After 38 years, Kevin Ahl says goodbye to Bering Air
On April 1, pilot Kevin Ahl set off on his last round of flights for Bering Air after a long career with the company.
“It feels like I walked through the door last week,” Ahl said. “It’s kind of amazing that 38 years went by.”
He touched down in Savoonga and Gambell, the two villages on St. Lawrence Island where Ahl regularly flew commuter flights. During his last flights, people came out to the runways to greet Ahl with signs and hugs.
“I grew to love Savoonga and Gambell—I loved everybody,” Ahl said “It was a dream come true to fly for the same company for going on 39 years. It was very emotional.”
Ahl had dreams of flying since he was a boy. He grew up in Montana, and on Christmas Eve, 1972, he said he got two important gifts from his father: a book called Wager with the Wind about Alaska bush pilot Don Sheldon, and a yellow plastic airplane that said, “private pilot lessons.” Ahl stayed up all night reading the book, and he took his first flying lesson the day after Christmas.
By the time he finished high school, he was committed to becoming a pilot. He went to flight school in Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, and finished his credentialing at Troutdale Airport. He got involved with Cessna aircraft as a ferry pilot, and he ferried aircraft out of the factory for two or three years while getting an Associate of Arts degree in business and aviation. He took a job in Utqiaġvik, but soon got a call from Jim Rowe about a job at Bering Air. He showed up in Nome in March of 1985, at age 26.
Over his career, he flew a variety of aircraft—King Air 200, Beechcraft 1900, Piper Navajo—and was proud of Bering Air’s safety standards.
“Jim always put money back into the aircraft,” Ahl said. “He did a great job on keeping the aircraft safe. We have the best mechanics in the world. We have the best philosophy on flying. We’ve never hurt a passenger.”
Ahl said he sometimes took it upon himself to enforce those standards. For instance, if he saw a young pilot take off from the 4,000-foot mark of a 5,000-foot runway, he let them know not cut corners. He said this didn’t always make him popular.
“But that’s the way Jim wanted the company to run,” Ahl said. “He wanted me to take a personal investment in the company. And I did.”
Ahl estimates that he flew about 35,000 hours for Bering Air, and more than 40,000 hours throughout his career. Through that time, he collected incredible stories. He used to fly to Diomede when planes could still land on the sea ice. He recalled the runway cracking in half behind him there once, and then when he had to take off, he only had about 250 feet to get airborne.
He flew rescue and humanitarian flights over Russia during the days when Bering Air used to fly to Russia. He once escorted a Russian helicopter that was escorting a Bering Strait balloon crossing the international border just north of Wales. Ahl said the Russian helicopter captain didn’t have any maps into the U.S. After the foggy flight, the captain gave Ahl an ivory carving as thanks.
Some of his more memorable experiences came through flying medevac flights. He once experienced an engine fire while flying with a heart attack patient on a King Air 200. He managed to perform an engine shutdown and land the plane in Nome safely during that dark night in January while the wind was blowing 25 knots out of the east.
Even though Ahl flew so many regular commuter flights, those tense medevac flights are what people often thanked him for as he said his goodbyes to passengers in Gambell and Savoonga. Ahl said his own experience having loved ones medevaced gave him compassion for people whose parents, grandparents and kids needed their lives saved on a flight. Taking on that role meant he spent a lot of Christmas Eves and New Year’s Days in Anchorage, but that was a sacrifice he was happy to make. “My job was to protect the community,” Ahl said. “That’s how I looked at it.”
His advice to aspiring pilots in Nome?
“You got to love the region, and you’ve got to want to be there,” he said. “If you don’t want to be flying at 40 below zero and flying in the dark of night, it’s not a place for you.”
Ahl also said he always tells his co-pilots and young pilots here that they always need to be thinking about survival. “Get all your ducks in a row so that you have the best possible outcome,” he said. “We already fly in very difficult conditions. Try to make it as easy as possible on yourself and have a backup. Always have a backup.”
In his retirement, Ahl said he’ll be spending time with his family, including his wife, Dr. Karen O’Neill, who used to be a physician at Norton Sound Health Corporation. He has a home in Washington, but he also has a yurt on the Snake River in Nome, where he plans to spend time with his son, who is a cargo handler at Bering Air, and his dog, Izzy.
“She’s not very she’s not a very nice dog, but I love the heck out of her,” he said.