Lana Tollas ’19 pilots a Cessna Caravan over northern Alaska in December.
Lana Tollas ’19 pilots a Cessna Caravan over northern Alaska in December.

True Altitude

From her thesis at Reed to the remote wilds of Alaska, bush pilot Lana Tollas ’19 has always found a way to take flight

By Chris Santella | March 7, 2024

“Want to see some bears?” Lana Tollas ’19 asks from the pilot seat of the single-engine De Havilland Beaver aircraft that’s carrying three friends and me toward Pegati Lake, some 100 miles southeast of Bethel, Alaska. Which is to say just west of nowhere.

“Sure!” we speak into our headsets. Lana eases back on the throttle and banks the plane to the left. A thousand feet below us, a mama grizzly hustles her two cubs along, alternately moving forward and stopping to make sure they’re keeping up. She eventually guides her charges into the creek, out of sight.

“Sometimes we’ll see moose or caribou here,” Lana adds as she climbs the Beaver out of the Eek Valley, back on track for Pegati. “But mostly it’s grizzly bears.”

This is less than comforting news, as my group is about to embark on a nine-day river float with just six cans of bear spray and our limited wits between us and Ursus horribilis. But it’s not our first rodeo.

Nor is it Lana’s. 

It was not a direct route that brought Lana to the Alaska tundra. She was born in San Diego, but her mother moved her and her sister to Kenosha, Wisconsin, when she was four, seeking a quieter environment for the girls to grow up in. There was a small airport near their house, and Lana was drawn to it, wanting to meet some “good, grounded midwestern people.” It was there that she eventually learned to fly. “I didn’t have a dad growing up, but I joined a flying club. Suddenly I had a whole bunch of male authority/dad figures in my life. Since my mom is of Indian descent, I felt like a bit of an outsider. Being involved with the flying club was a way to become part of things,” Lana told me in an interview some months after our flight.

Lana’s first flight in the cockpit was at age 16. She would fly once a week with her instructor. “I found it hypnotizing—it still feels that way. When you’re learning how to turn, it feels like the world is turning, but you’re staying put. I fell in love with that feeling. It was amazing.”

Flying was also a way to gracefully steer clear of the party scene that was popular with a lot of her peers. “When the other kids were getting ready to party, I told them that I had to head in, as I was flying the next day. That wasn’t considered lame; the other kids’ response was, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’”

However, Lana didn’t thrive in high school. “My school did not encourage a culture of curiosity, and I had poor grades,” she recalled. In fact, she was kicked out senior year and worked at Starbucks fulltime. Lana’s mom gave her a book called Colleges That Change Lives; it was organized by region, and she looked through thinking about the places where she might want to live—St. John’s in New Mexico, Reed in Portland. “Everything you hear about Reed says it’s a self-selecting place, very intellectual. I had good test scores and essays. I think my poor grades put traditional colleges off. But Reed saw some potential.”

Lana was a pure math major her first two and half years at Reed, and loved it. But somewhere toward the middle of her junior year, she hit a wall. “It was the first time I found myself at the edge of my capabilities, and I couldn’t push through. But I realized that there were skills I had that involved an intuitive human understanding that were less applicable in math, but could find application in a different discipline—like economics.”

Soon Lana found herself in a macroeconomics class taught by Jeff Parker [economics 1988–2020]. “Sometimes it went well for Lana, sometimes it didn’t,” he told me.  “But she decided it might be more fun than math, so she signed up for macroeconomic theory, the most difficult course in the department—even though she’d completed few of the prerequisites. She nailed it. Her energy and passion were inspiring. There was no question that she should be an economics major, even though she was making this call in the second semester of her junior year. She got it done.”

With the help of an alumnus, Jon Farr ’93 (who’d also studied under Parker), Lana was able to build her thesis around her interest in flying. Farr was working with a company called FlightStats (now Cirium) that had accumulated massive amounts of data on every flight in the world. “It wasn’t entirely clear what thesis might emerge from the data set,” Parker said, “but there was an opportunity. And Lana seemed like a great match, as she had both the quantitative skills and a statistics background.” Ultimately, they decided to look at the following question: when there’s a weather delay/cancellation/airport closure, how long does it take flights to recover to being on time? “We thought of the variables—the capacity of a given airport to add additional flights by runway capacity; where can you squeeze a flight in?” Parker added. “She built a model using data from a dozen airports, and it was a monstrous task. There was no computer system on campus big enough to crunch the data; we had to set it up in the cloud.”

