AviatorCast Episode 56: Don Lee - Alaska Bush Pilot for 35+ Years | Skis | Floats | Glaciers | Instructor - by Angle of Attack


Today’s Flight Plan

Do you have what it takes to be a backcountry aviator? Learn what it’s like to fly in Alaska’s Backcountry from a guy who has just about done it all in his 35 years in Alaska.

Flying a float plane to a remote lake, dropping off hikers at Mt. McKinley at a glacier, or landing on river bars or even the Alaska Highway system (yes, that’s legal), there is a lot to learn from this guy.

Additionally, he tells us his experience getting shot at as a bush pilot in Afghanistan, hoping around in South America, and touring the Outback in Australia. You name it, this guy has probably done it.

Useful Links

Alaska Wing Men


Don Lee

Thanks a million for joining us, Don. It was a true pleasure. Hopefully all aviators can experience some backcountry flying- someday.


Major thanks to the amazing Angle of Attack Crew for all their hard work over the years. Our team works incredibly hard, and they’re very passionate about what they do.

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Let’s land on some glaciers, glassy lakes and river bars. This is AviatorCast episode 56!

Calling all aviators, pilots, flight sim enthusiasts and aviation lovers, you’ve landed at AviatorCast! Join us weekly in our efforts to become better masters of the air through interviews, refreshers, lessons, training topics, simulator set-up, hangar talk, news and more! Buckle up and prepare yourself for this week’s episode of AviatorCast! Preflight complete, fuel on board and flight plan filed. Let’s kick the tires and light the fires!

Here’s your humble host, Chris Palmer!

Chris: Welcome, welcome, welcome aviators. You’ve landed at AviatorCast. My name is Chris Palmer. Anything from spotting traffic, hang flying, dialing in the auto pilot, getting bumped around in turbulence, dealing with weather or any of the other challenges that come with flying, I love it all. Flying to me is just this immersive, beautiful freedom that we can enjoy.

So, welcome to AviatorCast. AvaitorCast is a weekly podcast where we talk about real flight training techniques, current news that’s going on in the industry and most of all we usually have a very fantastic guest on the show to talk about flight training, flight simulation, how we can become better pilots. A little about their career, that kind of inspires us all to be better aviators. So, that is what AviatorCast is all about. On today’s episode we have Don Lee who is a bush pilot is Alaska. Don is located in Talkeetna, Alaska.

You may know him from a National Geographic show called Wild Alaska Flying Man or something like that. He’s a great pilot, he has about 17,000 hours. This guy does everything. Not only does he hold basically every rating you can think of. He is also an AMP and IA mechanic. He is also a DPE Examiner for the FAA. He does a lot of different things, this guy has pretty much done it all. So, in this episode with him, we talk about how he got into this 35 year career in bush flying. Of course we talk about flying in the Alaska bush and just how wild and crazy that can be. Some of his experiences there and really he has way too many stories to share.

Also, along those lines, what flying in Alaska can teach all of us. What it can teach us to be a better Aviator. He also shares a story about getting marooned on a glacier and having to spend five days there with passengers surviving on M&Ms and chocolate chips. Then he also talks about some different flying experiences and flying jobs that he’s had flying in Afghanistan, South America and Australia. Of course we get into a lot of other topics, the least of which is just how to become a better pilot and how to be a better pilot, sticking with the basics with your stick and rudder.

So it’s a really great interview with Don. I am excited for it and I think you guys will really enjoy it as well. That will come up here in a few minutes after we get over some of the other items that we have at the beginning of the show here. So we usually have a review at the beginning of the show. This one comes from the United Kingdom, Don Pitts. He gives us five stars and the title on his review is ‘Essential’. He says this podcast and all of the team behind it portray that feel of passion and professionalism throughout all episodes. This is essential for any enthusiast or pilot alike even if it is a Piper 28 like me or a 747. It covers so many different aspects of aviation and is just brilliant. The team at Angle of Attack who run this podcast don’t plug their products. They’re just sharing the passion and most importantly their contacts from around the world. From the red bold A racers A 320 pilots and YouTube personalities, it is weekly and it has never missed a week. One word to sum this podcast up… ‘Essential’.

So thanks Don, I really appreciate that review and you’re right. You know, we aren’t here on this podcast to sell products. Of course we’d love for you to come to us but this is really about our passion for aviation. We absolutely love, you know, all things flying and we want to get the message out there in the world that achieving this dream, this dream to fly which so many people have, is possible and it takes a lot of inspiration. Really what we say is it takes PHD right? You can even consider that that’s a kind of degree that you have to get to. So, it takes Passion, Hard work and Determination.

All those things together, if you get the right mix, you can become a pilot, it is possible for anybody. So Don thank you, I really appreciate that and you as well, you listener, yes you. You can leave a review for the show as well. We really appreciate it, this helps get the word out about AviatorCast. It also increases our ranking in iTunes and so other people learn about our podcast, the more popular it gets. So, we are growing, we’ve had many many lessons over the past year of having this podcast open. Over 160,000 downloads so this is a popular podcast but it’s up to you to spread the word so you’re our street team if you will or our runway team so go out there and leave a review if you’d like to.

Also, leave your questions for the show. This is something that I announced recently, that you can leave your question, get it read on the show or rather get it played on the show because this is a voice question. Then, I will send you a free AviatorCast t-shirt regardless of where you live in the world. So, you can do that at aviatorcast.com. Just go there to the bottom of the page at aviatorcast.com and you can leave a message for the show. I don’t have too many submissions yet so I’d love for you guys to go there and submit those questions. I’d really appreciate it.

