My experiences in Alaska benefited considerably from the character of many with whom I became acquainted. In some ways they projected a presence that seemed “realer” than that of the quasi-urbanized east coast sort common to where I call home. Not saying that either one holds an advantage as being better or worse as a human being, but realer? I say yes.
To a degree I believe that the beauty and challenge associated with life in this water wonderland that clings like a barnacle to the southern tip of Alaska shapes the character of those who call this archipelago home. It stamps each with a decidedly “made in Alaska” personality. Not so much a chip on their shoulder, far from it, it is more like they are playing an honest hand with chips in the game.
Emblematic of this living life in living color mentality is a woman whose trip to Ketchikan in 1985 profoundly altered her future vision. She never left. Meet Michelle Masden, Alaskan bush pilot.
Reaching the heights of her dreams on the wings of a deHavilland Beaver
Smart, confident, engaging, rugged as the Alaskan terrain and just as pretty, Michelle Masden does not fit conventional wisdom’s image of an Alaskan bush pilot.
Interestingly, it was Michelle’s airplane that led to my meeting Michelle. Seeking the source of the powerful, lumpy, growl building from a radial engine peaking to a crescendo from a nearby waterfront dock led me to a beautifully restored vintage floatplane and its owner and pilot Michelle Masden.
Like a featured vehicle at a concours firing up to take a trophy lap, the plane, a 1959 deHavilland Beaver roared to life. Decked out in a striking livery of red, white and silver, it clearly took “Best in Show” among the area’s large population of floatplanes. Named the Lady Esther, it honors Michelle’s grandmother who hated to fly but whole-heartedly supported Michelle’s airborne dreams.
One of a series of deHavilland DHC-2 aircraft built between 1947 and 1967, now completely restored, this deHavilland Beaver started out as a military surveillance plane. As a military plane this model had been relied upon by more than 30 countries. It began life in 1959 equipped with a machine gun drive synchronized with magneto timing allowing it to fire harmlessly through the propeller. As well, it came equipped with a camera bay allowing for mounting cameras vertically down through the belly to photograph enemy territory. The camera bay remains. The machine gun does not.
Standing, no correct that, I quickly realized that Michelle never seems to stand still, especially around her floatplane. We spoke while she actively tended to her plane, much like a concert musician tended to her violin. Shortly a new half dozen or so tourists would be arriving to fly into Alaska’s Misty Fjord National Monument or go into the bush to set down and witness the interaction of bears and salmon.
Generous and polite in sharing the little time available, she first spoke of her plane, then of herself.
Michelle purchased her floatplane from Kenmore Air of Kenmore, Washington in 2002. Much like the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, Kenmore stands as the go-to experts for deHavilland Beaver restoration and upgrades.
Powered by a 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney 9-cylinder radial engine, Lady Esther is a very capable lady. With its large wing area and powerful engine, the Beaver displays exceptional STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) performance making it a favorite of bush pilots. It certainly ranks at the top of Michelle’s list. She says, “This is a fabulous plane. It was designed to take off and land in relatively short spaces. That is what my business is all about. In my opinion no floatplane does it better.” The last one left the factory over 50 years ago. Nothing built since then has supplanted its number one ranking in the bush pilot community.
Born to be a pilot, Michelle took her first flying lesson at the age of 16. By the age of 17 she had earned her pilot’s license. Later, fresh from graduation at the University of Nebraska with dreams of becoming a commercial airline pilot, Michelle came to Ketchikan as many College students did to enjoy a post college summer fling. The year was 1985. Seduced by the beauty and character of the 5,000 island Alexander Archipelago in which Ketchikan is situated, Michelle’s goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot morphed into a dream that would be her life’s passion and profession.
