Aviation

On Becoming a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Pilot

Wildlife enthusiast Nate Olson navigates a career in aviation

Man outside of a float plane with mountains in the background
📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp

Nate Olson came to Alaska because he wanted to see more than southcentral Minnesota farmland.

Like a lot of Midwestern kids, I was drawn to mountains,” recalls Nate, the Alaska Regional Aviation Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I wanted to see something more. Basically, I just wanted to leave.”

And leave he did—but by a route that was more rather than less constraining, at least initially.

I joined the Navy on a whim,” Nate says, “and there were a few times in boot camp when I asked myself ‘What have I done?’ But it was good for me. I didn’t really have a track or goals when I left high school, and the Navy gave me structure.”

Indeed, Nate had structure aplenty in the Navy: he ended up on fast attack submarines, duty he describes as high stress, arduous and rigorously regimented.

I think the hardest part is that you’re living in an artificial environment, sometimes for 90 days at a stretch,” he says. “You’re on 18-hour day shifts, and you only know what time it is by the kind of meal you’re served.”

On the other hand, says Nate, “I got to visit a lot of places—Taiwan, Thailand, various ports in the Middle East. And I was stationed in Hawaii, so I did a lot of surfing and rock-climbing. I had a small group of friends and we committed ourselves to hiking every public trail on the islands. So I was able to spend a lot of quality time outdoors when I was back at base.

Nate also used his time in the service to do a lot of reading—particularly conservation and environmental writers. He began to plan for his future, one that included the mountains he had dreamed about as a boy.

So when I got out of the Navy, I applied to the University of Montana in Missoula,” Nate says. “It had a strong wildlife program—and it was in Montana, of course, so the Rockies were nearby.”

As an undergraduate, Nate often participated in field research projects with professors and graduate students. One of them mentioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Student Career Experience Program (SCEP), which provided field experience and a career track for students interested in federal employment. Nate applied and was accepted for an assignment to Alaska’s 4.6 million acre Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most important waterfowl and passerine songbird brood areas in the northern hemisphere and a critical habitat for a wide range of other species.

A beaver checks out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service float plane in Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Tamara Zeller

I worked there in the summers during my junior and senior years,” recalls Nate. “We lived in an extremely remote field camp, and I participated in whatever needed doing—bird surveys, fish surveys, building maintenance. I loved it. And Innoko is a spectacular refuge—it really opened my eyes to Alaska.”

It also opened his eyes to the importance of aircraft to both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work and the essential transportation needs of Alaskans.

That was brought home to me the first time I flew to the Innoko field camp from refuge headquarters [then at the village of McGrath],” recalls Nate. “The only way in and out of Innoko is by aircraft. And I also saw how essential airplanes are to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission.”

One example: Nate participated in an ambitious white-fronted goose banding project that required several airplanes. The geese were molting and couldn’t fly, and the aircraft adroitly herded them through ponds and wetlands toward a funnel net complex, where Nate and other technicians gently captured, banded and released them.

Goose banding in Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Tamara Zeller

It was extremely well-coordinated, and I really admired the pilots,” Nate says. “And when I talked to them, they told me that since I was in SCEP and looking for a job in Alaska, I might as well learn to fly. You were paid more and you had a lot more latitude in both your profession and your personal life.”

That made perfect sense to Nate, so he used the GI Bill to help finance flying lessons. He took lessons on and off for the next two years, a period that involved another season with SCEP.

I was assigned to Kodiak, which I enjoyed tremendously,” Nate says. “We did a lot of seabird work, and I spent a month on the Ayakulik River, a popular angling river for king salmon. Our job was to meet anglers flying in and teach them how to be safe in bear country—there are a lot of bears, big bears, on Kodiak.”

Learn more about Alaska’s bears. 📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp

Nate graduated from the University of Montana in 2004. Shortly thereafter, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service hired him as a fulltime wildlife biologist at Alaska’s Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. He also obtained his private pilot’s license.

The refuge headquarters is in Kotzebue, a small town north of the Arctic Circle,” says Nate, “and when my wife and I got there, I was told I was leaving immediately for three weeks on a whitefish research project in the refuge. My wife asked what she should do. She’s a nurse, so I said she should get settled in and maybe check out the hospital for jobs. When I came back, the house was set up beautifully and she was working at the hospital.”

Man in a small plane looking out
📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp

Nate figured he’d segue into a pilot’s position when he joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the requirements made him realize that the transition would not be easy. He had 50 hours of flight time when he arrived at Kotzebue, but the minimum required for an agency pilot is 500 hours, plus commercial and instrument ratings. Still, he was determined to make the cut. He bought a 1952 Piper Pacer from a pilot and instructor located in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley, who threw ten hours of training into the deal.

After a week he said I was good to go, so I took off and flew all the way back up to Kotzebue,” Nate says. “There were some big mountains I had to cross, and some fierce crosswinds near Galena where I stopped for fuel. It took me seven hours to get home, and it was a real adventure. When I took off from the Mat-Su Valley I was confident in my abilities, but by the time I landed in Kotzebue I knew I had a lot left to learn.”

A low sun over icy water in Galena, Alaska. 📷 USFWS/Keith Ramos

For the next 18 months, Nate flew every chance he got.

In the summer, I’d get up at 3:00 a.m. and fly for a few hours,” he says. “Then I’d eat breakfast, go to work, come back home and fly some more. I just concentrated on building my flight time. Then in early 2007, I took two months off to get my instrument, commercial and float ratings. Once I had everything required, I walked into my manager’s office and laid it all out, and she said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to make you a pilot.’

