Alaskan Bush Pilots – flying with the Talkeetna Air Taxi Avaunt travels to Alaska to fly with Talkeetna-based pilot Leighan Falley

Talkeetna, situated some 115 miles north of Anchorage on the southern edge of the Denali National Park, is home to Talkeetna Air Taxi. The firm was established in the early days of Alaskan aviation in 1947 and now runs 10 bush aircraft, including ski-equipped de Havilland Otters and Beavers. Drawn by the air taxi’s stories of everyday aeronautical adventure, Avaunt travelled to Alaska to fly with Talkeetna-based pilot Leighan Falley. 

This is an excerpt from the cover story of the latest issue of AvauntBuy a limited edition Giclée print of Frédéric Lagrange’s cover here.

The rugged landscape south of Talkeetna
The rugged landscape south of Talkeetna, as seen from Falley’s de Havilland Beaver.

Our little family rises shortly after 6am and the race begins to get everyone out of the house on time. Both my husband, who is a National Park mountaineering ranger, and I have to be at work by 7:45am. After shuttling our four-year-old to day care, we part ways to attend our respective morning meetings. His is with all the Ranger station staff who are responsible for the management of the southern district of Denali National Park, a staggering 2.3 million acres. The only access to it is via aircraft, mostly out of Talkeetna.

Leighan Falley on her plane at Talkeetna Airport
Falley on her plane, Talkeetna Airport. Jacket by Parajumpers.

My pilot meeting begins promptly at 7:45am and lasts for 15 minutes before we race off to pre- pare – or ‘pre-flight’ – our aircraft in time for the usual 8:30am departure. We discuss glacier landing area conditions, aircraft maintenance concerns, the expected weather for the day and mountain-flying operations. This is also a forum for any issues arising from the previous day (such as an aeroplane getting stuck in the snow). After the meeting adjourns, we methodically inspect our assigned aircraft. Usually each pilot is given a specific aeroplane for the duration of his or her working week, making this process a little easier.

Leighan Falley flying above a glacier.
Falley flying above a glacier.

We generally fly three to five flights a day. In the months of April, May and June, the majority of these will be to transport mountaineers to and from locations in the Alaska Range. At this time of year, there is still a lot of snow on the glaciers and we will land in a wide variety of areas, and our de Havilland Beavers can transport four climbers and their equipment. During July, August and September, we switch to scenic flight mode. The Alaska Range is a stunning place and we cater to visitors from around the world. I have had a number of passengers burst into tears at seeing these unique mountains and glaciers at first hand for the first time.

Leighan Falley shovelling snow from underneath her aircraft.
Falley shovelling snow from underneath her aircraft. It had snowed heavily the previous night and day, adding an extra four feet of fresh powder, making it difficult for the smaller Beaver plane to take off. Falley had warned us there was a 30 per cent chance we might not be able to fly; however, thanks to the shovelling, all went well. Denali base camp, Alaska Range. Polar Equipment jacket by Parajumpers.

When the weather is good, the days can be long, with the last flight landing as late as 9pm, and by the time we taxi in, both the aeroplane and I are spent. I fuel the plane and make her ready for the next morning and enjoy a return to quiet after a day of thundering across the landscape. If I ever find the routine tedious, sometimes I will jump in our own little plane and go for a quick flight before going home to my husband and daughter.

Leighan Falley pilots her ski-equipped de Havilland Beaver above a glacier
Falley pilots her ski-equipped de Havilland Beaver above a glacier in the Alaska Range.

Usually though, I return quickly from work to my peaceful little house in the forest. We spend the evening gardening, catching up on each other’s lives, cooking food, planning the weekend’s (aeroplane-based) adventure and enjoying our idyllic Alaskan existence. It is a blessing to both have such engaging professions and yet be able raise our daughter in the quaint Alaskan community of Talkeetna.

This is an excerpt from a 20-page feature in issue 4 of Avaunt, on newsstands now. Subscribe to Avaunt here.

Words: Ben Saunders

Photography: Frédéric Lagrange

email hidden; JavaScript is required