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Flightseeing options in Alaska: Alaskans show off the 49th State: an Alpine Air helicopter set down on Colony Glacier during a glacier tour.

There is too much to see on any single trip to Alaska; Alaskans know that there's too much of Alaska to really take in over a lifetime. But that doesn't stop a thriving tourism industry from doing its absolute best to show everyone--local or guest--how stunning Alaska can be. One unique way to see the state is by flying over it, and Alaska's long history with aviation means the collected experience of our small fixed wing and helicopter pilots is an amazing resource for stunning, safe, and informed flightseeing tours. Flightseeing tours range from half an hour to several hours, all depending on destinations and associated activities. There are many options for flightseeing in Alaska this summer; here are a few.

Alpine Air

Alpine Air Alaska (, owned by Keith and Deb Essex, has been providing tours in Alaska since 1991. It currently operates seven helicopters and Kim Van Sickle, Alpine Air Alaska's office manager at their Girdwood base of operations, says they're ideal for flightseeing: they can fly lower than other aircraft, can fly slower, can hover, and are able to land almost anywhere including on mountain tops and on glaciers.

Alpine Air Alaska offers flightseeing options throughout the year, though their winter staff of about fifteen fulltime employees increases to twenty-five in the summer to accommodate the tourism season, with eight of those employees being pilots. In terms of flightseeing areas, "we are statewide," Van Sickle says, "and the bulk of our flying is in the Chugach Mountains surrounding Prince William Sound."

"We customize each tour to the client's goals, whether it would be seeing wildlife versus walking on glaciers, etc." Their Girdwood location is a benefit. Van Sickle says that within about thirty seconds of the tour's start, the glacier viewing begins. "We are surrounded by the third most glaciated mountain range in the world," she says. "The scenery is so breathtaking that many times the clients are speechless--and the wildlife doesn't hurt."

One of the great options that Alpine Air Alaska provides is on-glacier dog-sledding in partnership with IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours, though it's only available in the summer season. Guests are flown to the Punch Bowl Glacier: "Punch Bowl is a giant snowfield consisting of sixty feet of snow on top of a few hundred feet of ice," according to Deb Essex. Once there, guests learn about sled dog culture and have an opportunity to take a ride.

Alpine Air Alaska also partners with Ascending Path to provide helicopter rides to glacier hiking and ice climbing; with Chugach Adventures for raffing; and with Winterlake Lodge and Deep Creek Lodge for heli-fishing and sightseeing. "Other great flights I have witnessed have been surprise proposals; Father's Day flights with lawn chairs and a few Alaskan Ambers; flying to a remote site to scatter ashes; [and] remote mountain-top weddings," she says.

"We live in a superlative rich environment," Van Sickle says. "Our goal is to match Alaska's grandeur with over-the-top customer service."

Ellison Air

John Ellison and his wife own Ellison Air (, which Ellison founded with his father twenty-three years ago after working for others in the industry for a short time. "We realized that we had a gift and we enjoyed interacting with people, so we decided that we wanted to do our own thing because you learn stuff from other people, but nobody does it exactly like you would if you had the choice."

Ellison currently has one fixed-wing aircraft which can seat up to six, including the pilot. Ellison does most of the flying while his wife runs the office. Ellison Air only operates during the summer months, so seasonally he hires a second pilot as well as a dockhand that helps with grounds maintenance, refueling, and basic upkeep at the business based at Lake Hood in Anchorage.

Ellison's plane has three rows of two, meaning every passenger has a window seat, optimizing viewing opportunities. The plane is equipped with a headset system, so the pilot can narrate and interact with the guests easily.

Ellison Air has several glacier and wildlife viewing tours and a set of unique tours giving aerial views of Anchorage, Cook Inlet, and the Susitna Valley; the Susitna River tour flies along the Susitna River and over some of the homesteads, fish camps, and a section of the Iditarod Trail, all in the shadow of Mount Susitna, known locally as "Sleeping Lady;" the Chugach State Park II tour takes guests into the Chugach Mountains to view Knik and Colony glaciers; a bear viewing tour consisting of the opportunity to observe bears from the safety and convenience of a small boat; and the Mount McKinley tour over Denali National Park includes landing on a remote lake for up-close photo opportunities.

"Sometimes I'll do a special trip if the conditions are favorable for it. For example, if the berries are good there will be bears in certain spots feeding on them and I'll incorporate that into a special trip," Ellison says.

