Alaskan Bush Pilots have been the brave and iconic adventurers of the skies for over a century. They have tamed America's most outlandish natural landscapes thanks to their outstanding courage and one-of-a-kind gut instinct – and Leighan Falley, a Talkeetna-based pilot, is one of them.
Falley is one of the very few female Alaskan pilots to continuously push boundaries in the great northern skies. Always graceful, even when under pressure, she explores Alaska's idyllic yet raw nature with the courage of an explorer, following her instincts, while calculating risks. “The first memory of my entire life is being in the backseat of my father's airplane,” Falley recalls. “I must have been a tiny baby, I remember feeling the airplane moving through the air and seeing the trees and the river below.”
In Talkeetna, situated some 115 miles north of Anchorage on the southern edge of the Denali National Park, Falley is one of the Talkeetna Air Taxi pilots. The company was established in the 40s, the early days of Alaskan aviation, and currently runs 10 bush aircraft. “I moved to Talkeetna about 13 years ago and the summer I moved to town I learned to fly,” Leighan Falley smiles. “The first time I flew an airplane by myself – they call it your first solo – was probably one of the most amazing moments in my life.”
In a northern wilderness filled with hazards – think blizzards and whiteouts, snow-covered glaciers, unexpected storms, heavy rains and wild rivers – raw survival skills are needed in addition to tech-savvy expertise, and Leighan Falley excels in both.
“The part of Alaska that is accessible by road is very different from the one accessible by plane. The first is more comfortable, the second keeps you away from the craziness of the big city life. It's like having two different Alaskas. I like both parts, but prefer it when the road ends because this is when airplanes begin. I like to fly the Beaver, it's my favorite Alaskan Bush Plane,” she continues. “There's a famous sign in Talkeetna which is an advertising board for the early air taxis that says 'Fly an hour or walk a week'.”
She flies to the remotest locations in Alaska in order to capture the adventurous everyday life of the Great North, while bringing mountaineers to their final destination and helping those in need. Living her dream, Leighan Falley is not only a brave pilot, but also a mother, a ski guide, an alpinist, having reached the peak of Denali Mountain six times out of twelve expeditions. “Alaska is probably my favorite place on earth,” she continues. “I've been through different continents, climbed different mountain ranges, including the Himalaya, but Alaska is my favorite. It is so big and so wild, vast and untouchable. The biosphere is intact, the animals live in their natural habitat. Mountain ranges rise from a hundred meters to six thousand meters – it's simply beautiful. In a place as beautiful as Alaska, you have to have an airplane to see all of it,” she concludes. “Discovering Alaska and climbing its mountains is a journey that involves a lot of beauty, a lot of hardship, and a lot of testing yourself mentally and physically.”