Alright, so now we’re going to get into a couple of the news segments here with flight simulation news and flight training news. Then, we’ll get in to the interview with Don Lee.

Now, flight simulation industry news…

Chris: So, it’s been a quiet week in flight simulation news but there is one product that came out that I wanted to tell you guys about. Now, this hits close to home literally. So, Orbx actually released scenery for the Homer Airport. Homer is my local airport, I live in Homer, Alaska. It’s a beautiful area, a beautiful scenery. So, I’ve had a lot of people write me, friends, podcast listeners, many people have written me and said, hey Chris, did you check this out? It looks like Orbx did Homer. Well, guess what, guess where they got all their source imagery from? You guessed it, I went out at the airport and I took hundreds of photos. I may even have taken thousands.

I took photos of all different sides of the buildings, I took context photos of how the airplanes are stacked up on
the ramp. I did homework and passed on information about what this area is like and what this area is like, took pictures at the local C-plane base. So, it’s actually been a long time coming, I think we’ve probably been working on this project for a year now. Of course, I only get a very small portion of the credit. The guys at Orbx do a fantastic job but the imagery you see on many many of those special buildings in the scenery are definitely, they’re from my camera.

So, I’m really proud to be part of that scenery. You guys can go check that out. It’s at fullterrain.com, you can scroll down to the North American Airports and find it there. I think you can also find it at fullterrain.com/products/paho and that stands for, you guys didn’t know this, Pacific Alaska and then it’s basically the two letter identifier for the city, so Homer, HO. So, PAHO. Alright, that’s kind of the big news in flight simulation this week for me at least in what was otherwise a quiet week. Go check that out, it’s really cool. I’m going to be reaching out to the local newspapers here to tell them about it. Maybe even some statewide newspapers because I think it’s a very cool thing to draw some attention to flight simulation and show people you know, this is really super cool.

Look at this great scenery and what can be done. So, I hope to draw some attention to the flights and community that way. But, fantastic job to Orbx especially Alex Goffe who I work closely with. This guy is a magician, I’d hand off images to him and he’s say here’s some screen shots pretty much immediately. This guy does some really fantastic work. Now, let’s get into the flight training news. That segment will also be short. Just one little kind of event to share there, so let’s get over to that.

Now, flight training news…

Chris: Many of you have undoubtedly seen the amazing video of an aircraft in Asia crashing across a bridge this last week. It was caught on a dash camera. You basically see the whole accident happen from when the aircraft stalled, the when it banked hard left, hit a bridge and obviously crashed. So, a pretty intense chain of events. You see the aircraft come over these buildings basically threads the needle through the buildings and then stalls out to the left and crashes. Now, of course there’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on with this whole thing.

I’m not one to judge it until there’s a full report but what the initial reports are saying is that the pilots of this twin engine commuter air type aircraft, they actually killed the wrong engine, the engine without the problem and basically both engines went out. So what happened was, at least from the initial data report on the cockpit voice recorder and the black box is that the number two engine is the engine that actually failed after takeoff, but the pilot shut down the number one engine. So, this is a common issue among crews and it’s a very very important situation in crew resource management, CRM, to make sure that you are shutting down the correct engine.

You’re identifying first where the problem actually is. You’re verifying between each other and then you know, it’s a back and forth. You verify many times that this is the engine with the problem and that’s the one you need to fail, so, or rather, work with. Pretty intense situation, that’s the initial report is that they shut down the wrong engine so then they had no engines and basically crashed that way. That said, people survived, I mean I guess that’s the silver lining here and we’ll just have to see. You know, the reason I share this in the flight training news is that in flight training, we need to look at these situations I believe from the perspective of, okay, well, yeah, these guys, I guess you could look at it this way.

These guys did a stupid thing, they shut down the wrong engine. Well guess what, that can happen to anybody. We all need to be humble and realize that these things are things that happen to humans. We are humans and we make mistakes and so we need to mitigate those mistakes and make sure that we don’t do or rather do do those things that are important during that process to make sure that we handle the emergency correctly and all those things. So, that’s why I bring it up in the flight training news section. There’s always something for us to learn as pilots through this.

Let’s learn from it, let’s not be the one that repeats it and let’s walk away as a better community as a whole of pilots. So, that’s kind of my sermon there I suppose and there is good to come of this if we all move forward in a positive way and learn something from it. Alright guys! So, let’s get in finally to the interview with Don Lee, I hope you enjoy it. I will talk to you guys in there and then see you on the other side.

Now, a special hangar talk segment…

Chris: Alright everybody, we are honored to have a very special guest with us today, Don Lee. Don, how are you doing?

Don Lee: I’m doing really good Chris. Thanks for calling.

Chris: No problem. Where are you coming to us from?

Don Lee: Chris, I’m up here in beautiful Talkeetna, Alaska. About mid stay with the base of Mount McKinley.

Chris: Great and what is your profession?

Don Lee: Chris, I have weaseled out a niche in aviation that’s very small. However, has worked very well for me. For the last 35 years I’ve flown air taxi and all sorts of different flying all over the world and all over Alaska especially. I’ve been able to create this little school where I teach people, the off airport landing techniques, all the judgment skills, the bud pattern for operating off airport, glacier flying.

We’re one of the only schools that teach glacier flying up to 7-8,000 feet, on the glaciers up here in Alaska. Then of course all the off airports stuff, river bars, mountain tops, tundra, just how to operate and do it safely. Of course, C-planes as well, private commercial C-plane ratings and advance C-plane techniques, exterior loads in that area. Pretty niche but very important.

