Great Alaska Aviation Gathering Aims to Attract Future Pilots for Alaska
May 5, 2013
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    Elizabeth Willis and Heidi Russell bounded up the steps of the mammoth UPS cargo plane and peeked inside.

    They explored the cavernous interior of the Boeing 767, which a representative of the company said was big enough to carry three or four average American households full of stuff.

    Willis, from Stony River, and Russell, from Aniak, are aspiring pilots themselves.

    The girls, both 15, just completed the Kuskokwim Sky Riders Ground School through a program offered by the Kuspuk School District.

    Having not yet actually flown even a small plane they agreed piloting a cargo jet seemed daunting.

    “It would be so awesome, though,” said Russell.

    The girls were spending part of Sunday at the Great Alaska Aviation Gathering at the FedEx hangar in Anchorage.

    Outside, on a tarmac with a view of the Chugach Mountains, visitors toured big and small airplanes.

    Inside, hundreds of vendors hawked everything from seaplane floats to insurance to an audience mostly much older than Willis and Russell.

    Organizers say 21,000 people attend the two-day event, put on by the Alaska Airmen’s Association.

    Alaska needs more young pilots, said Rex Gray, the president of the Airmen’s Association.

    Enrollment at flight schools is down, he said.

    “Old guys like me are going away,” he said. “And it’s the next generation of pilots that will deliver the goods to Bethel or Tyonek.”

    Willis and Russell say they’d like to do just that.

    The girls were in Anchorage to take the Federal Aviation Administration written test, where they’d be quizzed on aerodynamics, weather, navigation and FAA regulations.

    After an intensive three weeks of ground school instruction in Aniak, they said they felt ready but nervous.

    “Four weeks ago if someone asked me what an E6B is I would have had no idea,” Willis said.

    (An E6B is a circular slide rule used in aviation.)

    While in Anchorage they’d also get a chance to take a training flight out of Merrill Field.

    “The next step is flight school,” said Willis.

    Both said they were interested in becoming professional pilots in their roadless region.

    Willis hoped to fly for law enforcement.

    Getting more young people to take up flying is essential to the state, said Chris Phillips, the treasurer of the Airmen’s Association and a longtime pilot.

    “The state can’t be without it,” he said. “And it’s one of the most fun things you can do in Alaska.”