Trent Griffin

In the Don Sheldon Amphitheater

Trent and the Beaver in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, Denali National Park, Alaska

  • Glacier pilot in Alaska
  • Skydive pilot in Hawaii
  • Surfer

Dreams require tinkering. It’s the impetus of invention, even in one’s self—it’s the audacity to try and fail yet persevere through. “I’m afflicted with the obsession of just tinkering with stuff. I get it from my dad.” Similarly to his Dad, tinkering instilled Trent with the follow-through to succeed, no matter what the challenge.

Technically, Trent’s story begins in Australia, but while he and his brother were still babies his parents transplanted the family to Talkeetna, Alaska. The house was in shambles so his dad fixed it up while the rest of the family stayed in Anchorage. “It was pretty trashed. I believe there was a motorcycle inside the living room taken apart, and the outside steps for the porch were, like, out in the middle of the yard somewhere. To boot, it was 35 below zero for like a month that winter.” Trent’s dad persevered and renovated the home in which the boys would grow up. That ability to hunker down, see a project through, and enjoy the how-to process is something his dad passed onto him. “My dad’s always been my hero, and I take after him in most things. He’s an amazing builder and mechanic, and he just loves to tinker.”

Talkeetna signTalkeetna, Alaska is the aviation hub of the Alaska Range, and the pre-base-camp hangout for most Denali climbers. Therefore, many aviation legends and climbing tales are spun in this little community of about 1300 people. Trent grew up less than a quarter mile from the town’s 3500ft airstrip, but consciously speaking, that proximity played little part in his career choice. Before college, he was just a regular kid playing hockey and working on cars. “INoParking actually didn’t fly an airplane, I mean actually sit at the controls of the airplane until I was in college. I just didn’t have somebody to go flying with the whole time. If I did, I’m sure I would have gotten into it a lot earlier.” Therefore, when he did pursue his pilot’s license it was a very cognizant choice.

After graduating high school with approximately eighteen other students, Trent’s parents encouraged him to pursue professional aeronautics at University of Alaska Anchorage, during which time he earned his private pilot’s license and instrument rating. By then, Trent had 95 hours—he also had an epiphany. He thought, “Why do I need to pay all this money to be part of a university setting when I could just be part of a flying club?” This was a defining choice in two ways. First off, he paid far less per flight hour than he did renting a plane—not to mention he saved on tuition fees. Perhaps more importantly, though, joining a flight club exposed him to tailwheels and ski planes—the latter particularly is a specialized type of flying that few people have access to, let alone consistently, but which nourished Trent’s adventurous side. “Flying on skis was awesome. It made flying this total open abyss where you could go, especially in Alaska. You’ve got lakes everywhere, flat surfaces, and tons of snow. As long as you’re being careful you can get there on skis.”

Trent and I met in Alaska at our first aviation jobs, albeit in much different capacities. Trent was essentially a co-pilot and I was the office manager/flight coordinator for the same company. I was starry-eyed about the unique brand of flying it showcased. In high school, I attended a career day pilot’s talk, but my dreams of adventure were dashed when the speaker painted a limited reality of airlines, military, or both. But Alaska offered something different: the opportunity to fly in in unique places and tinker one’s career around a nomadic lifestyle. At the time of employment, Fly Denali and Talkeetna Aero operated jointly—Fly Denali landed climbers and tourists on Mt. McKinley’s (Denali’s) glaciers in ski planes, while Talkeetna Aero employed twin engines equipped with supplemental oxygen to fly over the mountain’s summit at 20,306 feet. Eventually, Trent would fly both types of aircraft as pilot in command, but back then he was second in command in the twins. Trent’s aviation career was just taking off.

Stony Hill 001

Office with a view

After the summer at Fly Denali/Talkeetna Aero, with about 575 flight hours logged, Trent went to Bethel, Alaska and became a bush pilot for Grant Aviation. At this point, it’s useful to define what a bush pilot is precisely, since the term bush pilot is often sloppily used to encompass all Alaskan aviation.

