Some first-time experiences leave an indelible impression. They settle into your long-term memory, maybe trotted out on occasion as a fun story or fond reminiscence but otherwise lay dormant until, mixed with new opportunity, become the catalyst for life changes.
For McCall resident Alana Erickson, it started with a hiking trip to Moose Creek in Montana in 2000. She was living in Oregon at the time, and a friend who was a flight instructor took her there. It was her first experience flying into the wilderness, landing on a dirt airstrip. She was enthralled.
A decade later, Erickson found herself traveling frequently between McCall and the airport in Boise, flying from there to California and Oregon for her work as a health care consultant. She started commuting on McCall Air and remembered how much she enjoyed flying in small airplanes. Soon, in 2011, she started taking flight lessons in Boise and in 2012 got her private pilot’s license. With that, she could fly herself to those consulting appointments, renting airplanes from a flying club in Boise, her business helping defray the expense.
Erickson credits Rod Nielson, chief pilot of McCall Air for giving her the idea to fly commercially. Conversations with some inspirational people and a growing pilot shortage due to additional regulations following the 9/11 attacks made the idea seem doable. By the summer of 2016, Erickson realized, “I can do this for a living.” She started pursuing her goal in earnest, accumulating hours and obtaining her instrument, commercial and finally her multi-engine commercial ratings.
Not many make an abrupt career change as they’re approaching 50, especially one that might take years to implement, but age didn’t deter Erickson. Once a pilot has 250 hours, they can obtain a commercial certificate and become a flight instructor, tow banners, fly skydivers or ferry aircraft, which is a great way to obtain even more hours. With 500 hours, a pilot can fly under FAA rules part 135, allowing them to fly on-demand charters and business flights with passengers. The next benchmark is 1200 hours, when the pilot can fly with passengers under instrument flight rules (meaning they’re able to fly in all sorts of weather, using instruments rather than solely visual means). With 1,500 hours, they are eligible to be hired at a regional or major airline upon achieving their “ATP” or Airline Transport Pilot rating. Erickson currently has 1400 hours and says that ultimately, she’d like to fly for the Forest Service out of McCall. They require a total of 2,500 hours flight time, including 200 hours in multi-engine airplanes, a requirement that’s challenging for Erickson to get. Lately she’s been flying right seat in a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air to gain multi-engine time and experience.
For new pilots, commercial flying is a rewarding yet challenging lifestyle. For example, Erickson is currently working for a company flying cargo and occasionally works for Air Evac Life Team, a medevac service, picking up work as a floater pilot, filling in when needed. Both companies commute her from McCall to her job location. “It’s living out of a suitcase,” says Erickson. And then there’s the issue of income. “In flying, you start at the bottom,” says Erickson. “There’s no steady paycheck, which is a challenge.” For example, her first low-time flying job was in Bethel, Alaska, flying passengers and cargo into the small bush villages of the Kuskokwim Delta. Then, during the summer of 2016, Erickson flew tourists over the Grand Canyon and last summer she flew clients into Idaho’s backcountry. While she enjoyed the flying and the passengers, there was never any guaranteed number of hours. Erickson notes that when she started earning money as a pilot, flying jobs made up 20% of her income and her health care consulting work the other 80 percent. Now, she says those sources have flipped.
In other words, don’t give up your day job as you begin your new avocation.
Erickson’s current flying job involves moving cargo for Ameriflight. “It’s not fun,” she says. “I like people. But this is my time-building job. They know I’m going on to an airline.” Erickson added that she doesn’t care for medevac flying, either, in part because she sees it not so much as saving lives but instead helping those who have insurance make a last-ditch effort to find one last treatment. “I had a guy die on the plane who, according to the medical crew, was never stable enough to have been transported but the family insisted, stating ’but we paid for this Life Team insurance for a reason,’” Erickson says. “The shifts are twelve hours, waiting for a call. I had to try it, see if I’d like it. I don’t.”
