folks out here out in the YK Delta are smart people,” David says. “They just need to put their minds together. I’m just like anybody else. I’m just a human being trying to make a living. When I put my mind to something as an individual, even if I don’t have much education, I can get things done. It’s just a matter of doing it. Put your mind to it, go for it, and it can be done.”

Tristen Carl graduated from Yuut Yaqungviat in 2007 and is currently working as a pilot for Yute Air.

Photo courtesy of Yute Air

Safety is Success

James “Gundo” Hoffman is the chief pilot for Yute Air.

“I am a third generation pilot, so I had relatives that flew for Wien Air Alaska,” Hoffman says. “My grandfather flew for them, started in 1947 [and worked for them until] 1971—and then my dad was a private pilot, and my uncle was a long time employee for the original Era.

“I was roughly thirteen or fourteen when my dad started to teach me some of the basic things about flying,” Hoffman says. “I always had an interest in it from a young age.”

Forty-one year-old, Bethel-born and -raised Hoffman admits that like many Alaskan aviation enthusiasts who grew up in the seventies, he still owns a Wien Air poster that features a Canada goose wearing an aviator hat, but it’s at his mother’s house.

“My mom can’t seem to tear down the old stuff from me and my brother—all the Wien memorabilia. Even when I flew the 737s for Northern Air Cargo, my tie pin was a Wien Air Alaska tie tack.”

Unlike the other Alaska Native pilots at Yute Air, the bulk of Hoffman’s formal aviation training occurred Outside.

“My private pilot I got in Anchorage, the instrument ratings I got in Washington DC, my commercial in Arizona, and my multi engine also followed in Seattle,” Hoffman says. His training Outside was the result of no local flight school at the time he trained, and was paid for in part by his Native councils.

According to Hoffman, safety is a main focus for the pilots that fly at Yute Air.

“Flying is fun, but it’s not to be messed around with, especially in the conditions that we find out in Western Alaska,” Hoffman says. “So we take it seriously and try to make it as fun as possible in the proper safety arena that is required for what we do.”

But when it comes to safety, Hoffman says that pilots trained in Western Alaska have an experiential edge over those trained in milder climates due to the region’s exceptional weather patterns and featureless terrain.

“I would put a pilot who is successful in that area up against a pilot who is successful anywhere in the world,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman also points out that Alaska does not have to be the final stop for Alaska Native pilots who would like to work Outside.

“I was a Bethel kid and I got to fly 737s,” he says. “Now I am able to teach people who are and are not familiar with our region those things that I think will help them.”


What Makes a Pilot Good

Working for an airline requires employees to have a larger-than-average commitment to performing their jobs well—a commitment that comes easy for most Rural Alaskans based on their relationships with their fellow residents and understanding of Alaska’s challenges.

All the educators, managers, and pilots interviewed for this article agree that their greatest investment is in a combination of components that make up the Rural Alaska aviation community: education, jobs, residents, and a commitment to safety that is strengthened by local ties.

“If I don’t know a passenger for Yute Air,” Hoffman says, “chances are that I do know someone who knows them.”

David expresses a sense of responsibility and belonging with his job and his community. “I’ve never been outside the state,” he says. “I’ve been here my whole life—fifty five years—and I’ve never been outside the work area that I they put me in, and I have no interest in living in any place else because I was chosen to serve my folks here: my people.”

“To me, a successful pilot is one who makes it home to his family each and every night,” Hoffman says. “It’s their job to do their very best to give our passengers the best possible chance to come home to their families as well.”

Mari Gallion is Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.

This first appeared in the September 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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