Alaska is a massive place with terrain that ranges from lush forests to rocky peaks to ice-covered deserts. There is a lifetime’s worth of sights to behold, but if you stick to the road system you’ll miss most of them. If you really want to see the state, you’ll have to take to the air.
One could book a spot on a flight-seeing tour in order to take in the sights, but if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer, why not put yourself in the pilot’s seat?
I met up with Land and Sea instructor Suzy Rebich on an exceptionally beautiful spring day for my first flying lesson. Rebich was nothing like the weathered bush pilot I was expecting. She was actually a young, and extremely knowledgeable, pilot who earned her license while still in high school.
Land and Sea Aviation offers flying lessons out of Anchorage’s Merrill Field, the city’s first airport, which was established in 1930.
For the lesson, we would be flying a new Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a single-prop beauty with four seats and a ton of switches.
Prior to takeoff, I was nervous about my first lesson. Because I was a mediocre seventh grade science student, I still think airplanes stay in the air by way of a combination of mechanics and magic.
Rebich walked me through the pre-flight checklist and the plane’s controls. With the checklist complete, we turned the ignition on and the Skyhawk rumbled to life. Rebich requested a runway from the Air Traffic Control tower, and a flood of squawks filled my headset, which apparently meant we had a green light.
Minutes later we were ascending and the city below us looked populated by model cars and buildings.
For the first few moments, the most difficult part of the experience was paying attention to the plane and not the incredible views of Cook Inlet and its surrounding mountains.
“It's a lesson, but you also get to see some of Alaska and learn how to fly in the process,” Rebich said. “It's easy to get distracted looking at the mountains.”
Shortly after takeoff, Rebich turned the plane over to me and I grabbed the control yoke with a white-knuckle grip figuring the harder I held on to the controls the less chance we would have to fall out of the sky.
At first, I was very hesitant with the planes controls. I felt like the slightest pull back or push forward sent us climbing towards the clouds or barreling down at the Earth below, but after my first 360 degree turn I was feeling like a Top Gun pilot ready to take on some passing fighter jets from the nearby Air Force base.
Rebich quickly denied my request to buzz the Merrill Field tower.
Getting a pilot’s license may seem like an overwhelming task, but according to Rebich, it can be done over a few months by just taking a few lessons a week.
If you’re not sure if you’re ready to take the controls yourself, Land and Sea offers half-hour discovery flights, which give prospective pilots a taste of Alaska aviation.
While there is no rule against taking the half-hour flight with no intention of continuing to get your license, I have to warn you, after flying out over Anchorage on a clear day and getting an eagle’s view of Mt. McKinley, you might be hooked.
After a few more maneuvers, I gave the controls back to Rebich and she made a smooth landing, while I played “Highway to the Danger Zone,” over and over again in my head.
Special thanks to www.letsgoflying.com.