While the sights certainly make the trip, Ellison's knowledge and experience and his joy in sharing both certainly adds another level to any tour. "In Alaska we take float planes for granted, but for most people the main attraction is taking off from and landing on water, and the whole experience is unique and exciting. I love delivering more than they expect, rather than less."

VS Helicopters

VS Helicopters ( was founded in 2010 and is owned by Leigh Coats, Mike Williams, and Douglas Foulton and operates out of Valdez. The company has three helicopters.

Coats is the chief pilot at the company; she both takes guests up on flights and does all the hiring and training of additional pilots. "I train each pilot to give the best tour possible and our customer service is really a top, top priority," she says. "Obviously safety is our number one, but our customer service is what were really proud of." In addition to the owners, VS Helicopters has three additional employees, two pilots, and a mechanic.

VS Helicopters offers tours year-round, primarily in the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound area, "but we do custom tours in the Wrangell/St. Elias area, Cordova, etc." Coats says. A few of their set tours include the Valdez/Shoup Glacier tour; 5 the Glacier Landing tour, which includes viewing multiple glaciers and an opportunity to land on the glacier to explore; and the Columbia Glacier tour.

"Our main attraction is the Columbia Glacier, which is in a catastrophic receding phase ... it's retreating so fast that there's hundreds of thousands of tons of ice falling into the ocean every day," Coats says. "At Columbia Glacier we actually land on a beach with a front row seat to watch the face of it ... it's one thing to fly over the glacier and see it calving, but to be on the ground in the serene silence and listen to this thunder of the calving is the most magical experience ever."

Additionally, VS Helicopters offers the Everything and the Kitchen Sink tour. "Last year I had a couple that went out with me one day, and they loved it so much they came back the next day and wanted to do it again. And they came back again the next day and wanted to do it again. And then came back again," she laughs. "On that particular trip we went exploring and found an ice cave. We actually went inside this cave and it was massive. We explored for an hour in this ice cave and when we came out there was a herd of goats on the hill; because we'd been there and everything was quiet, the goats felt very comfortable, and we got some fantastic animal viewing at the same time."

Coats says that one of the benefits of touring with them is that they customize: "Everything is personalized; the pilot has no set route, so he/she talks to the passengers to find out their interests," 'and will adjust the tour to view different glaciers or even historic mines.

Tanalian Aviation

Tanalian Aviation (tanalianaviation. net), which is headquartered in Anchorage, is owned by Joel Natwick, originally from Port Alsworth, near which is Tanalian Mountain and River (Tanalian is the Dena'ina word for "where rough water meets the calm"). According to Jarius Duncan, Tanalian's lead pilot, the company has been operating for twenty-two years, but started offering helicopter flightseeing services five years ago.

Tanalian operates flightseeing year round with about twelve employees in the summer and six in the winter and shoulder months. For flightseeing they use five helicopters, which Natwick thinks are perfectly suited for the job. "The visibility is unbelievable in the helicopters ... and they're fun. It's like the best ride at the state fair."

"Clients can choose our standard tours or we can put something together just for them, lasting fifteen minutes to five days," Duncan says. A few of their standard tours, which are offered year round, include the Mountains & Missiles tour, which travels over abandoned missile silos; the Eagle Glacier tour, which travels east from Merrill Field over the Chugach Mountains to Eagle Glacier; and their most popular package, the Knik Glacier Landing which includes flying over Eklutna Lake, Whiteout Glacier, Colony Glacier, Lake George, and Knik Glacier, including a glacier landing.

One of their unique tours is actually over Anchorage. In the summer it's the Anchorage City tour, but in the winter it's called the City of Lights. "Anchorage is beautiful and lit up in the wintertime," Natwick says. "It's brief and economical. People do it to kick off a fun night out on Friday. It costs less than going out to an expensive meal for four people." Duncan says that this year on Valentine's Day alone they went up for nineteen City of Lights tours.

The advantage of their quick tours, and being headquartered in Anchorage, is that people don't have to make a day out of a tour; it can be just one part of an amazing day. "People can get up, have breakfast at their hotel, and we can have them on a glacier by 10:30 in the morning and back in time for lunch, right from downtown Anchorage," he says. Their custom tours can also include gold panning, fishing, bear viewing, photography, or "whatever the client has in mind," Duncan says.

Natwick and Duncan are both enthusiastic about providing every guest the best experience possible. "Everybody at Tanalian loves what they're doing," Natwick says. "The employees are fantastic; they're just happy people. It's good service at a fair price."