Chris: Great, so it sounds like you’re touching all the different elements. You’re doing snow operations, you’re doing ski operations, well, that would be snow operations but then you’re doing, flow, wheel, just about everything.

Don Lee: Yeah, that’s exactly what we do. I earn a living doing it for again, 35 years and I found now that I wish I had the opportunity to have someone give me a few do’s and don’ts. As I was learning I had to pay the expensive way to learn how to do it. Yeah, to pass these on to people is a really great asset. Makes people safer, prevents any accidents hopefully and really gives them the back to basic knowledge that I think they miss in a lot of the primary flying.

Chris: Definitely, that’s definitely a part of, the aviation training world today is, a lot of the tribal knowledge is being lost or getting a lot of these guys that come in. And they just want to learn how to fly the maneuvers and kind of pass their check ride and forget that there’s a lot more to it.

Don Lee: Right, exactly. It’s that stick and rudder, just ball, turning ball and power attitude. It’s so back to basic but it really pays off if you resort back to that and I think a lot of the, even as you graduate, even jets, even bigger faster airplanes, they all react the same.

Chris: Right, exactly. So, the first big question I ask every single guest and this will take you back many years I’m sure. But, how did you fall in love with aviation?

Don Lee: Well that’s interesting Chris because I hitchhiked up here from Minnesota in the early ‘70s and was living out in a bush. It was fly in only place and aviation wasn’t particularly on my mind. Other than, I did build one of those bamboo bombers from popular mechanics back in the middle of the ‘60s. That didn’t turn out so good, it crashed horribly and that was pretty much the end of it.

But I was living out in the bush it was of course fly in only, so it didn’t take me very long to figure out the pilot always had the best seat in the house. He had the best view and he didn’t have a bag of groceries or a generator on his lap every time he flew and I said, I need to learn to fly. It started out as more of a necessity than anything else than a passion. Of course, then it grew into a passion then your whole life changes.

Chris: Definitely. You caught the bug and it went from there.

Don Lee: Yeah.

Chris: So tell us about your training experience from there once you fell in love with it.

Don Lee: Well, obviously I went down, during the bush there was no facilities to really go to a facility that had like housing and the whole package. So, I went and stayed in the hangar for three weeks down in Merill Field and slept right in the hangar and spent few weeks down there and got my private pilot’s license. Then of course the next step was to get an airplane and the owners of the lodge that I worked in and cared took for many years was generous enough to help me buy my first aircraft. From then on I was just learning just by going out and doing it.

Chris: I think that’s great advice, I think we’d get into that later is going out and just doing it because there’s a certain amount of risk involved in it. You do your best to mitigate those risks but at some point you got to go out and just experience things.

Don Lee: Yeah, absolutely. You can’t eliminate all the risks in flying but you can eliminate risks and this is what I teach in slivers, in small portions of risks. Maintenance, don’t run out of fuel, if you don’t want to have a sea fit accident, don’t fly in inclement weather. You can break it down as simple, if you don’t want to get a DWI, don’t drive drunk. Some of this stuff you can really mitigate the risk involved. However, there is always the element of risk with flying.

Chris: So, what kind of flying did you do outside the United States? Because, based on your profile, it seems like you have a lot of time even outside Alaska.

Don Lee: Yeah, I have developed, I’ve been very fortunate in my aviation career. The South America gig was pretty neat. We had a doctor that was looking for the document, the averaging of use of rainforest plants. So, we became friends up here in Alaska and ended up in South America for six weeks on a contract and had a little scenic, went to all over South America. Just learning as I went more or less, Paraguay, off Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, just keeping track with just the currency exchange and the customs and the visas. It was a really learning experience and just incredible vastness, the South America. It’s a really big place.

Chris: Definitely.

Don Lee: Incredibly beautiful but you had to really be cautious down there.

Chris: How did you flight plan around an area like that?

Don Lee: Well, it’s pretty simple, you know you look pretty much gas station to gas station. Of course, it’s all IFR down there even though it’s a clear blue day it’s still IFR. Of course, the country’s so big with such little facilities. The altimeter was always at 2992 and then when you flew all your cross country altitudes, there was no current altimeter setting except you came to the airport south, in which they used to give the zero altitude compensation to the runway.

But now, they cause too much trouble so now they would of course stick with this icy old regulations for altimeter setting itself. Yeah, it was very challenging, most or all places spoke English of course and they don’t, you learn that they don’t like surprises. When you can just pop in from the sky and drop down it seems like they don’t like that. We met some wonderful people, no incidences whatsoever, everything went real smooth.

Chris: And, you also flew another in other places too. I believe you actually flew in Afghanistan. Tell us about that a little bit.

Don Lee: Yeah, I wasn’t looking for the job but the phone rang in mid-January was pretty slim around here and Blackwater Worldwide gave me a call. They were looking for specific pilots with high altitude experience, turbulent experience, ski experience, tail wheel experience for some specific missions that they had over there. They narrowed it down to probably, I don’t know, maybe four or five people in the United or in the world, as far as I know that had that experience and they gave me a call and offered me a lot of money to come over there and fly for them. So, I went over, did a couple of tours, 77 day tours over there. Again, very eye opening, learned a lot, got shot, got a couple bullet holes in the airplane.

Chris: Goodness.

Don Lee: Yeah. It’s a war zone. You’re in harm’s way any time you’re over there and bless those guys’ hearts that are over there now, it’s such a conflict in a conflict.

Chris: So, tell us about your experience flying in Australia.

