Learning to fly airplanes was the best way Ray Atkins knew to get to Alaska so he could go hunting and fishing. That was 50 years ago.
The Federal Aviation Administration just awarded Atkins the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. This award recognizes pilots who have followed and continue to follow safe flight operations. Most of all, it recognizes pilots who have contributed and maintained safe flight operations for 50 or more consecutive years of piloting aircraft.
Atkins lives in Cantwell, about 150 miles south of Fairbanks. He operates Atkins Guiding and Flying Service there. Why Cantwell? He got stuck there in a snowstorm all those years ago and he liked the people. So he stayed. Besides, he couldn’t think of a better place to live. Where else could he settle down just north of the biggest mountain in North America, and see it every day?
His clients come to Cantwell from all around the world to hunt, fish or enjoy scenic flights. He has many repeat customers and most of his business comes through word of mouth.
For more than 20 years, he has flown supplies for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Over the years, he has also towed and released gliders. He has flown parachuters to altitudes at which they can jump out of the airplane. He has also provided scenic flights for photographers, including some from National Geographic.
He holds Master Guide license No. 70 and his wife, Diane, holds the oldest assistant guide license in the state.
Atkins flew to Cantwell for the first time in March 1970 and spent the summer and fall guiding for Susitna Lodge on the Denali Highway. He remembers a huge windstorm, with recorded wind speeds of 175 mph, hit that October. It ripped the wings off his N1552P, a PA-18, took out the windows of the lodge and moved a 12-by-20-foot log building off its base.
In 1971, he purchased another PA-18, N3952Z. While picking up the airplane in Washington, he met his future wife, Diane. He then passed the check ride for his commercial pilot’s license at Hood River, Oregon, and headed back to Alaska the very next day. Once again, he worked at Susitna Lodge, flying hunters, fishermen, miners and supplies. He also recalls flying a Japanese film crew. The only English the cameraman knew to say was “closer, closer.”
In 1976, Alaska laws changed and guides were required to obtain an air taxi license. So Atkins launched Atkins Guiding and Flying Service in Cantwell.
“Obtaining an air taxi certificate then was different than now,” said Lisa Asplin of the FAA, who presented the award at a gathering of pilots in the Denali Park area last month. “It was under the Transportation Department and all 135 certificates were approved, or denied, by public record.”
The first hearing did not go well.
“By the time they were finished with me, I felt like I should have been taken out of the hearing in handcuffs for having the audacity to want an air taxi license,” Atkins said.
The next year, he hired his own attorney, the hearing was moved to Cantwell and he was issued an air carrier certificate. The certificate is still valid today.
Of course, he has some bear stories to share.
One time, he and a hunter were out looking for caribou and the hunter asked whether there were black bear in the area. The hunter then pointed to Atkins’ airplane on the lake and asked whether that was a black bear. They both watched the bear walk out onto the airplane float, enter the open door of the airplane and daintily remove their sack lunches.
On another trip, he and a hunter were packing out sheep and he didn’t have his rifle handy. During a rest stop, he asked the hunter whether he had ever seen a hoary marmot. The hunter pointed behind Atkins. Atkins pointed behind the hunter. The hunter pointed again, stuttered and handed Atkins his rifle.
Atkins decided he should turn around take a look. A grizzly bear was running full speed toward them, teeth bared. He had time to raise the rifle and pull the trigger.
Fifty years of flying has created 50 years of stories. Ray Atkins wrote this in his logbook in 1968-69 and it is still true today.
“A beautiful way of life, many new friends and places. Hope for a new and better future in the New Year.”
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.