Nate trained with U.S. Fish and Wildlife pilots to learn the agency’s specific approach to flight missions, then transferred to Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge in central Alaska. This 3.5 million acre refuge along the floodplain of the Koyukuk River is particularly rich in wildlife—and for a Fish and Wildlife Service pilot, it’s a dream job.

Koyukuk region cow moose. 📷 Keith Ramos

In Kotzebue, I could fly between 200 to 300 hours a year,” says Nate, “but in Koyukuk, it was more like 500 to 600 hours. We did migratory bird surveys, tracked moose and caribou, vegetation surveys, melt-out monitoring along the Yukon River, fisheries work. It was a fantastic experience, both as a biologist and a pilot.”

Then in 2013, after ten years in small villages and remote refuges, Nate transferred to “the road system”—the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the Kenai Peninsula, a region south of Anchorage known by Alaskans as the state’s playground.

The flying is different, though. For one thing, pilots stationed there typically fly less, but there’s heavier air traffic, particularly on flights to and from Anchorage. Also, the weather’s different and there are a lot of big mountains. That all required some adjustment.”

man in front of a float plane on a sunny day
📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp

Another change came in 2016, when Nate moved to Anchorage to become the Regional Aviation Manager for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s now responsible for shaping and implementing policy for many aviation issues, including safety, maintenance, training and flight evaluation. As a veteran bush pilot with thousands of hours of flight time under all conditions, Nate figured he had a good perspective on the unique challenges of Alaskan aviation.

Candidly, I came in thinking I was going to fix everything and that it’d be super easy,” Nate says. “But I quickly found out that a lot of people in a lot of different agencies are involved in Alaskan aviation—including the [U.S. Department of the Interior’s] Office of Aviation Services. To get anything done, your first priority must be building trust, building relationships. You have to work with a lot of people to identify good ideas and shepherd them through to the best possible policy.”

Nate’s uniquely qualified for such efforts, says Brad Shults, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-biologist who worked in Alaska.

I met Nate in the 1990s, right after he came up here,” says Brad. “I was flying for the National Park Service back then, and you could see right away that he combined an intense interest in aviation with a general affability and an ability to get along with people.”

“He was never in a rush, never reckless—he always took the time to figure things out, which is what you want in a pilot. And he has this way of interacting with people that seems casual—that is casual—but is also highly efficient and effective. Plus, he has the respect of the pilots. He’s really skilled—he can jump in any plane the Service has and fly it.”

Throughout his tenure as aviation manager, Nate has focused on two primary goals: safety and transforming the agency’s aviation work from an auxiliary to a core program.

man standing by a plane with his hand on it.
📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp

And we’ve made a lot of progress,” he observes. “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—all the federal agencies up here, really—suffered a lot of aviation-related fatalities, largely due to inadequate training and poor maintenance.”

Culture also played a part in the poor safety record, acknowledges Nate: the rugged image of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants bush pilot could sometimes translate into catastrophe.

Changing that culture to accommodate the value of good training and maintenance has sometimes been difficult, but it’s been necessary and it’s paying off,” he says. “The aviation program has never been safer—or stronger.

When did you first join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

I started 2002 as a seasonal employee, and was hired fulltime in 2004.

What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?

Maybe that I don’t fly a great deal at this point in my career. I do get to do some flight instruction and VIP flying, but I miss the regular flying I did in my previous positions.

How do Alaska’s wild places inspire you?

Just living here, just seeing the country—especially from the air—inspires me. I don’t think I could ever go back to the Lower 48 [states]. Every time I travel someplace else, I just can’t wait to come back here.

What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources?

Things are changing and will continue to change here due to the changing climate. We don’t know what that will ultimately look like or what the impact will be on the resources. Also, the number of people who are moving to the state and utilizing the resources concern me. We always have to monitor and determine what is and isn’t sustainable.

When I’m not at work, I’m…

Balancing my family life. Also, I’m doing anything I can to get outside. Fishing is a passion, and since I’ve moved to Anchorage I’ve been able to do a lot of running and mountain biking, which has been wonderful.

What’s the greatest misconception people have about Alaska?

I’ll frame it this way: 90 percent of the visitors see only ten percent of the state. They stay on the road system, which only provides a small window into what’s out there. Our landscapes are so diverse, but visitors usually don’t get a sense of that.

What’s your most treasured memory of Alaska or your job?

Once I flew into the Kateel River from Galena with a fisheries biologist. We were collecting genetic samples from spawned-out king salmon, and we rafted a section of the river that probably had never been floated before. It was one of the wildest places in all of Alaska, and I got to experience it for a week. It’s boreal forest, with a very clear, narrow river — just spectacular country. The chum salmon were spawning, and at one point we came up on a dozen bears right at the edge of the river. They stopped and stared at us with a ‘Hey, who are you?’ look, then went back to their business. After that, we just kept seeing bears. A couple bluff charged us just to gauge our reaction, but we didn’t have any real problems. It was a wonderful trip.

What advice would you give people who want to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Figure out what you want to do, find someone who works here and who does that kind of work, then talk to them. As far as aviation goes, we’re always looking for good people. There’s a real shortage of pilots—not just for us, but for everyone in aviation, including the commercial sector. So if you love both wildlife and aviation, we have openings. There are a lot of requirements, but we have people who can map them out for you and guide you.

What wildlife species do you find particularly compelling or appealing?

I think Arctic terns are really cool. They’re circumpolar in their migrations. They breed in Alaska in the summer, then fly to the Antarctic for the winter, and they do that every year. That requires a lot of motivation.

Story by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter. Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Alaska Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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