Michelle says, “In experiencing Ketchikan I realized that I did not want to have the life of a commercial airline pilot flying from city to city living in hotel rooms.” Michelle realized her life would be lived in the skies over Alaska. Making her dream a reality posed many obstacles. First and foremost ranked the need for a plane around which she could build a business. Her present job as a deck hand on a sailboat paid nothing other than free transportation to Alaska. However her salvation would be found at sea. She went to work as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat. Being a “girl” the offers did not pour in. But Michelle is nothing if not tenacious and strong willed. Once she got a job each subsequent year finding work would not be a problem. Michelle says, “The first summer, it was challenging to get on a boat. However after that, no. Why, because for anyone who isn’t a hard worker, it shows immediately. Up front everyone knows that it’s not going to work, right? But anyone who demonstrates an ability and willingness to put in the effort will get work.” She had eleven job offers her second year. Michelle ended up crewing on a fishing boat for seven summers. The money was good and it allowed her to pursue her second passion, traveling.
The first three years she fished for three months and traveled for 9 months. By her fourth summer she had saved enough to buy her first airplane, a Cessna 172, a little four-seater on wheels.
For the next four years she continued to fish in the summer but, now, the other nine months would see her flying her Cessna out of Saint Croix doing inter-island ferry work. Now the dream had gained some momentum. In 1993 she sold the paid off Cessna 172 and bought a Cessna 185 floatplane and settled in Ketchikan to live full time. She set her sights on building the business that would bring her dreams to life. Michelle started Island Wings Air Service. Interestingly her experience on the water gave Island Wings the boost needed to get it off the ground. She says, “My fist customers were fishermen because that was an industry I knew from the inside. The commercial fleet uses airplanes for spotting fish, tender placement, delivering parts and people.” From there her business expanded into tourism, transportation to forest service cabins, charter work and basically anything people need that will fit in an airplane.
Michelle recognizes that no accomplishment comes without help from those around you. She says there were many but expresses a special fondness for veteran bush pilot and flight instructor Jack Cousins who generously shared all he had learned in over 50-years in the Alaskan sky. Michelle says, “ Jack called Alaska the greatest place in the world to fly.” Jack passed away in 1999. Michelle says, “He was a great friend and mentor. I miss him.”
Michelle’s life in the air above Alaska has offered a rich diet of life experiences across a spectrum of emotions. She says, “I fly famous muckety-mucks all the time. I have to sign a nondisclosure so that I can never tell anyone that they were here. What kind of life is that?” Michelle also performs medevac flights and participates in search and rescue missions. She says, “Search and rescue is really difficult because it is never a nice day and often times you know the people you are looking for.”
Island Wings now approaches its 30th year in business. It stands as a true success story and a tribute to an enterprise built on the dreams and dedication of a woman with her head in the clouds and her mind squarely focused on sharing the beauty of Alaska with others. Michelle’s success in translating her passion and sharing her joy can best be expressed by comments on the Trip Advisor travel site where of 757 reviews of their experience with Michelle and Island Wings, 18 say very good. 728 say excellent.
Great story about following your dreams.
Thank you and you are dead on about following your dreams.
Another excellent piece! I honestly believe all of us airline pilots have a latent, secret desire to be living Michelle’s type of lifestyle, where every day brings new vistas and happy people into your world. Not to mention the Beaver is one cool ride, and Lady Esther is almost as easy to look at as Michelle is. There is something telltale about the staccato roar of a radial engine that forces everyone, pilots especially, to look to the sky. Wishing Michelle tailwinds and blue skies………..
Insightful comments and high praise indeed from a former Top Gun pilot and airline pilot. Thank you for being a loyal Drivin’ News reader.
Fascinating person and story well told, as always, Burton!
Thank you for the kind feedback and, yes, Michelle is just that.
Having flown on a float plane in Alaska it truly is an awesome experience. So much admiration for those folks. You wrote it in a way that takes you there. Great Job!! Great to see you. Enjoy North Carolina!! Gynn
I am please to learn that this is yet another life experience we share.
It is a fine morning here in Ketchikan. I just watched Michelle’s plane take off. I appreciate Michelle, Esther and Island Wings even more after reading your article!
Thank you for your eye witness report from the best picture window in Ketchikan.