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Flightseeing in Alaska

The menacing face of glacier ice, lighted by an eerie blue sheen, looked close enough to touch if we could open our helicopter window. Frank, our charismatic helicopter pilot, pulled back on the steering controls and we resumed our exploration up the Ruth Glacier. We flew across an ice field where, planted like palm trees on an iceberg, bright tents dotted the frozen ground. Then, rounding the corner, a chorus of gasps echoed in the helicopter. There it was: Denali, the High One, its towering granite mass clad in lacy ice, confronting us. Circling higher and higher, past the main climbing base camp, over passes, through chasms, we rose like an eagle riding the thermals. All eyes were glued to the behemoth. The headsets fell quiet as words failed to describe... Denali.

Because Alaska's wilderness is largely untouched and its size is so BIG, flying is often the best way to gain a sense of its size and splendor.

Flightseeing options range from scenic flights to fly-in fishing and lodge experiences, trips to Native villages, and glacier landings on Denali's glaciers. Here are a few words of advice to make your flightseeing experience unforgettable.

First, if you're an extremely nervous flier, flightseeing may not be for you. In a small plane you can feel the effects of updrafts, downdrafts, and even breezes, and the pilot can make sharp, steeply banked turns to view wildlife or scenery. It's thrilling and fun, but only if you're in the proper frame of mind.

Once you've decided to take a flight, keep in mind that charter companies can vary in size from one-pilot, one-plane outfits to larger operations flying fleets of aircraft of varying sizes. The smaller companies are often more flexible in their schedules and destinations, while the multi-plane companies can better match plane size to your needs.

When you're arranging a flight, ask for and check references. Also ask about insurance coverage and safety record—any hesitation to completely and fully answer your questions and address your concerns should be a sign to look elsewhere. (Although an admission of occasional crashes just means you have an honest pilot, not a bad one; nobody flies Alaska for a long time without one or two hard landings.)

Any time you fly in a small plane, dress as though you'll be spending some time on the ground and out of the airplane, even if that's not part of your plan. Wear hiking clothes and dress in layers, and always carry rain gear. If traveling by floatplane, you can buy, borrow, or rent hip waders; landing on beaches often requires a bit of wading or walking through shoreline mud.

If you're going to be dropped off at a location, pack your gear in several small, soft-sided bags. Gear gets stashed in all sorts of nooks and crannies of the plane, and your hard-shelled suitcase will not be a welcome sight.

Remember that small-plane travel is extremely weather dependent. Always allow extra time to account for the vagaries of Alaska weather; don't schedule a small-plane pickup for the same day you're flying out of Alaska on a large airliner. Any hassles in the logistics or costs of flying are well worth the scenery.

List of Alaska air taxis: www.flyalaska.com.

National Transportation Safety Board database to check air taxi safety records: www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery.

Denali helicopter flights through Era: www.eraflightseeing.com.

Fairbanks-based commuter lines that fly to the Bush: Arctic Circle Air (www.arcticcircleair.com) and Era Alaska (www.flyera.com).

Updated: 01-2014

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