‘This missing piece of the pie’: Aviation program that trains rural pilots finds a home in Anchorage

two women cut a red ribbon in front of a blue building
A ribbon cutting ceremony marks the opening of a new hangar for a program that prepares rural Alaska students for careers in aviation. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

A program that aims to train rural pilots to serve Alaska’s bush communities opened a new facility in Anchorage in October. The new hangar is now the central spot for students interested in pursuing a career in aviation.

CKT Aviation owner and Certified Flight Instructor Jamie Klaes told a crowd of nearly 60 people that there are holes to fill when it comes to aviation in rural Alaska.

“There’s a lack of service there due to pilot shortages, due to mechanic shortages,” she said.

CKT Aviation contracts with Alaska EXCEL to provide pilot training to students from communities off the road system. Beyond aviation, the organization also offers education for high school students from rural school districts in a variety of other fields ranging from first responders to heavy equipment operators.

Lori Evan graduated from high school in Upper Kalskag last year. She first started taking classes in Alaska EXCEL’s aviation program when she was in 7th grade.

“Aviation was one of my favorites,” she said of the classes she’s taken with the Alaska EXCEL program. “I actually flew a plane all by myself, and that inspired me to come and do more and get more into aviation. It was my goal for years.”

According to the Pilot Institute, only 8% of commercial pilots in the U.S. in 2021 were women. That number is even lower among Alaska Native women. Evan said that her goal is to one day fly commercially in and out of the Kuskokwim River village where she grew up.

“It’s gonna be really amazing,” she said. “Everybody is going to be so proud of me, especially my family. I’d love to achieve that goal to get home and show my mom what I have achieved.”

Lee Ryan is the president of Ryan Air, an Alaska-based airline that serves most of Western Alaska. He grew up in Unalakleet. He recently hired one commercial pilot out of the Alaska EXCEL program and he’s got his eye on the progress of at least one other.

“They understand the importance of safety, the importance of one foot in front of the other, the importance of navigation, situational awareness, the culture,” said Ryan. “They just — they get it right, so it makes it so easy to serve the people you’re trying to serve. So it’s like the missing piece of the pie. It’s what we need.”

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