Don Lee: Well, Australia, that started out as just a fun trip. Of course, in my business, I meet people from all over the world and they come and train here with me and I befriended some pilots over there and they said, come back over to Oz, you know. They’re of course they’re very generous with the folks as well. I’ve got a plane you can use, just take it and go. So, I just went down there with my credit card and spent about 40 days or so. Just let me have the plane and just headed up the coast, all the way from Aberdeen to Cairns, all over the east coast of Australia. Australia’s a pretty big continent.

Chris:Yeah, definitely.

Don Lee: I stayed on the east coast side but all these little airports in between, all Willa Willa Bunk and Wubba Wubba, it just a real interesting trip again. Learning the customs, learning the facilities but you know, all these different places have a common love for aviation. When you have a passion for aviation, people are glad to see you. You always have something in common to talk about. There’s always a frosty one waiting for you.

Chris: That’s definitely something we’ve noticed from this podcast. We get reviews from all over the world. It’s kind of a universal world and a universal passion that people have and it’s definitely something we can all share. So, that’s really neat. So, tell us about your other credentials. What kind of other, you said you had turban time and that was one call fire for going to Afghanistan. Tell us your other credentials.

Don Lee: Well, when I started off flying, I started flying lodge support. People in and out food to the ride back in the mid ‘70s and then pretty soon I actually was doing quite well. I had a little business right here in Talkeetna. My slogan was uninsured and underrated and pass the savings on to the customer. So, I kind of had my own little air taxi going on the side until pretty soon the local pilots down Cliff Hudson, finally came up to me and said, Don you better, you need to join, you need to go get your commercial license and do this right.

You can’t be doing this the way you’re doing it, you’re getting too busy. So, then I went ahead and started flying for the air taxis. I operated Talkeetna Air Taxi from about 1980 to 1986 with all their expedition air support all around Mount McKinley. Of course back then scenic flights weren’t a big deal. We were flying miners, crafters, homesteaders, people out in the bush, really the pulse of wilderness Alaska. So, it was fantastic.

One morning I’d be on top of some mountain top dropping off shoot runners and then I’d be on the 185 on the wheel skis in a courier. Upon a mountain, 8-9,000 feet on McKinley. Picking up climbers, dropping climbers off then next couple hours I’d be down in the lake, the 185 C-plane flying homesteaders out, people building cabins or hunters. So, it was very diverse, bunch of flying so it was really a lot of fun but it certainly had its hazards as well.

Chris: What is your experience as a DPE? I think I saw that as part of your credentials.

Don Lee: Yeah, it wasn’t very long before I was teaching people how to fly, we had a lot of trouble finding a Designated Pilot Examiner for C-plane ratings. They were all booked up, they were all in anchorage and so I went ahead and applied and of course I was easily accepted as a Designated Pilot Examiner and had been an examiner for a couple of years but I was still flying. I was running my specialized business, Alaska Floats and Skis, but I was also examining but I was also flying air taxi. So, I got into a aerodynamic flutter with a dabbling beaver which is a very, a lot of people see why aerodynamic flutter.

The airplane was destroyed but I was fortunate enough to bring it back and that’s kind of a long story. But, in the
FAA’s eyes, the first guy comes up said that he thought I had needled the airplane, I had exceeded the speed that never exceed on a commercial flight. So, in a knee jerk reaction, the FAA revoked all my certificates and all my ratings that I had, everything. So, I went to emergency revocation court and all that stuff and I got all my ratings back. That was all good but now that I had a revocation on my certificate, even though it was not a violation, it was administrative, I am unable to continue to be a DPE which we’re working on.

But, they knew what they were doing. By taking them to court, trying to, everyone kind of has their pants around their ankles, you know looking at each other. They weren’t too happy about that.

Chris: Gotcha.

Don Lee: I enjoyed being a DPE.

Chris: Great. Tell us about, let’s get into the National Geographic story because you were on a National Geographic show about flying in Alaska. Tell us about that.

Don Lee: Well, again, you know, you get to know a lot of people. So, Nat Geo came up here without really a plan. They showed up with camera men and producers and stuff. They came to me, they want to do something aviation, they didn’t quite know what so they started asking around. Hey, do you know anybody that’s got an interesting gig in flying?

It didn’t take them very long to fine out, yeah, go up and see Don in Talkeetna, he’s doing all sorts of interesting stuff. Sure enough, they showed up and we did six episodes with Nat Geo and it was really interesting. Pretty much, just what I do, the float stuff, the off airport stuff, air drops, all sorts of things that I teach. They were able to film and produce a pretty neat little show about it.

Chris: So, here comes a kind of a big question. You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to. But, I’d like to know about some of your scarier moments as a pilot. Some of those lessons learned if you will.

Don Lee: Chris, I’m the luckiest guy in the word. I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of good pilots, there’s a lot of lucky pilots. There’s a lot of good dead pilots and alive lucky pilots. There’s been a book written about me, I have over 30 instances of catching on fire, engine failures. I’ve only wrecked three airplanes in my whole 18,000 hours career. However, I’ve had a lot of close shaves and they’re just anything connects to your lobes getting loose to being 18,000 feet hypoxic spinning down, losing control of the aircraft over the Alaska range, gosh it’s just, where do you start? Everything’s that’s happened, I’ve just been again so lucky to be able to make it through a lot of these situations.

Chris: I seem to run across one video of you at a Cessna safety meeting something like that. Probably a wings program sort of thing where you were talking about having to stay the night for something, I think five days on a glacier. Remember that story?

