Over the past few years, ‘The Rotor Break’ has published content from so many accomplished Helicopter Professionals, including award winning Paramedics, Crew Chiefs and Pilots. The blog post below is another amazing example of the depth of professionalism throughout our industry. Jessica Meiris is not just a Pilot and Public Speaker but in 2014 she became the first woman in history to rope-solo El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, Ca.
Thankfully, despite her busy flying schedule, Jessica was willing to share her experience and knowledge as a Helicopter Tour Pilot In Alaska. Check it all out below.
The Rotor Break
Alaska is a land of immeasurable scale. No matter where you go, Denali National Park, Southeast Alaska, the Aleutians, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska has the ability to dwarf the redwoods of California, skyscrapers of New York, and towering peaks of Colorado.
Approximately 300 days of rain per year is typical in the temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska, which also boasts the largest National Forest in the nation. Encompassing nearly 17 million acres of land (about twice the size of the state of Maryland), the majority of the Tongass National Forest is allocated as either wilderness, national monuments, or other designations that do not allow development, making it feel even more vast. Near the shoreline, the dramatic landscape seemingly pours downward directly from the sky, splashing into the ocean several thousand vertical feet later. There’s no better way to see its beauty than from a helicopter!
As you can probably imagine, 300 rainy days can create challenging flying conditions, and it’s no surprise that a season of tours in Alaska looks great on a resume. Distracting passengers, big mountains, ever-changing winds, and flirting with deteriorating weather are demanding of a pilot’s skills. Early in my career I was pretty set on heading to Las Vegas at the 1000 PIC mark, but a mentor suggested I consider Alaska instead. My long-term goal is to work for short haul mountain rescue programs, and his advice was well received, the mountain flying in Alaska and potential to build toward utility work are more conducive to that path. In addition, the companies here, all of which have a base in Juneau, will transition you to the AS350B2 and conduct a Part 135 check ride if you are not already certified.
Initial training is typically 2-3 weeks starting in April, and the scenic tour schedule through the season is largely based on the ebb and flow of cruise ship passengers to the Juneau terminal. The last ships come through in early October, when the town of 30,000 begins its solemn return to shorter days and sleepy winters.
Once seasonal pilots are trained up and ready to take passengers, the magic starts happening, and I’m not talking about the scenery. It’s truly magical to watch the ground crew load six cruise passengers into the helicopter, which pushes the power limitations of even an AStar! The passengers come from all over the world, and while many have experienced helicopter flight in the past, for almost everyone it’s their first trip to Alaska.
They are picked up at the cruise ship terminal and transported in a company van to Juneau International Airport, a busy Class D located in the Mendenhall Valley northwest of downtown. Three helicopter operators, multiple fixed wing operators, cargo and international terminals, and a sea plane “pond” round out the region’s primary hub for air travel. Since there is no direct road access to the rest of the world from Juneau, the Capital city depends heavily on both air and watercraft for the transport of goods and people. Getting in and out of the airport as a helicopter operator is made much safer due to an LOA between the multiple companies and ATC; the various departures, arrivals, helicopter traffic pattern, altitudes and noise abatement procedures are clearly spelled out. Since over 70% of the airport’s operations is VFR air taxi, and there’s only one runway, the need for such a program is clear!
Once passengers are strapped into the helicopter and doors are closed, I’ll confirm everyone received the safety briefing and tell them to not expect me to talk much during the first part of the flight, which gives me the time and space to focus on the takeoff and radio communications until we’re outside the Class D airspace. In the meantime, passengers are enjoying the views of the Mendenhall Lake and Glacier which are almost immediately visible, as well as the snowcapped peaks of the Coastal Mountains and Chilkat Range.
Our customers are flying to either the snow-covered dog camp for a dogsledding tour, or to an icy glacier landing and walkabout. If cloud ceilings allow, on the way to both places we fly up and over the Coastal Mountains at about 4,500MSL, offering spectacular views of the entire area. A quick swing by the upper icefall, where the glacier originates, typically mystifies everyone. This is where the glacier spills out of the immense Juneau Icefield, the lake of ice that feeds the various streams of glaciers that slowly creep downhill with the forces of pressure and gravity. The Juneau Icefield is roughly the size of Rhode Island, and each of its 38 glaciers are between 10 and 25 miles long. The glacier ice travels at a rate of about one foot per day, and therefore takes a couple hundred years from its birthplace to the terminus, where it turns back into water for the first time in its life.
