In Print: Piloting Kodiak, AK with Willy Fulton

man with white mustachio stands with arm on propeller blade of orange sea plane

Last summer we spent a few weeks in Alaska making a short film about pilots in various parts of the state. While in Kodiak, we took to the sky with Willy Fulton for a few hours as he showed us his “office.” Later that night, we swapped stories over a whiskey or three.

How did you first decide to become a pilot?

Back in the late 80’s I was running pack trips to the wilderness in the summer and guiding elk hunts in the fall. One time I had four fighter pilots on a pack trip for ten days and I got so tired of hearing all their stories… that was it. When I got out of the mountains I tried to join the Navy but they wouldn’t have me. I was maybe a year too old and I needed glasses; they wouldn’t let me in. So I just decided to go ahead and do it on my own, I went and knocked out my commercial license shortly thereafter.

Where did you get your start piloting after that?

I did some aerial spraying and towed gliders for a bit and did a little primary instruction. That stuff just wasn’t my bag. Then I got an opportunity to start backcountry flying in Idaho and Utah and that type of flying really appealed to me. That just naturally led me to Alaska. There is so much more country that is only accessible by planes. It’s unbelievable how big Alaska is – I just had to come up here.

plane above Kodiak

How did you end up on Kodiak?

I had a pilot buddy up here and he kept telling me I needed to come check out the island. I came up here with him one time and we went out on the town one night and there was this amazing bar fight, chairs flying everywhere and I was like ‘oh yeah this place has potential.’ About two weeks later my truck was on the ferry and I was here. I’ve been here ever since.

Whats it like flying in Kodiak?

You encounter unusual situations here. That’s what keeps it interesting. It’s not routine. Every day is different. The view changes every day out of the office window too which is nice. You can get up and plan and look at the weather but you never can plan for everything. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet. You might have an emergency situation and need to respond fast but keep your cool at the same time. You’ve got to be able to make quick decisions. I like that, it keeps me entertained. When the weather is really difficult you’re always making adjustments and quick decisions while you’re flying. You might attempt to get in somewhere and and then realize it’s just not going to work.

Willy at the controls of his plane

The weather here is something that is always changing – I’m sure that has to make it a challenge to pilot here.

Oh sure – there have been plenty of times when we’re out on a trip and radio back to the base here and they tell me the wind is blowing 80 in town and not to come back. So we just go find a beach somewhere and tie down and spend the night in the plane. We always carry gear for sleeping in the plane – the weather messes with our plans all the time here, it’s just part of life.

Alaska really seems like the dream for pilots who want adventure, do you think it takes a certain type of person to fly here?

Alaska definitely draws a certain type of person. We’ve had guys come up for a day or two and vanish – just left because they couldn’t handle it and knew it wasn’t for them. It’s certainly not for everyone but if you like flying small planes in wild places, there’s nowhere better in the whole damn world.