Don Lee: Oh God yeah. We started doing a lot of scenic flights later in the ’80s and the weather of course on Mount McKinley is up and down a lot. So, we have a good window to go in and land on the glacier but we had about four feet of new snow. I usually, we pound that down pretty good and get off. Well the guy ahead of me take off, couldn’t get off the glacier, got off into the deep snow and ended up a mile and half down in the glacier. He was still in the way on the runway so I couldn’t take off immediately either.

Well, then just a matter of half hour, forty five minutes, the weather came down and it came down hard. There’s snowflakes big as gulf balls coming down and it snowed. It must have snowed about 15 feet in those four days. Every three or four hours I’d have to, make a ramp, taxi the plane up on top of the snow, make a ramp, taxi on top of the snow. And, you know Chris, I don’t carry toilet paper for four people for five days and I tell you what, you could have write psychological thesis on all the seven signs of a adversity. You know, the calamity, the laughter, the anger, the resignation, it just, it was something else. You know what’s interesting?

Even to this day, it must be 25 years now, that that’s happened and every once in a while, I still get a Christmas card from these folks that were stuck with me. Because of course they missed all their Alaska vacation, they missed all their flights, they missed everything. The whole vacation was gone now. Living in a snow cave up in the mountains, you know, eating the M&Ms and chocolate chips. But you know, and they’re quite of course, quite angry and distressed when we get out of there. But you know, again I, every once in a while, I get a Christmas card saying that trip in the mountains where we got stuck changed my life.

Chris: Yeah.

Don Lee: You know, and it takes a bit to hold it together because when you have a 80 year old grandmother, a 16 year old girl, the parents, it’s like oh my God! You could make a movie on just that.

Chris: Yeah. Alive part 2.

Don Lee: Yeah, exactly. You think, you read all these survival books and this and that, they never really prepare you for the reality of it all. They say, oh you need water and shelter…no, no, no. The first thing you need to establish is the latrine, you know. You’re on a glacier so you just can’t walk off out of sight some place so, it’s just, I could have sold a sock for a 100 bucks. Anyway, it was real educational, very interesting.

Chris: Sure that put things in the perspective for everybody.

Don Lee: Oh, absolutely. Your core human nature just the raw human nature comes out just absolutely, unbridled.

Chris: Tell us about Alaska Floats and Skis. I see your website is alaskafloats.com so the listeners can go there to check it out. Tell us about some of the courses that you offer.

Don Lee: Chris, we’re again, a very niche business and because of my experience flying the bush, all the rounded experience in aviation I have, my greatest wish was to be able to just teach people this and to access the wilderness is the whole key. It’s not just the flying but the access and being able to land upon these glaciers. Anywhere from 8-10, 12° in these remote areas is just absolutely fantastic. It’s the access, the skiing, the climb and of course with the ski program of course, is also, which is very important, is the survival of the arctic, survival techniques.

You can’t teach somebody to access these remote incredible areas in such a harsh environment without also teaching them how to do snow caves, how to be PIC even when you’re not flying. How to take command of a situation when you see when a situation is cascading out of control. When to pull the emergency button ahead of time before something goes horribly wrong because it will escalate to a point where you get behind it and kind of bring this information that’s knowledge to these pilots. It’s really rewarding, it’s all new because you just can’t find this any place else.

Now that’s, now the glacier and the snow and the skiing, landing on these lakes and being in the snow is a very, art, science. The Eskimos have like 20 names of snow. We say, you know, we might just say snow but they say you know, deep snow, soft snow, wet snow, snow with lenses, snow with overflow, corn snow, sugar snow, I mean on and on and on. I mean as you, in one of my courses, I teach all the different types of snow and how to read it and how to always keep a clean avenue of escape and be prepared is the biggest thing with the winter flying.

Chris: Great.

Don Lee: On the off airport courses, the grabble bars and the mountain tops and some of the tundra strips, there’s a course identifying your wind. Is the strip long enough? Is it soft enough? Is it hard enough? Are the rocks too big? Are they, where’s your rising air? Where’s your descending air? A lot of people think well where’s the air coming from but also where’s it going. It becomes a concern because you’re going to be over there shortly. So here’s just some of the tips that I teach in these off airport courses and it’s just invaluable for of course hunters and people that are trying to access the fantastic remote wilderness of Alaska.

Chris: Do you kind of take this on a case by case basis? A pilot calls you up say, hey, I want to do X, Y and Z and you kind of build something for them? How does that work?

Don Lee: No Chris, I have a syllabus that is very pretty straight forward of the information that I want to convey. Now if someone has something specific, obviously I’ll cater to their needs. Like for instance, maybe air drops. I don’t teach people air drops in all of my courses but now if some hunter or somebody that’s very active with other groups, they need to be able to drop stuff out of airplanes, I’ll take them aside and we’ll do a specific air drop course or something like that. But, I have a, my courses are pretty straight forward and convey a certain amount of information that’s absolutely invaluable. It’s really the foundation of all my flying.

Chris: Great. That’s great that you have a syllabus that you stick to. Any good instructor would. I’m wondering what kind of demographics, what kind of pilots do you have coming in to do this? Is it just kind of the lower 48 guy, that wants to do an adventure type of flying or what type of pilots come to you?

Don Lee: Chris, I’m very fortunate of course thanks to the worldwide web. I have people coming from South America, Norway, Germany, France, Russia, all over the world come to my school. Everything from astronauts, CEOs of major companies to the high school kid who just got his pilot’s license.

Chris: Great.

