I pause in my outside chores and cock my ear—a faint, whirring roar from downriver. Across the village of Ambler, folks are doing the same; or maybe they heard the announcement on their always-on VHF radios. I know that a procession of ATVs is headed toward the airport, a mile-plus north of town. In this Inupiaq community of 300, meeting the mail plane is ingrained in the rhythm of daily life—as it is for more than a hundred small settlements and towns across the unimaginable sweep of off-grid Alaska. In a land beyond roads, an invisible network of highways stretches through the air, providing connection between villages and the world beyond. 

For Ambler, two daily scheduled flights carry passengers, mail, and freight from the regional hub of Kotzebue, 120 miles to the west; and twice a week, Dave Rue’s one-man flying service, Ambler Air, provides a twice-weekly connection between the upper Kobuk villages and Fairbanks, 350 miles to the southeast. Special charters, from two-seat Supercubs to much larger planes, topped out by C-130 Hercules capable of carrying up to 20 tons of larger cargo, fly in every couple of weeks at least; and privately owned planes come and go. If that seems like a lot of air traffic for such a small community, keep in mind that except for the river in open water season and snowmobiles in winter, planes are the only regular option for moving people and what they need to live. Ambler, far up the winding, sandbar-riddled Kobuk River, is visited by only a couple of freight barges in the brief arctic summer when the water levels allow.

Ambler, and all the remote villages like it, are able to exist as they do solely because of, in the words of that iconic ‘70s TV show Fantasy Island, “The plane! The plane!” In fact, Anaktuvuk Pass, 250-some miles northeast of Ambler, was originally settled due to an entrepreneurial pilot offering people regular delivery of trade goods and mail if the nomadic hunter-gatherers in the area stuck around. 

What it’s Like Flying in the Bush

Small interior of an aircraft with only eight seats
Inside the cabin of a Cessna 208 Caravan on final approach. Photo by Nick Jans.

Flights to bush villages in our region are a far cry from the sort of air travel familiar to most folks from Outside. At the Bering Air terminal in Kotzebue, there’s a decidedly informal atmosphere, and no security screening. On the village end, the runways are gravel, overlain by packed snow half the year, and forget about a building. People just drive up to the plane; bystanders often pitch in and help the pilot and local airline agent unload and load, and passengers gather their bags and grab ATV or snowmobile rides down the hill to town, sometimes at temps far below zero. The planes, all prop-driven single or twin-engine craft, typically seat between five and a dozen in open-cabin configuration; often a passenger will take the co-pilot’s chair, and there’s a load of freight strapped in behind the seats—mail bags, boxes, luggage, plastic totes containing seal oil, meat, or fish sent between family and friends. Flight attendants, inflight snacks, or an onboard loo? Never mind.  


As ingrained and essential as air service is to village life, it didn’t exist within the lifetimes of the elders I knew when I first arrived in the Kobuk country. I recall old Mark Cleveland describing the sighting of the very first aircraft seen in the upper Kobuk in the 1930s, a biplane that landed at Kobuk village, astounding everyone. That occasion marked the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the late nineteenth century by the Inupiaq visionary holy man, Maniilaq, who predicted that one day strangers would arrive and bring sweeping changes. Life would be much easier, and people would ride chairs through the sky. A great city rising at Iviisaapaat: the site of present-day Ambler, founded in 1958. Astounding as that foresight might have been, Maniilaq was an actual person, traced by many Ambler people as a relative. 

If all that seems a distant time, I remind myself that I’ve witnessed more than half of Ambler’s history, and nearly half of the history of aviation in northwest arctic Alaska. And surely, I’ve seen plenty of changes. I recall times with no modern navigational aids such as GPS, and much shorter, narrower runways. I remember pilots in fog or snow turning to ask passengers if they recognized any landmarks below, and locals guiding them in. Instead of modern lights, round metal kerosene-fueled flare pots, or even snowmachine headlights, illuminated the runway.

In those days, there were a number of flying services in Kotzebue: Munz, Wein Air, Cape Smythe, Shellabarger’s, Baker Aviation. All of them gone now; sold out and absorbed by larger companies, or, in the case of Munz, literally crashed out of existence. Deadly crashes were more common in those days; in fact, the first two bush pilots I met in Alaska in 1979 both died flying, and in those first few years, I ran out of fingers to count the dead I knew, some of them friends and neighbors.  


As of now, the northwest arctic region is down to one larger Kotzebue-based carrier, Bering Air. Making a go of flying in brutal arctic conditions, literally or figuratively, has always been tenuous. But without doubt, bush Alaska communities can’t exist without air service. I’m certain of one thing: as long as there’s an Ambler, people will cock their ears for that whirring roar, eddying on the wind.


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