One of the services Tanalian is happy to provide is transporting brides and grooms to their glacier-top weddings. "In three of the four weddings [scheduled for] this year, I'm actually the officiator," Duncan says. "One couple called and said, 'We're getting married in Alaska on a glacier, and we don't know a soul in the state. What can we do?" Well, go fill out the paperwork; I'll marry you," Duncan laughs.

Rust's Flying Service

Through its iconic jingle, Alaskans are familiar with Rust's Flying Service (flyrusts. com). Founded in 1963 by Hank Rust, it is still operated by the Rust family today and is located in Anchorage. Rust's exclusively flies fixed-wing aircraft, of which they have eleven with various capacities ranging from three to ten people. One of the aircraft is a ski plane and the rest are float planes, meaning most of their flights take off and land on the water.

"There are over 3 million lakes in Alaska," says Rust's Director of Sales and Marketing Cole Ouellette. "We get to some really incredible remote locations that other people can't reach." A great benefit to Rust's fleet of aircraft is being able to transport larger groups. "We can take as little as three people if you have a family that wants to do a private charter, but we can also take a group up to ten, and because we have so many aircraft we can take up to thirty people to one location in a series of planes," Ouellette says.

Rust's does both set and customized tours, ranging from Katmai National Park to Lake Clark National Park, Redoubt Bay, Prince William Sound, Denali National Park, Knik Glacier, and the Anchorage area. The majority of Rust's tours include landing on a remote lake or waterway, and many have options for ground activities such as hiking, kayaking, and wildlife and glacier viewing.

Ouellette says they have a brand new, all-day photo safari tour. "We have a photographer pilot who's been featured in national publications, Mark Stadsklev. He'll take you to remote lakes and waterways to photograph mostly scenery ... There's a briefing involved, and it's for amateurs and professionals. We go for the entire day, have lunch, and visit a couple different locations."

Rust's does operate all year, though not all of their tours are available at all times. The floatplanes can be fitted with skis for winter takeoff. "Winter flightseeing is pretty incredible as well, it's a whole different ballgame," she says.

Rust's is iconic in Alaska for more than just it's jingle: "Our equipment makes us stand out. Our planes are absolutely beautiful," Ouellette says, mentioning that Rust's aircraft were part of a recent Verizon commercial.

Era Helicopters

Era Flightseeing ( is just one division of Era, which has a long history of operating in Alaska. An Alaska-grown company, it has now reached international levels of operation, becoming publicly traded in 2013, according to Mandy Nelson, Era Helicopter's flightseeing manager, who has been with the company since 2009. "I'm lucky that I get to manage the most fun division," Nelson laughs.

Era Flightseeing provides tours during the summer months. Flightseeing is headquartered in Anchorage, but offers tour operations in Juneau (seven helicopters), Denali National Park (three helicopters), and, starting this year, Anchorage (one helicopter).

Nelson, who is herself a fixed-wing aircraft pilot, says, "Helicopters are the best for flightseeing: you have 180 degree views, visibility isn't blocked by wings or props ... It's a very different sensation [than a small plane]. It tends to be a smoother flight; it's more like a floating sensation. It's a magic carpet ride through the mountains."

Nelson says that in Denali National Park, where access is restricted for most vehicles and aircraft, they have a few tours that are just flightseeing. However, most of the tours they offer "incorporate some sort of on-ground activity." One of their unique tours is a heli-hiking experience with a naturalist guide. "We take guests out to the backcountry above the tree line, we drop them off in a different location every day. There are no trails and no set distance they have to cover, the guide just gives us a call on the radio when they're done and the helicopter picks them up."

Era Flightseeing has glacier landing tours out of all three of their locations.

"Our biggest draw is definitely Dog Sledding Adventures down in Juneau. We partner with Alaska Heli-Mush and Linwood Fiedler, who is an eighteen time Iditarod veteran; he is serious about dog mushing," Nelson says. "You get the entire flightseeing experience, and then you get this entirely different experience culturally up on the ice-- mushing and meeting and interacting with the dogs."

In addition, Nelson says Era Flightseeing is currently the only company in Juneau that flies to the Taku Glacier, the largest and only advancing glacier on the Juneau ice field, and adds, "We really try to focus on taking people to a remote, exclusive experience."

Tasha Anderson is an Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.
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Comment:Flightseeing options in Alaska: Alaskans show off the 49th State: an Alpine Air helicopter set down on Colony Glacier during a glacier tour.(VISITOR INDUSTRY)
Author:Anderson, Tasha
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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