Don Lee: So it’s really, totally across the board. Now, my general demographics is a pilot, probably between the age of maybe 45 and 60 and they have disposable income. They want to learn more about aviation, experience an Alaskan adventure and flying at the same time. So, of course to facilitate this I have a nice lodge where I lodge them for three or four days. It’s not just the training, it’s the fire pit afterwards as well of course. Sometimes we go down to the gravel pit and shoot guns but it’s the whole program we sell Alaska really is what we sell. So we draw a large demographic of people. Obviously all aviation are into it.

Chris: And you and I are both Alaskans and so, you know, the thing about Alaska and maybe you can second this, I think you would. Even with all the advancements in aircraft technology, you know, avionics, I guess there is even, I guess with the Capstone program or what’s called Nextgen now, that was just kind of started here in Alaska, even with all of that, it’s still a very wild and a very, the kind of elemental way of flying.

Don Lee: Well, absolutely Chris. People say, you know, are you a bush pilot or this and that and I say no. All the bush, all the real bush pilots are dead. They are all old and died or those guys were the real McCoy. They didn’t have ELTs. Chris you and I have everybody, the whole resources, the United States military will send a C130, a citation jet, a pave hawk helicopter with medical people on board. They’ll do anything to come and find you. Those poor guys back then, they went out there with their airplanes and had to be so careful because their whole livelihood depended on it.

They had to be careful of the weather, they had to know their machines, those were the real bush pilots. Yes, now you can just walk out just and you’re on a lake, you can go to the other side of the lake, get caught in some overflow, and exhaust yourself and freeze to death, just a couple of blocks away. Yes, Alaska’s very unforgiving and unfortunately Alaska tends to eat its young you know and it’s very unforgiving. But the rewards are certainly worth the risks if you do it correctly.

Chris: Right, right.

Don Lee: Respect that.

Chris: What is your general feel for the kind of instruction you can get in Alaska? I know there’s not a lot of it and maybe it’s because the population is so small and also maybe because you’re kind of learning to fly from your neighbor a lot of times. At least that’s how I kind of see it but where should people go for these resources? I mean, obviously you are a great resource to go and learn how to fly up there in Talkeetna. What should people look for, I guess is what I’m saying, from a great instructor in Alaska? Because, like we talked about, it being very wild and there being risks, obviously you want to go with someone that’s experienced.

Don Lee: Oh, exactly Chris. Find, go out and find the oldest pilot that’s still legal to fly and may be not even legal to fly. The old hunting guide or the old lodge owner, find the guy that had been doing it. Now, they’re the ones that can give you 20 years of experience in about three hours of flying. That’s where the meat of it is and I know flight instruction is a great way to build hours and if you want to learn something, teach it. There’s a lot of young good flight instructors and they’re very good academically. They’re actually quick, good young pilots but you just can’t beat that experience. I’ve been there done that, this doesn’t work, this works, never do this, always do that. That’s what’s going to keep you alive.

Chris: Big difference between the book knowledge and what actually happens in the real world.

Don Lee: Absolutely.

Chris: So what is your advice to someone, say a starting pilot that maybe wants to become a bush pilot? What would your warnings be? What would the pluses, minuses, all that be?

Don Lee: Well you know Chris, I get that question a lot and I tell them that being a bush pilot and servicing the bush and flying these small airplanes, it’s not a job, it’s really a lifestyle. It’s a whole, if you’re in it for the money, you’re going the wrong direction. It’s that love of flying, the places you go, the people you meet, getting up in the morning and say, God I get to fly airplanes today, I am so lucky, you know. That’s what it’s all about and you know, it’s a lot of work, can be, sometimes it’s sad. You fly, you deal with folks that live in the bush. You’re watching out for the kids, if they’re sick, haven’t heard from them for a while.

The climbers as well, you know sometimes they take them up there and sometimes they don’t come back. Sometimes you fly them back dead. There’s a all gamut of emotions involved of being a bush pilot and of course the root of it is the core passion of aviation. I say go for it, man, there’s nothing worse than getting up in the morning and hating to go to work. There’s nothing greater than getting up in the morning and say, I get to fly airplanes today. How lucky am I? You know.

Chris: And with all that scenery around and the variety of you know, flying with floats or wheels or skis.

Don Lee: Right, exactly. Just the difference. It’s just, I mean, like I said, I thing I have the best job in the world. I really do, I enjoy what I’m doing. People say, well are you going to retire and I said, well retire, I’m retired now and I’m doing exactly what I want to do and I like it. Why fix it if it’s not broke, you know.

Chris: Exactly. You know, a lot of my flight time was in the lower 48 and the type of flying you do there is, even if you’re going to a smaller airport, you’re basically going from one slab of concrete to another and you’re not doing this back country scenery type of stuff and so I didn’t necessarily move up here for the flying but for Alaska because it was kind of in my blood, I was born here. It’s, like you said, it’s a lifestyle, you come here for the lifestyle and it’s addicting, you know. To be in an aircraft next to a glacier and towering peaks and with a bright blue lake below, maybe even glassy waters sort of thing. All those little challenges that come with flying here is just so immersive and wonderful.

Don Lee: Absolutely, you know, catching a fish, I’ll stand at the front of a float in some little lake, catching a fish and sharing it with people you care about. It’s just, it’s a great lifestyle and Alaska really is the last frontier. That was a slogan years ago and it’s still is, Alaska is still the last frontier.

Chris: I always tell people it’s the wild west.

Don Lee: Yep, the wild north west.

Chris: Yeah, there you go.

Don Lee: The farthest east place in the United States but it’s so far west that it actually becomes east. That is pretty unique.

Chris: Yeah.

Don Lee: People, forget to the size of Alaska, just the sheer tyranny of distance. It’s almost two thirds the size of the whole continental United States.