Weekly flights around greater Portland helped Lana keep her sanity her senior year. She had a standing appointment every Tuesday morning with an instructor named Frank Parker in Vancouver. (Technically she already had a private pilot’s license; insurance required an instructor on board.) “I’d go to Vancouver, and we would hop from grass landing strip to grass landing strip all morning. There are a bunch in southwest Washington.”

Her thesis work led to job offers as an aviation consultant. She packed off to O’Hare in Chicago for a nine-to-five desk job. It was soul-killing. “I knew it was going to be bad after the intellectual high of college, doing my own research,” she said. “But it really sucked.” It led to one of the most questionable decisions of Lana’s life: at the height of COVID, she quit a stable job, bought her own plane (a Super Cub PA-12), and became a flight instructor in northern Illinois. “I worked a few side jobs in the Chicago suburbs in addition to my analyst job, and budgeted tightly, with no drinking and no meals out,” Lana said. “Between my three jobs and help from my mom and uncle, I was able to buy the little three-seat plane—about the same cost as a modest car.” She moved into a hangar, bringing an Instant Pot and a box full of books and clothes. She split her time between apprenticing as an aviation mechanic and teaching, when she had a student. “At the time, I was living at one airport and working at another. I was commuting to work by plane; it was 45 minutes driving, only 15 by air!”

Then she began looking north.

The old saw used to go that America’s outliers—psychologically, politically, whatever—rolled towards the nation’s edges, with California and Florida being the most likely spots for them to collect. One could make the case that, at least on a per capita basis, even more heretics make their way to Alaska, where an independent, individualistic approach to life is often a necessity, not an indulgence. Want to eat this winter? Better net some salmon and shoot a moose for the freezer.  Need to fire a woodstove? Better get in some wood. A lot of wood (one homesteader website recommends about eight cords, or 24,000 pounds if the logs are dry).

But if your passion is flying light commercial aircraft, Alaska is not such an odd place to set up shop. Alaska boasts over 665,000 square miles. That vast area is served by roughly 14,000 miles of public roads, providing access to about 20% of the state.  Be it a small city like Bethel (population 6,264), a Native Yup’ik village like Quinhagak (population 776), or a wilderness river like the Kanektok (population zero, if not counting bears), the only way in and out—particularly in the summer season, when rivers are not frozen—is by bush plane. Pilot opportunities abound, especially for those who are willing to commit to flying year-round. The work is constant, and pilots can quickly accumulate the flying hours they need to attain higher levels of certification, which translate to higher rates of pay and expanded flight opportunities.

Lana saw an Instagram job post calling for flight instructors in the winter of 2021. They wanted instructors who could teach on planes outfitted with skis and then floats. She got the job and moved up to Talkeetna (about 100 miles north of Anchorage). It wasn’t a good fit and didn’t last. Float season had begun, and everyone had finished their seasonal hiring. What now? She started making calls. Her persistence led to her first commercial flying job, out of Bettles (population 25), up in the Brooks Range. She was essentially the office lady, fueling planes and loading them. She was allowed to fly planes that had wheels so she could get on insurance. “That was my first exposure to the Beaver,” she added. “They promised I’d be flying planes the next year. Becoming a pilot is a game of accumulating hours. You have to keep paying your dues.”

The following winter brought her to Bethel—a major aviation center for western Alaska, as the city serves as a supply center/social services clearinghouse for many of the region’s Yup’ik villages. “It’s very rare to get a flying job in Alaska without putting in a winter in Bethel,” Lana observed.  She estimates that 75% of professional pilots in Alaska have worked out of Bethel at one point or another in their careers. One of her first first commercial winter flights (with a Cessna 207, notoriously harder to fly in instrument conditions) has stayed with her. “It was dark and snowing when I took off. I could see a big storm coming in; I was almost immediately in whiteout conditions, so I was flying using instruments as opposed to flying visually. As I was white-knuckling my way back to Bethel, I was thinking that I was really having to work for this. It wasn’t like summer flying.”

Nearly all the winter flights involve the transport of mail, supplies, and villagers. In the summer, recreational visitors—mostly anglers and hunters—are added to the mix, and the Beaver, outfitted with floats, takes on greater importance. “Beaver pilots are a dying breed; it’s hard to find pilots with experience,” said Justin Essian, owner of Papa Bear Adventures, an outfitter based in Bethel. “Word of mouth is the best way for outfitters and pilots to connect. That was how I met Lana. She had a good attitude and outgoing personality. Since she had experience piloting a Beaver, it helped lower our insurance costs. And she really wanted to be in Alaska. That’s important, as I want people who want to be here. It’s hard work, long hours. But you’re going to be treated well, and you’ll be part of the family.”

