Words by Scott Yorko.
Alaska is full of surprises. Bipolar weather swings are typically the biggest shocker in the 49th state, followed by chance animal encounters, massive seracs calving onto glacier valley floors, and sunset infernos that make you stop and wonder what planet you’re on.
Other surprises hit as soon as you return from a few days or weeks of camping, mountaineering, and skiing around Denali National Park when you’ve long since forgotten how bad you smell. At this point, you don’t notice the food stains all over your ski pants, and your sun- and wind-chapped lips have become the leathery norm.
Before your air taxi even touches down, you’re thinking about the impending burger at Denali Brewing Company, a shower, and a fresh pair of undies.
So the last thing you might expect to see is a beautiful, fair-skinned woman in a black tank top and jeans, sauntering across the tarmac in Xtratuf boots with a goddess-like aura, hair blowing in the breeze as she flashes you a warm smile, maybe even a little wave.
Then she climbs into the cockpit of a De Havilland Beaver, fires up the engine, and takes off into the sky. It may seem like a divine mirage. But in truth, that could be any one of a handful of badass lady bush pilots in Talkeetna who fly skiers, climbers, flight-seers, or flight students around the vast, open expanse of Alaskan wilderness.
Even in the male-dominated world of aviation, female bush pilots are more ubiquitous in Alaska than you might think. Many grew up there with pilot fathers, while others were drawn to the wildness and sense of truth that comes with living a simple life in a rugged environment, where long, dark winters give way to summer bugs and rainstorms.
This kind of authentic living attracts the bona fide soul and the fact that inspiring women gravitate here should really be no surprise at all.
If you find your own soul drawn to this righteous haven, here are five pilots you might see around:
Holly Sheldon Lee
Hometown: Talkeetna, AK
By age 6, Holly’s father, legendary Alaskan bush pilot pioneer Don Sheldon, had her legs tied to the floor of his Super Cub with seatbelts. He’d open the side door and bank the plane for Holly to drop supply caches to off-grid cabins.
In high school, Holly washed airplanes and traded other labor for flight time, eventually earning an Aviation Technology degree, followed by her private pilot certificate, instrument rating, and then her commercial pilot certificate by 32. In 2010, she and her husband, David Lee (also a legendary Alaskan bush pilot), started Sheldon Air Service, the last family air service that serves climbers to the Alaska Range.
“Flying is the thing that keeps me most grounded,” she puns, “but I ended up running the business and continuing the Sheldon legacy that way.” As sort of the Talkeetna Fairy Godmother, Holly used to airdrop ice cream and lemon drops down to Denali climbers and still welcomes their return with warm cookies.
Hometown: Fairbanks, AK
Falley worked as a Denali guide for nine years and a heli ski guide in Valdez before she became pregnant with her first daughter, Skye. “I used to look at the planes from the Alaska Range and thought flying would be a nice day job when I didn’t feel like being a guide anymore,” she says.
Having secretly earned her pilot’s license at age 24 without telling her cargo jet pilot father, she got her commercial license when Skye was 3 months old. Now she flies glacier planes, including the Turbo Otter, a powerful 19-passenger workhorse that’s good for getting out of deep snow and up high quickly, even on short runways.
“Pilots up here can go ski powder after work and get back home to their warm bed and family and nice food,” she says. “Some people were lucky enough to be born into their own perfect paradise and I think I’m one of them.”
Hometown: Lakewood, CO
Doty can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a pilot. She was taking off and landing planes by age 11 and got her license the year she graduated high school in Colorado.
In 2001, she flew her own plane up to Talkeetna, camped next to the runway until she got a job, and never left. She can operate just about anything with an engine, including helicopters and a Baldwin 406 steam locomotive, and she can fix them all, too, as Talkeetna Air Taxi’s Chief Pilot and Head Mechanic.
“I often just think, ‘God, I can’t believe this is my life,'” says the mother of a 3-year-old. “Especially in spring. Sometimes we’ll run airplane shuttles with four pilots. Three of us will get dropped off on a small pocket glacier, ski down to the bottom, and a different pilot will run everyone else back up as we rotate runs with all pilots skiing together.”
Hometown: Nixa, Missouri
As a junior in Kansas State University’s Aviation program, Roman was on track to be an airline pilot until she learned of the Seaplane Pilots Association’s scholarship at an air show. She applied on the back of some scratch paper, got it, and chose to complete her training in Alaska.
“It woke me up to dreams I never knew I had,” she says. Within three years, she was the Chief Flight Instructor at a local operation in Talkeetna, teaching float and ski glacier landings. Not all of her students are keen on taking instruction from a young female.
“I may be soft-spoken, but if you think you can do something better than me because of your gender, I’m going to put you in your place,” she says. The military had no problem recruiting her to fly drones for the Department of Defense, a job that would pay over four times what she was making.
“I went down there to check it out and realized I just wasn’t ready to leave Alaska,” she says. “Now I know I’ll never be ready to leave.”
Hometown: Centerville, Texas; Talkeetna, AK
Apitsch grew up homesteading in Texas with a bunch of animals and a giant garden, but by the time her family moved to Talkeetna when she was 14, she was already gung-ho on learning to fly and fix airplanes.
By 16, she was flying. “When it occurred to me that normal people like myself could crawl into airplanes and go wherever they wanted, see things that are impossible to see otherwise and come back with a new experience every time, I knew this was it,” she says. “I took my first lesson and fell in love.”
She’s currently studying to become a certified aircraft mechanic at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and can’t wait to move back to Talkeetna. “It’s a very accepting town and the people want nothing more than to help and see you succeed,” she says. “It's my second family and the women definitely have a special bond.”
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