Horizon Air has offered Erickson a job and will pay for a flight instructor certification (CFI) to help her get the remaining hours she needs to qualify. Her timing, in terms of switching to a career as a commercial pilot, couldn’t be better. Airlines and cargo carriers are experiencing a shortage of pilots. Pilot pay and job details are improving as companies strive to acquire and retain pilots. But Erickson is also considering taking a “gap season” before committing to an airline job to fly for a charter operator in Alaska, living in Fairbanks and flying a Piper Navajo/Chieftain to Denali and above the arctic circle, hauling passengers and cargo. Figuring the airline jobs will still be there this fall, why not? “Flying for me is so fun because it’s new, especially backcountry flying,” says Erickson. “It’s all seat-of-the-pants flying, no auto-pilot, and your main resource is other pilots on the radio. You’re all sharing information. There’s no other way to know but to go. It doesn’t matter if you work for the competitor. I love the camaraderie.” Erickson continues to get that “seat-of-the-pants” flying rush when flying out of McCall. “A couple years ago I flew with some people into one of the shorter backcountry strips here in Idaho on a training flight,” she says. “One of the passengers was a Southwest pilot, and he said, ‘Now this is really flying.’ It is extremely rewarding to provide someone a once-in-a-lifetime experience flying into our beautiful Idaho wilderness.”
Of course, such seat-of-the-pants flying doesn’t come without risks, and for all new pilots there is a learning curve with lessons learned from experience. Erickson recalls a flight during the summer of 2017 that taught her to rely on her instincts. “I took some clients into Indian Creek in the Frank Church Wilderness and dropped them off. There’s no cell reception, so I had no way of tracking the weather. As I neared Sulfur Creek Ranch airstrip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon there was dense smoke from a brand-new fire. The smoke turned orange; I was right over the fire! I had to decide the best direction to get out, and went to Cascade rather than Boise.”
Another flight taught Erickson that her training kicks in just when and as it should. It happened while working as a bush pilot in Alaska in 2015. Flying is the way people living in such remote places get to other places, so most have been flying since infancy. “I took off with a heavy load of people and gear,” Erickson recalls. “I got to a thousand feet, above a bay, and the engine quit. I automatically turned back toward the airport and started going through the restart procedure and got it restarted. The passengers went from totally silent to screaming. I made a hard landing; safe, but hard!”
It’s during those intense flying moments that Erickson describes being in the zone, having a sense of “flow” that’s backed up with checklists. “We pay an enormous amount of attention to safety,” says Erickson. “We have safety stand downs, where pilots leave their ego behind and freely say ‘I screwed up, here’s what I would do differently.’ Every operator has at least one meeting per month.” Each experience – whether one’s own or that of another pilot – is a learning experience and keeps everyone safer.
Erickson attributes her willingness to make such a drastic career change at a point in life when most are plotting their retirement date to some pivotal life events. In 2001, she was living in Seattle when the Nisqually earthquake hit, a magnitude 6.8 shaker that rattled residents of the normally placid city. “I remember stuff falling, a rolling sensation, eerie and nauseating. There were no cell phones then, and I was scared because my fiancée was commuting by bicycle. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ In 2005, Erickson moved to McCall for a job in health care management. A couple years later, she was helping care for a friend’s mother who was battling cancer and died at age 64. The woman and her husband, like many, had saved money throughout their working lives, deferring travel and other life experiences until retirement, but now she would never enjoy those long-delayed activities or the fruits of her hard work. The couple had just purchased an RV for their retirement traveling; a few months after the woman passed, her husband was found in the RV, dead of a massive heart attack. “Seeing that, I decided I was going to live my life now, not put it off,” says Erickson.
For Erickson, flying has become the focus of living her life now, fully, chasing a dream that became a passion and now a profession. She hasn’t been able to spend much time in McCall for the past two years as she’s pursued flying jobs across the West, acquiring hours, skill and certifications. She credits a group called The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, for mentoring her as she worked her way through the steps toward commercial certification. Paying it back, Erickson now mentors a twenty-year-old pilot. “The female flying community is incredibly supportive,” says Erickson.
In the next month or so, Erickson will decide whether to pursue the seasonal post in Alaska, start with Horizon Air or follow one of many other options. Whatever the choice, Erickson’s excited about her direction and wouldn’t change a thing about her “mid-life crisis,” reinventing herself from health care consultant to commercial pilot. “I didn’t feel like I was making a difference after thirty years in health care. My only contribution was helping doctors deal with bureaucracy – and our healthcare quality outcomes are still below many countries that spend far less on this sector,” says Erickson. “With flying, I can contribute in a personal way to people’s lives.”
And have a great time while she’s at it.[You can learn more about the Ninety-Nines, an international organization inspiring women pilots since 1929, here.] [Cover photo: Beechcraft 350 King Air cockpit, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]