“I have to say that I was a little skeptical about hiring a woman as a pilot.” Essian told me. “Not because of Lana’s flying skills, but because of the physical portion of the job. You have to lift 120-pound rafts, 150-pound moose quarters. But I figured that if she has the skills and fit the general bill, she’ll figure the moving-heavy-things-around part. As long as the job gets done, I don’t care how it gets done.” And she did. For an entire summer prior to working with Papa Bear, her only job had been to load and unload rafts. In the off-season, she lifts weights. In other words, she was fit and quickly proved her mettle.

Alaska bush pilots are legally required to have 10 hours of rest daily, which means they are on call to fly up to 14 hours a day. Lana’s summer days begin at 8 a.m., getting the airplane fueled and ready to go. Most days, she’ll fly out two or three groups of guests. That means loading the Beaver (capacity is up to 1,200 pounds), flying to the lake or river where the guests will start their trip, and potentially picking up another group that’s coming off one of the rivers Papa Bear serves. It’s usually an hour out and an hour back, plus loading and unloading. Pilots are paid a day rate. “This discourages pilots from making any bad decisions about trying to fly under poor conditions for money’s sake,” Essian added.

Moose hunting season may be the most trying for bush pilots; it’s certainly the messiest. “I single-handedly flew out 24 moose,” Lana said. “The Beaver can fit 2.5 at a time. We have tarps down in the plane, but once the quarters are unloaded back in Bethel, we have to hose everything down with bleach and hot water. I do the same for myself.”

Do angling and hunting guests second-guess her judgment? Occasionally. “Sometimes there’s a guy who thinks he knows more about this than I do. You can easily get frustrated with the masculine world I work with. But I try to laugh it off. If I’m going in to pick up hunters that I didn’t drop off, I’ll show up in my hot pink raincoat, and wear lipstick. The hunters see a Beaver land in the middle of the backcountry.  I love the look on their faces when I step out: ‘All right boys, let’s get that moose on board.’ The moments when I do a good job in pink make up for any chauvinism.”

There’s a fair bit of downtime if you’re an Alaska bush pilot, especially in the winter. Lana makes hers as productive as possible. She reads a good deal and has been working on a novel, the fictionalization of the life of Reed alumna Joann Osterud ’68, who went to Reed in the 1960’s and later became a stunt pilot and Alaska Airlines’ first female pilot [In Memoriam, December 2017]. “When I was at Reed, there was lots of civil unrest,” she noted. “It was similar for her. In a way, I’m telling a familiar story.”

While flying around the bush may not be in Lana’s long-term career plan, she hopes to ride it out as long as she can. “I worry that we’re getting close to the end of manned bush flying in Alaska,” she opined as Pegati Lake came into view during our flight. “The National Park Service [which oversees 54 million acres in the 49th state] is trying to make access into parkland more humanpowered. The Beavers are old; the last one was built in 1967 [and only 1,657 Beavers were manufactured by De Havilland Canada]. We keep them working, but they won’t last forever. There’s also a push for more autonomous flying. There’s already a Caravan that flies autonomously. Within my lifetime, the jobs I’m doing won’t exist.”

Lana can easily imagine graduate school in her future. Her economics background and statistical skills would certainly lend themselves well to a career in natural resource management or environmental policy. But right now, flying is a great way to spend a day, getting paid doing something she loves.

“I think there’s a perception that all Reed students go on to become professors,” Jeff Parker reflected when we spoke about Lana. “But I think her story is an excellent example of the range of interests Reed students have beyond the classroom. They go in a lot of different directions following those interests. Given her adventurous nature and passion for flying, it’s not hard at all to think of her as a bush plane pilot.”

We touched down gently on the lake, and Lana motored us to the shoreline where two other members of our party, who’d flown in the night before, were pumping up our rafts. A few minutes later—after unloading our coolers, dry bags, fishing gear, and beers—we gave the Beaver a push to deeper water. Lana fired up the single prop and motored to the middle of the lake. Reversing her direction, she opened the throttle and soon was in the air, cheerfully waving as she sailed above us toward Bethel for her next flight out.

Chris Santella is the author of 26 books, including the "Fifty Places" series from Abrams.  A regular contributor to The New York Times and Washington Post, his first novel—"Belgian Flats"—will be published this summer by Lyons.

Tags: Alumni, Sports & Adventures