Chris: There’s a lot of back country. That’s the reason why there is back country pilots up here.

Don Lee: Yeah and the wilderness and all the ocean is a whole other dichotomy of incredible marine wildlife. The whales, the orcas, the puffins, the cormorants, the halibuts, the salmon and then you have the interior. You know, the caribou and the wolves and the bears and the wilderness. It’s just, in the mountains, the tiger up there, the sheep and it’s just fantastic.

Chris: Such variety.

Don Lee: Yeah.

Chris: Alright. So here’s a situation. I’m listening to this podcast today, I’m inspired by your story of becoming a bush pilot and in all the variety that brings and I want to be at least in some way, a bush pilot but I may never get to Alaska. You know, I am a student in the lower 48 and I’m learning to fly from just kind of your local mom and pop flight school, maybe even a university. What would you tell me with all your experience here in Alaska? What would you tell me that I need to focus on that really matters kind of outside the books that I should have as a skill or a focus? So, tell us about that in that hypothetical situation.

Don Lee: Of course, any pilot of any airplane needs to have command of his airplane, needs to know. I do a blindfold test where I blindfold the applicant and I’ll say, touch carbon heat, touch the breaker for the alternator, touch the mixer control, listen to the engine. You listen, don’t look, but tell me what 2400 rmp sounds like, change your radio frequency, change the number of clicks to the next frequency. Know your equipment, have command of that airplane no matter what you’re doing is absolutely essential. Never give up, never surrender.

Chris: What about stick and rudder skills because that seems to be a dying art?

Don Lee: Yeah. You need that. That’s fundamental. Go find an old pilot again, the oldest guy in the field. Get in the tail wheel airplane and have convention of the aircraft and have somebody that has some experience with it and go take that thing to the stops. Learn to level your wings with just your feet, learn to fly with partial control with the partial panel. Learn to fly with lower rpms, fly if it’s a slow flight. Know how that feels, what it sounds like, what it smells like. Again, know that airplane and how to keep it coordinated.

Chris: You know what’s interesting that you say smell because that’s one thing people don’t realize is that flying is all senses and you can definitely smell certain things. You can smell when the engines’ too hot and all sorts of different things. Yeah, that’s interesting you actually said that.

Don Lee: Well yeah, you change the angle of attack and pretty soon the little mouse is sitting on the floor and the heater dock all of a sudden changes the air and you can smell it. Sounds, ever know when a good sound and bad sound is. Know when to hold them and run. You get an asymmetrical flat simulation which I’ve had. Don’t fuss with it. If the plane’s flying leave it flying, get back to base. Don’t sit there and fuss with it.

A good example would be maybe that Alaska Airline jet that went down in California there with that trim, they kept running that trim up and down up and down until finally stripped it right off. As soon as they had a problem with that trim they should have just, I mean this is hindsight and I bless the hearts, I don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterbacking. But I’ve been in airplanes that have come apart in the air, half a part in the air, partial, cracking up, on fire, all sorts of things.

Like again, they wrote a whole book about me about it and how to handle these emergencies in these situations and 99% of it is just keep it where it’s at and you know, slow down or don’t aggravate it and just nurse that this back. Do not try and fix it while you’re flying.

Chris: You know, one of the big advantages in with our last few questions here, this seems to have come up is, you know, this emergency situation mixed with training in the back country. You know, say that I’m a pilot in the lower 48, because up here it’s kind of a given that you’re going to have this experience. But, say I’m a pilot in the lower 48 or some other fairly populated in an area where the aviation system is pretty well installed but I have an engine failure or something where I can’t glide to an airport or I can’t get back to home base or anything. All of this experience with flying in the wild in the back country, it could really save your tail. You know, to have to do an off airport landing, in a career where you generally would never ever do that. It’s that sort of training would be very useful.

Don Lee: Oh, absolutely. In the real life aspect of it, it’s not something you’re going to practice.

Chris: Right, exactly.

Don Lee: More accidents happen in practicing creating emergency, practicing emergency. So It’s not likely to get a lot of chances like this. However, emergency training is very very important. I teach people how to land on the highway. Now, the FAA in Alaska, fortunately, the State Statutes set up that it is absolutely legal to land on the highway and of course if you don’t get any training, that’s my argument with the FAA was well, would you consider emergency training an important part of aviation training?

Of course they said yes, absolutely emergency training. Then you say, well would you use the highway as an emergency airstrip on a cross country if you had an engine problem? Well, of course I would. Well, then why not teach people how to land on the highway with the cars and the signs and the uphill, downhill, all these different things? And it’s amazing once you teach emergency procedures and they got it solid, when the situation happens, your mind will resort to that primary training.

That’s one of the flight instructor’s elements of learning is that your primary instruction is a very very fundamental in your flying. When you teach emergency procedure, we know they may not use it for ten years, bang, bang, bang. You know air speed, fuel carburetor heat, gas or your protocol, your flow, and that will come back to you in a real emergency.

Chris: Yeah, just like muscle memory.

Don Lee: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: I think, there are so many different shows on flying in Alaska and really Alaska in general now. It seems to be the popular thing on reality TV but actually seems, I wonder if I saw your episode? Did you do this in the National Geographic series? Did you land on the highway?

Don Lee: Oh yeah.

Chris: Because I think I might have seen that episode.

Don Lee: Sure.

Chris: That was several years ago now, I’m, not sure how long it was that you did that.

Don Lee: All those films are on my website. If you go to the Nat Geo. They cut out all the commercials and all that other stuff so it’s just me, just what I did, it’s on my website there, you can kind of click on those, 911 and all these different ones.