The lower part of the glacier loses its snow in late April, exposing beautiful blue ice below. The blue ice makes the glacier surface safe for people to walk on, as the ice is several hundred feet thick and openings are obvious. When snow is present over the surface, it covers cracks, crevasses, and pools of water and can collapse under body weight. There are always multiple places to land the helicopter, though we adjust our spots throughout the season with the changing surface, cracks, and aqua pools that fill and drain.
Once I choose a spot to land, I shut down the helicopter and give the passengers a quick briefing about how to not kill themselves on the glacier. There have been a couple of cases where blatant impermeable idiocy has put that goal at risk, but most people are so overwhelmed with the scenery they follow directions and don’t stray far.
While the flying is amazing of course, another highlight of the trip for me is sharing the magic of the Glacier with my passengers on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
During the check-in process, before boarding the helicopter, the passengers are fitted with a pair of overboots that have small metal spikes in the bottom, and it’s at this moment they become very thankful for the boots as we step onto the ice. Like moonwalkers on a foreign planet, they gingerly walk around with cameras and binoculars in hand, soaking in the views for about 20 minutes before it’s time to load up and fly back to the airport. For many, the picture-perfect backdrops will become this year’s Happy Holidays card or letter.
I typically ask the passengers if they have any additional questions immediately after departing the glacier, knowing the border of the airspace and heavier radio workload is close at hand. During each tour, I’ll make about 20 radio transmissions on the various frequencies. Communications to our base, between company helicopters, several position calls on the local CTAF, obtaining the latest ATIS and the usual control tower exchanges requires monitoring or speaking on five different frequencies and three radios. Thankfully, the AS350 is an incredibly smooth and intuitive machine, so the flying part is generally easy, which helps with the workload.
Once landed at base, the helicopter usually stays running, gets fuel as needed, and the next round of passengers loads up! Depending on factors like scheduling, weather, and number of pilots available, each pilot will fly between two and ten tours per day in a shift that can last up to 13 hours.
As an introvert, flying in the scenic tour environment is very taxing. The days are long, and by the end I’m all out of words and ready to stick my head in a dark corner. I’ve known a couple of pilots who are extroverts, and it’s energizing for them to be with people and talk all day! So if you’re looking to fly scenic tours, an important tip I’ve learned is to know yourself well and what you need to be fulfilled. Always take time for self-care in terms of sleep, exercise, social engagement (or lack thereof), and support as needed from peers, friends and family. While that is important for any pilot job, it applies in particular to positions where you are stretched in terms of your flight experience, social or soft skills, weather minimums, or other components. We all strive to evolve as pilots, and since flying tours is a job you’ll typically have between 500 and 1500 hours, that comes with a certain flavor of growth. On one hand you have enough experience to evaluate more complex situations and the capacity for a fast-paced environment, and on the other you will be faced with many uncomfortable decisions, managing both internal and external intense pressures.
I’d definitely recommend a season in Alaska if you are interested in building AStar experience or mountain flying. There are three primary companies in Southeast Alaska, Coastal, NorthStar, and Temsco, all of which are owned by a single parent company. They each have their own personalities, and additional operations such as charter and utility, which offers the possibility for advancement after you’ve ‘put in your time’ with the tour side for a couple of seasons. If you have the option, visit Juneau before you commit to a company and see which might be the best fit for you. Feel free to reach out with questions, I’d be happy to provide guidance!
I’m thankful for my time in Alaska but after 700 hours in the tour environment, I’m feeling ready to move closer to my goal. Short haul mountain rescue is my dream job, and I’m now looking ahead- seeking an opportunity to contribute to a company providing utility and external load services in the MD500 or AS350.
Helicopter Pilot, Mountain Guide and Public Speaker.
Jessica Meiris is currently an Alaskan Tour Pilot but her ultimate goal is to combine her flying skills with her mountain and rock-climbing knowledge to fly for a Short-Haul rescue program.
Jessica is not only a Helicopter Pilot and CFII with time in the MD500, AS350, R22, R44 & R66, She is also a Public Speaker.
Jessica’s long list of accomplishments include being the first woman in history to rope solo El Capitan, (Yosemite Valley, CA) in a single push, breaking the previous female record, set in 2002, by 4 days.
Find Jessica on LinkedIn by clicking here