Flying Lessons

Alaska Bush Pilot Ken Richardson Talks About Life In The Air

Ken Richardson is a pilot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Cold Bay, Alaska. He began flying for the Service in 2004, after decades of experience flying small planes throughout the state.

Ken Richardson in a Cessna 185.

“I got this wild idea,“ he remembers, on his way to join the local airport flying club, “this is what I’m going to do…”

Remembering his wild ideas.
Richardson’s hand curls around the propeller of the Cessna 185.

“I Love the Challenge”

We stand beside a small white plane with orange and black stripes down the side. Richardson’s gnarled hands curl around the propeller as he talks about the numbers and letters painted near the tail. This is November 735 Hotel Bravo (N735HB), and it is the last Cessna 185 “Skywagon” plane ever built. He has flown this plane at both of the Alaska Refuges he has worked for, over the wide tundra north of the Yukon River and between the still-smoking volcanoes and long coast of the Alaska Peninsula.

Opening the door and standing outside of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hangar in Cold Bay, Alaska.
Pushing the plane out of the hangar onto the tarmac.

“I love it out here. The weather will try its darnedest to throw a wrench into the gear sometimes. But you know, I love the challenge. And I mean, it’s a challenge every day that you go out.”

A fall rainstorm sweeps over the foothills of Izembek Refuge.

“I’ve had these engines quit in these airplanes. And if you’re not prepared for it, it’s quite the eye-opener. Because when that engine quits making noise? My goodness, does it get quiet in the airplane.”

Richardson’s hand curves with years of habit around yoke of the plane.

“When you fly in Alaska, and get away from the big cities, all the decision making in that flight is on the pilot’s shoulder, there’s nobody else there that’s going to hold your hand and get you through it.”

Some views from Richardson’s “office”: the world-famous Izembek Lagoon is an immense eelgrass bed on the northern coast of the Alaska Peninsula. It sits between the town of Cold Bay and the Bering Sea. Photo Left: Lisa Hupp/USFWS; Photo Right: Kristine Sowl/USFWS.

The Ultimate

“Every day you get to fly is like a little bit of sunshine. And one of these days I’m gonna have to pull the mixture for the last time, chock the wheels, and walk away from it.”

Richardson reflects on a career that began and ended with service to his country.

“I’ve enjoyed it, and I’m glad I get to work for the people of the United States of America.

You know, to me, that’s the ultimate.”

Richardson and plane on the tarmac at Cold Bay, Alaska

Flying Lessons: In His Own Words

Ken Richardson shares some wisdom from 40 years of flying in Alaska:

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service