Third-generation pilot Leighan Falley on the importance of tundra tires, the devastating effects of the "white wind," and the sublime beauty of the Alaska Range
Like a lot of people who grew up in Alaska, Leighan Falley couldn’t wait to escape the state. After high school, the 36-year-old tried out Utah, Colorado, and Montana, among other states, but she always found herself missing home. She was especially drawn back to the Alaska Range and its crown jewel, Denali, which she had wanted to climb ever since she was a young girl and where she had a harrowing experience as a young woman.
Eventually, she figured out how to make a living in the mountains—as a heli ski guide in the winter and climbing guide in Denali in the summer. Then marriage and a daughter, Skye, came along. Following in her family’s footsteps, Falley now makes her living as bush pilot, soaring around the massive peaks that have always defined her.
I grew up in Fairbanks in a family of pilots. My dad flew, my grandmother flew, and my aunt flew.
I got my license from a flight school in Talkeetna. I was the first student. It wasn’t all that hard learning to fly there because I’d already spent time climbing in the Alaska Range. For me, it felt like a nice comfy place. But I don’t think it’s feels that way to someone fresh out of Florida.
It’s not hard being a female pilot in Alaska, but that’s also the wonderful thing about aviation. The airplane, the mountains, and the weather—they don’t know you’re a woman. And when passengers are nervous, it’s more about youth than gender. They expect to see the classic older white gentleman with white hair at the temples, while we have young pilots, and female pilots, and pilots of different races and ethnicities.
I had one close call while flying—engine failure caused by ice. I had to land on a riverbar with no engine. I was by myself, but I got lucky. I stuffed my jacket in the aircraft’s cowling and waited until the ice melted. I sat there collecting myself, and then took off.
I was lucky to have tundra tires on my plane. If not, I would have flipped.
I’ve wanted to be a climber since my mom started reading me climbing tragedy stories—like Art Davidson’s Minus 148—when I was 10.
That’s how old I was—I remember it distinctly—when I told her I wanted to climb mountains. It was summer solstice, and you could see the Alaska Range shimmering on the horizon. I pointed to Denali and said, “I want to climb that one.” She looked at me and said, “That’s the biggest.”
I didn’t attempt to climb Denali until I was 20, on a NOLS course. We got caught at 18,000 feet in what’s called a “white wind.” A microblast lifted two of our four tents into the air and threw them down the glacier. I was in one, and our tent caught on fire because we were cooking. I remember when it landed and rolled down the glacier—a tumble of legs and gear. I could smell burning. I thought This is so bad—to be hit by an avalanche while the tent’s on fire. We spent the next several days fighting for our lives, but a Lama helicopter eventually came and we hiked out on our own power.
Three years later, I got a job guiding Denali. I thought it was a lot of hard work. I don’t know if I ever truly enjoyed it.
My favorite thing about flying is that you can do things like go camping in really remote spots, with all of your flying friends and kids, and you get to see things no one else sees, like the most outrageous Northern Lights.
My daughter’s first word wasn’t airplane, it was “No.”
I hope selfishly when she grows up, she stays in Alaska, but just hope she pushes herself in whatever she wants and is happy.
Every time we go to the airport, she asks where we’re going camping.
We fly all the time. I flew with her yesterday. We went all the way down to Mount Redoubt, landed on the beach, collected seashells and harvested clams, which she cleaned back at home with her dad.
If you come all the way to Alaska, the one thing you definitely have to do is fly the Alaska Range. In springtime, before the tourist season, we get a lot of lifelong Alaskans who have never done it. They say it's the most beautiful thing they've ever seen.
Built for close calls in far-flung places. Built for tall tales and epic adventures. Built for finding comfort well outside comfort zones. Built for the wild.