Flying Lessons

Alaska Bush Pilot Ken Richardson Talks About Life In The Air

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska
Nov 7 · 7 min read

Ken Richardson is a pilot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Cold Bay, Alaska. He began flying for the Service in 2004, after decades of experience flying small planes throughout the state.

Ken Richardson in a Cessna 185.

When Ken Richardson flew his first plane in 1965, lessons started at $5 an hour. He was a private E2 in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts and was paid a grand total of $38 per month.

“I got this wild idea,“ he remembers, on his way to join the local airport flying club, “this is what I’m going to do…”

Remembering his wild ideas.

“I don’t want to fly single engine,” Richardson thought, “I want to fly one of those twins. So they had a twin Beech [plane], that took just about a whole month’s paycheck, it was $25 an hour with an instructor. And I only got one hour in that because I ran out of money real quick.”

Richardson had joined the Army with the hope of becoming a helicopter pilot, but deployment to Vietnam put those plans on hold. When he was later accepted into a helicopter training program, he knew he was headed back for a second tour and chose to decline the offer. It wasn’t until after he was out of the Army that he returned to his wild idea of flying, using the GI Bill to gain his commercial pilot’s license in 1969.

He returned to his home state of Texas hoping to become a law enforcement pilot but couldn’t find any open positions, and so flew corporate planes instead. By early 1980, dreams of flying for the Alaska State Troopers drew him north and into a new world where the roads were few and climbing into an airplane meant freedom in an immense landscape.

Richardson’s hand curls around the propeller of the Cessna 185.

“I Love the Challenge”

We stand beside a small white plane with orange and black stripes down the side. Richardson’s gnarled hands curl around the propeller as he talks about the numbers and letters painted near the tail. This is November 735 Hotel Bravo (N735HB), and it is the last Cessna 185 “Skywagon” plane ever built. He has flown this plane at both of the Alaska Refuges he has worked for, over the wide tundra north of the Yukon River and between the still-smoking volcanoes and long coast of the Alaska Peninsula.

Opening the door and standing outside of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hangar in Cold Bay, Alaska.

Richardson walks over to open the hangar door and begins to push the little plane out on to the tarmac. It’s a windy fall day and the mountains of Izembek Refuge disappear into a ceiling of silver clouds. After decades of flying all over Alaska for hunting and fishing lodges and air taxi services, he has been happy to call the tiny town of Cold Bay home.

Pushing the plane out of the hangar onto the tarmac.

He serves now as the most senior pilot in a cadre of women and men who help manage some of America’s most remote and iconic public lands and resources from the air. His missions range from law enforcement to biological surveys of brown bear, tundra swans, and caribou. One day he might fly reconnaissance trips over remote beaches to patrol vulnerable wildlife habitat, and the next he’ll take his plane up into a river valley, helping biologists track the health of the Refuge’s infamously large brown bears.

“I love it out here. The weather will try its darnedest to throw a wrench into the gear sometimes. But you know, I love the challenge. And I mean, it’s a challenge every day that you go out.”

A fall rainstorm sweeps over the foothills of Izembek Refuge.

For Richardson, every flight is a puzzle to be solved. If it isn’t tricky weather or new terrain, it’s mental preparation for the unexpected. He ticks through a well-worn checklist: if my engine quit right now, where would I land? If I land on that beach, do I have a shovel in case I get stuck? What else do I need? Do I have a big sheet of plastic? Survival gear? He gives a rueful laugh remembering,

“I’ve had these engines quit in these airplanes. And if you’re not prepared for it, it’s quite the eye-opener. Because when that engine quits making noise? My goodness, does it get quiet in the airplane.”

Richardson’s hand curves with years of habit around yoke of the plane.

The vast expanse and mercurial weather of the Alaskan landscape can be an ultimate test for preparedness and the ability to make decisions, some that carry the weight of life or death. Richardson thrives on this requirement as a pilot:

“When you fly in Alaska, and get away from the big cities, all the decision making in that flight is on the pilot’s shoulder, there’s nobody else there that’s going to hold your hand and get you through it.”

Some views from Richardson’s “office”: the world-famous Izembek Lagoon is an immense eelgrass bed on the northern coast of the Alaska Peninsula. It sits between the town of Cold Bay and the Bering Sea. Photo Left: Lisa Hupp/USFWS; Photo Right: Kristine Sowl/USFWS.

The Ultimate

“Every day you get to fly is like a little bit of sunshine. And one of these days I’m gonna have to pull the mixture for the last time, chock the wheels, and walk away from it.”

Richardson reflects on a career that began and ended with service to his country.

As he reflects on a lifetime career as a pilot, Richardson feels proud to have spent his final chapter as a refuge pilot, again in service to his country.

“I’ve enjoyed it, and I’m glad I get to work for the people of the United States of America.

You know, to me, that’s the ultimate.”

Richardson and plane on the tarmac at Cold Bay, Alaska

Flying Lessons: In His Own Words

Ken Richardson shares some wisdom from 40 years of flying in Alaska:

Always have a Plan B
This was taught to me early in my career: always, always have an alternate plan. I don’t care how good the weather is, have an alternate, because someday you’re going to need it. You know, I had an old timer convince me of that. He owned a fishing lodge on the Kvichak River. And he told me, he said, “Kenny, I don’t care if I tell you to take one of my airplanes in to [the village of] King Salmon, which was 25 miles away.”

He said, “You better know what you’re going to do if you can’t get there, and can’t get back here.” And I mean, he was constantly quizzing me on that. And, you know, there’s been several nights I’ve had to spend on the beach, because I couldn’t get in here. But I had my tie down. And I had my ropes. And although it was a little uncomfortable, you know, everything’s fine. I’ve got survival equipment. I’ve got tents, I’ve got plastic, I’ve got sleeping bags in the airplane for me and whoever’s in there with me.

Float Planes are Forgiving
Float planes are more forgiving than anything else, because you can land the floats on concrete if you had to. Out in bush Alaska, there’s plenty of muskeg, swamp, water, lakes, rivers, sandbars, whatever. You run out of options quicker if you’re in a wheel plane. And so if you’re going to have an engine failure, you’re better off to have it in a in a float plane.

Bend some Ears, Buy some Beers
A lot of times your decision-making ability arises from experience. And sometimes experience is a cruel teacher. The best thing a pilot can do if they’ve never been somewhere: when you arrive, go talk to the pilots that are there. Go talk to those people and bend their ears. You may have to buy them a beer, two beers to get the information, but do it. Because they’re an almanac of knowledge for that area, and can be a tremendous help to you. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be a pilot, you know, somebody that’s lived there for 25 years can tell you about the weather, what you can expect.

Photos and story by Lisa Hupp, Outreach Specialist.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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