Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 58 seconds.
Leighan Falley is an Alaska-based aviatrix and mountain guide who enjoys exploring (and pushing past) physical and environmental boundaries. And although in most aviation circles, females are an anomaly, Falley said it’s the norm in Alaska.
She describes a “big band of female pilots” that spend a lot of their time flying together. To the women who fly in Alaska, the fact that less than seven percent of pilots in the rest of the country are female is unthinkable. In the small town of Talkeetna, “aviation is so normalized in the culture,” said Falley.
“The plane has no idea what gender you are. The weather, the airplane, and the mountains don’t know that you’re a woman.
“I don’t think there’s near as much ego wrapped up in it here [in Alaska], because you can’t throw a rock without hitting a pilot,” she quipped.
In her youth, Falley said she’d watch the bush planes overhead and wonder where they were going — likely on some breathtaking adventure that only her imagination could afford.
“I always knew I wanted to fly because I wanted to see the rest of my state,” said Falley. “I grew up in the interior of Alaska, and there were always these enormous, roadless landscapes, and the only way to get to them was by airplane.”
Falley grew up around aviation; she has memories as far back as toddlerhood of sitting at the controls of a Piper Archer, next to her grandmother. Her father, also a pilot for Atlas Air Cargo, was a Boeing 747 captain.
But the “true inspiration” for becoming a pilot, she enthusiastically recalled, derived from her time as a mountain guide. Riding as a passenger back and forth from the base camp in the air taxi was enough inspiration for her to get her license.
Now, Falley is the subject of Denali’s Raven, a 2017 Mountainfilm documentary highlighting the life of an Alaskan bush pilot. The documentary follows her journey from mountain guide to mountain pilot — focusing on how motherhood drove her to leave guiding for a more reliable career as an air taxi pilot.
“It was all about work-life balance, and that really pleased me,” she said, referring to her current position as a pilot for Talkeetna Air Taxi. “It resonates with a lot of women. It’s like, ‘Oh, you can be a mother, and you can fly, and you can have a career.’”
Learning to Fly
“I started in Talkeetna for my private, and then I did the rest of my ratings in Fairbanks and Anchorage,” said Falley.
When asked about obstacles she faced during training, as with most pilots, she said the biggest was the financial burden.
“It was a real struggle because I was trying to do it on my own,” she told Skies.
She was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Skye, when she finished her instrument training.
“I gave birth to her eight days after I got my instrument rating, so [I was] balancing a lot. And then, when I got my CFI and my commercial, it was a great balancing act — finances, children, and career.”
Like most pilots, the first solo stands out in Falley’s highlight reel as one of the best days of her life. Falley said she “remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I remember just feeling wildly excited and really confident and thinking, ‘This is amazing.’ There was no fear. I was just like, ‘I am ready,’” she recalled.
As a new pilot, she said she learned to compartmentalize fear and self-doubt, knowing that it would only degrade her performance.
At the time, she worked as an expedition guide on Denali, which she said she knew wouldn’t be sustainable long term.
“Not even into my mid-30s was it going to be a sustainable career because it’s a demanding, dangerous profession; you’re gone all the time, and it doesn’t pay very well,” said Falley.
Flying was “always going to be the safer option.
“And [flying for a living] would let me come home every night,” she added. “So, [becoming a pilot] was always kind of planned.”
Talkeetna Air taxi
You’ll find Talkeetna, Alaska, situated a little over 100 miles north of Anchorage. It sits on “the southern edge of Denali National Park.”
Five to seven days a week, Falley provides air taxi services to (mostly) tourists who wish to visit the Alaskan mountain range.
For Falley, a mom of two, piloting a DHC-3T Turbine Otter — with a Honeywell TPE331-12 engine — for Talkeetna Air Taxi allows her to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Although, thanks to a boom in tourism, this past season was hectic.
“I flew way more than normal, and I didn’t get to see my kids because they already were in bed by the time I got home,” she said.
“In March, April, and May, almost all flights that we do take climbers and skiers back and forth. It’s a cool time of year because people come from all over the world,” she said.
Falley “just got signed off to land pretty much anywhere,” an accolade she described as “the zenith” of her aviation career.
“The mountains we fly in are the tallest, most jagged on the continent,” she added. “The terrain and the changing weather are manageable risks, but not to be taken lightly.”
Falley laughed as she shared her one-liner for soothing her passengers: “We are not in the business of being dangerous.”
Today, with over 4,000 flight hours under her belt, she’s flown a slew of tailwheel aircraft under some of the most intense conditions.
The self-described “newbie” pilot said her bucket list flight experience would be to “see the other side of aviation.
“We do a little IF [instrument flying] here, as long as there’s no ice,” she said.
“We’ll go through a cloud layer, and then we’ll cancel it and go land on a glacier and pick up IFR to come home. It’s really cool, but we don’t get to do too much of it. So, I’d love to learn more about that and get more comfortable.”
She’s been described as “graceful under pressure,” which she’s too humble to admit.
“Climbing was really dangerous and it taught me a lot about risk management. So, I feel like I came into aviation with this really well-developed sense of risk versus reward.
“Being in a dangerous situation and staying calm [while] fixing a dangerous situation definitely came from being a climber first.”
Falley said although flying the Alaskan range may feel like a “giant vertical maze” to a visiting pilot, to her, it’s home — and she knows it like the back of her hand.
“I know my way around them, and I know the weather patterns; there are different weather patterns for different parts of the mountain range,” she said.
Denali’s Raven was the “brainchild of climbers and filmmakers (and longtime friends) Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson of Camp 4 Collective.”
The pair were filming a different production when they ran into Falley and proposed that she be the “star” of their next documentary.
“They were like, ‘Can we film you, flying your bush line?’ and that’s where it all started. We were ripping around and landed on gravel bars. We had a great time, and some cool footage came out of it,” she said, admitting she was initially wary of the entire thing.
“But then it turned out like a love note. I liked that it didn’t promote me, or me being some cute girl next to an airplane,” she laughed.
A Family Affair
Today, Falley owns a Piper PA-20 Pacer, which she taught her husband to fly. It’s considered the family car, used for camping excursions, beach trips, tundra rides, and landing on gravel bars.
“She has wings, and she’s worthy,” Falley joked. “It’s converted, and it’s on big tundra tires in the summer and then on skis in the winter.”
She said all the pilots that she flies taxi with have their own airplanes. “And we all wonder how people in Alaska who don’t have airplanes do it.”
During the opening scene of Denali’s Raven, you’ll get a glimpse of her daughter, Skye.
“She especially wants to be a pilot,” said Falley. “But she’s nine; there’s a lot of time for her to change her mind.”