Chris: And I’ll make sure to link to that in this show so the episode on avaiatorcast.com. Your website is alaskafloats.com. Tell us a little bit about your book. Where can you get that?

Don Lee: Well, I’m translating it into English. I have copies, are available on my website but they’re only written in German right now. So, I have to Americanize it so that it flows correctly.

Chris: Gotcha. I see.

Don Lee: Well, we’re working on that, usually they write books about you when you’re dead. But it’s slow for me and it was all just such a matter of fact and just my life that has to me, it didn’t seem like such a big deal all the time. But, so yeah, it’s a slow process but it’s coming back.

Chris: Cool, we’ll look out for that.

Don Lee: Yeah.

Chris: So, any last words of advice for pilots that are looking to get into flying. Maybe they’re young pilots, maybe we’re talking about your typical demographic there between 55 and 60, oh sorry, 45 and 60 as you said as people are starting to get disposable income. What is your encouragement of inspiration for those that are kind of on the fence about getting started with the flying thing?

Don Lee: Keep learning, keep learning. How much fun is that? I feel sorry for people that don’t have a passion in life, whether it’s collecting shot glasses or flying, if you have a wish, a goal, join a club. Get surrounded by fellow aviators, volunteer at an aviation museum, get involved meeting new people and just go waste some of those ambitions. Like they say, you know, today is the first day of the rest of your life. Make a decision and go for it.

Chris: Live life day by day as an adventure. I think that’s probably one of your mottos.

Don Lee: Yeah, yup, yup. We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.

Chris: I like that, great. Alright. Well, thanks for joining us on the show. Again, everyone, you
can check out Don’s stuff at alaskafloats.com. There is a lot of information there. You can even get yourself a hat or a t-shirt but I suggest you go and visit Don himself first and get some back country real Alaska flying instruction. Don, I appreciate it and you know I’m not too far away by Alaskan standards so I’m going to have to get up and take one of these courses form you. I’d actually, I’d love to learn how to fly on skis. That’s on my bucket list.

Don Lee: It was fantastic. It was good talking with you Chris and nothing but good thoughts your way and what you’re doing here. I think it’s a great program you’re making available to folks. Yeah, come on up and visit anytime.

Chris: Sounds good, appreciate it Don, take care.

Don Lee: Alright. Thank you Chris. Talk to you later.

Join us next week for another exciting topic or interview with a great guest. Spread the AviatorCast message. Please review AviatorCast on iTunes or submit an audio question for the show at AviatorCast.com. All iTunes reviews and audio questions that are aired on the show will get an official AviatorCast t-shirt. You can write AviatorCast directly on AviatorCast.com where you can interact with the AviatorCast community or write AviatorCast at me@aviatorcast.com. We’d love to hear from you. For more information on Angle of Attack simulation training videos for FSX, X-Plane and more, go to www.flyaoamedia.com. If you are looking for a professional aviation training video services and other media, inquire at www.angleofattackpro.com. Now, for the final release clearance, back to Chris Palmer.

Chris: A big thanks goes out to Don Lee for joining us on this show. Don your stories inspire us and your insight is absolutely incredible. I hope to be able to come out to Talkeetna soon and fly with you. Maybe learn on some skis or floats. I’d also love to learn how to land on a river bar or a glacier. So, expect to hear from me soon. I’ll be passing through and if nothing else you and I will meet up and have a bite to eat or something. But, I really appreciate you coming on the show. You gave us so much insight into how flying in such a wild area could help us, you know, improve our thought process, improve our skills as aviators. So, I hope that you listeners got something from this podcast along those lines.

So, don’t forget that if you enjoyed this podcast episode, leave a review in iTunes. Also, you can leave a message for the show, a question of some sort that we can answer on the show. You’ll get a free AviatorCast t-shirt. I would really appreciate that you can do that at avaitorcast.com. Big thanks to the Angle of Attack crew for all they do to make this episode possible. These guys are rock stars. They really do a lot of work behind the scenes.

You know, this is a gig that I get to do full time here at Angle of Attack and that allows me some freedom obviously to do things like this podcast for free and I really enjoy it. So, even those business processes, those, you know, the bookkeepers and other things in the background. Those people that do their work are people that allow us to do this every week. So, I really appreciate each and every team member, each and every part of our crew here at Angle of Attack for all they do.

Of course, last but certainly not least, thank you for joining us on this episode. You listeners are what makes this episode go round and round and you encourage us to go week to week and continue to improve this podcast and continue to find these great guests on the show. So, I hope you guys are getting a lot from it. Again, thank you so much for being here.

Join us next week on AviatorCast. I can tell you early, I’ve already done the interview. We’re going to be talking to the founder of LiveATC.net next week. I’m going to be doing some PR for that to make sure that we get you guys excited about that. So, expect LiveATC.net next week. It’s a really great interview, it’s a fun one and we’ll have that then.

So, until next week, and until then throttle on!


One Reply on AviatorCast Episode 56: Don Lee – Alaska Bush Pilot for 35+ Years | Skis | Floats | Glaciers | Instructor – by Angle of Attack

My dad was one of those old school bush pilots. I grew up in Sterling Alaska and he use to do touch and goes on the Hwy by our house to keep his skill up. But his best story was when my mom made him land on an abandoned airstrip on the Alaskan Peninsula and it looked nice from air but when they landed he had to cut little ssaplings to make it long enough to take off again.
Now that i in the lower 48 and i mother; i was wondering if anyone had done a book if the old bush pilots and other sourdough’s stories?
I am also thinking of getting my pilot license and so does my oldest daughter.

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