On a Wednesday afternoon at work, Sean Kveum looks outside the window to his right and spots a bear, then another one. From the cockpit of his de Havilland Beaver bush plane, he loops around to get a better look.
Life at a higher altitude with a spectacular view is the only kind of life Kveum has known since his days growing up in Hoonah.
“The only way on and off the island was by ferry or airplane,” Kveum said, recalling his early days as a young passenger admiring the art of aviation. “It’s exciting for me to be a part of this and have the opportunity to service smaller communities like Hoonah and Angoon, it’s like a reunion every time.”
Today, the 30-year-old homegrown pilot is now the safety director at Alaska Seaplanes where he has a hand in training new pilots and developing emergency response plans. With more than 250 villages statewide lacking road systems, it’s the daily trips to the grocery store and doctor visits that keep Kveum busy.
“For these small communities, we’re a lifeline, we’re the mail, we’re the Costco run, the medicine run,” Kveum said, adding that as a child he would often take similar flights, sitting behind a pilot who would later become his boss.
Mike Stedman, a co-owner of Alaska Seaplanes, said he still remembers Kveum as one of his passengers with his family. The fact that Kveum returned to Alaska and as a pilot has proved a valuable asset to the company.
“It’s great to have a local person working for us that knows the area, knows what the weather is like and has a relationship with a lot of our existing passengers,” Stedman said. “We’d hire more locals if they were available, but they’re few and far between.”
Kveum doesn’t just know the air he soars through; he also knows about the water below him from time spent as a professional fisherman. Looking out his window, he sees a boat like the one he worked on while in high school.
“Sometimes I’ll call the guys down on the boat and tell them where I see the fish are,” Kveum said.
But he only sporadically takes a look down, dividing his concentration between the screen in front of him and calls he continues to field from dispatch. Thankfully, it’s a clear day and he can take in the view while navigating his way back to Juneau after dropping off his second passenger of the day near a yacht.
Knowing this environment and studying weather patterns are crucial parts of the job. Kveum said the hills and rainfall he flies around in Southeast Alaska are different from anywhere else he’s flown, a challenge for pilots not to be taken lightly.
“It’s not for everybody,” Kveum said. “A guy just has to be prepared before he heads out and know when he has to turn around, because you’re not always going to be able to get to where you’re going.”
This year, five accidents in Alaska’s airspace have ended fatally, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The latest crash, involving a Wings of Alaska plane en rote to Hoonah from Juneau, occurred earlier this month leaving the pilot dead and four passengers injured.
These occurrences, however, don’t allow for extended resting periods in the sky. Pilots like Kveum keep going, keeping in mind the people who need the services they provide.
“It shakes things up certainly, but there’s a lot of need for what we do every day,” he said.
Stedman said that locals traveling is a major part of Seaplanes’ business, and aircraft travel is as substantial to people living on islands as a car can be to someone in the Lower 48.
In Kveum’s 10-year history as pilot, he said he’s seen several advances in technology that are making his time in the air more secure.
“A big change, especially around Southeast Alaska, is all of the different automation and GPS,” Kveum said. “We have equipment in these aircraft that will show you exactly where a train is, we have moving map displays, it’s really a lot safer than it was 15 years ago, which is huge.”
Stedman added that flying in Alaska today compared to just 30 years ago is night and day, and these technological advancements bring with them a decline in accidents.
Becoming an expert at reading a storm, predicting flight safety issues and making passengers feel secure are all part of the job when Kveum is in the air, but his job includes more than the seemingly glorious flying he does.
“Most folks probably don’t realize how much work goes into what we’re doing, how much planning and prep goes into making sure that a flight is out on time and that their bags are on the right flight and that everybody is comfortable, everybody is confident in you as the pilot and everyone feels safe,” Kveum said. “It’s really important around here for us to build relationships with the folks that fly with us on a regular basis. That takes a lot of work.”
Stedman said that trust is a big part of what keeps regular customers at Seaplanes. Often time, customers will develop relationships with pilots they feel comfortable with and request them each time they head out.
“Passengers have to trust you,” Stedman said. “That takes a while to build, but once you have it a passenger will say, “I only wanna fly with that guy.’”
It’s that familiarity with passengers and the sense of community in the air that keep the job interesting for Kveum, who said he flies 15 to 20 times a week and can usually count on seeing a familiar face each day, someone to chit chat with about the new house he bought while flying over his hometown where his dream of flying began.
The strongest relationship Kveum has, however, may be with the fleet of retrofitted Beaver planes he “tucks away at night” and admires for their simplicity and strength while carrying him in the sky. The same style of plane he sat as a passenger in during his high school day, watching a pilot cruise while listening to music, that eventually inspired him to climb into the front seat.
Kveum said as the winter season starts to settle in, shorter days and snow showers will mean more planning and timing flights around storms, but it’s the challenge of it all that keeps the job exciting and fresh for the young pilot.