Trent with a 98 yr old woman in Western Alaska, who made him a fur hat from beaver and seal.

Trent with a 98 yr old woman in Western Alaska, who made him a hat from seal and beaver fur.

The majority of Alaska is cut off from the road system that connects the state to Canada and then feeds back into the contiguous United States—a fact which pleases most Alaskans. Case in point, when the only road into the fishing community of Valdez was annihilated by an avalanche last winter the town shrugged it off and used boats to fill the void. Boats, sled dogs, snow machines, and bush planes are the unifiers between communities off the road system. “You can fly five minutes out of Anchorage and you’re out in the wilderness, but you’re not a bush pilot, you’re taking off out of Anchorage,” Trent explains. Most pilots agree that a pilot’s point of origin and intended destination must be off the road system to qualify as bush flying.

Winter flying in Western Alaska is not only off the road system, but it’s often brutal, and Trent’s experience was no exception. “That was pretty real. It was super windy, it was super slick, the runways were just solid ice.” Most Januaries produce more snowfall, but it was a warm winter. “Everything was, like, water over ice with little bits of peat gravel showing through.”

He recalls his first day waiting for the company instructor in the Cessna 207, which was tied down but not yet started. “It was blowing something like 25 gusting to 30-something. That’s pretty fast, especially when you’re just sitting there and the plane’s rocking all over the place and you hear these wind whistle sounds going by. But as soon as I got in the air I was like ‘okay, this isn’t so bad.’ A plane in the air can handle quite a bit—more than you think they can.” Trent adopted the challenges as learning opportunities. “The thing that it taught me is to make the right decision and listen to that little voice inside your head because you’re probably right. If you start pushing that limit too many times then you’ll probably have an accident. You have to realize: who are you proving it to?”

Concerning safety, some companies have a reputation for shopping unfavorable bush flights around the pilot lounge until someone finally accepts. Thankfully, Grant wasn’t one of them. Ultimately, it’s the pilot’s decision to refuse a flight but Trent encountered several self-righteous pilots on his three “tours of duty” in Western Alaska. “They were seeing how far they could take it. I’ve seen a few where the guy took off, it’s dark, it’s only seven-fifteen in the morning and they’re not supposed to be off until eight, and ten minutes of flying and their airplane was covered in ice. It’s scary looking—the spinner had spikes coming off of it. You see what their motivation is and it’s not worth it. It’s really not.”

Photo by MIchael DeYoung

Photo by Michael DeYoung

A few years of experience later, Trent returned to his roots as the chief pilot at Fly Denali. In an effort to boost his company’s reputation, Trent accepted an invitation to be filmed for National Geographic’s Alaska Wingmen, which meant flying the turbine beaver with a camera crew in tow. Reality television has synonymized Alaska with danger, but the term “reality” is a complete fallacy. Ask an Alaskan fisherman about Deadliest Catch, a pilot about any of the aviation shows, or any Alaskan in general about Sarah Palin and they’ll roll their eyes. “It’s crap. Everything is made up. ‘Don’t worry, we’re National Geographic,’ they said, and I was, like, ‘well I just don’t want everything to be staged, I want it to be real. You need to realize aviation isn’t this terrifying, death-defying event. It’s supposed to be safe. There’s so many things that you have to do to make it safe, and I don’t want you guys to film and ask me to tell you that ‘oh man at any point here if we lose an engine we’re all going to die.’ They really embellish the danger factor all the time, because otherwise they’d have nothing to film. ‘Well, another uneventful day of flying.’” The truth may not be as flashy, but reality is compelling in its own nature. Among its honors is the esteem of being honest and allowing audiences to draw their own conjectures.

Another fallacy permeating this lifestyle is tourism. Over time, many tourist towns construct a marketable facade of the town’s soul for tourists to consume. Growing up witnessing tourists trample your homeland is enough to embitter locals, however, Trent is more accepting. “Here’s the thing. I wasn’t the last one in, and I’m not the kind of guy who is ever going to tell people how it is up here. There’s certainly a pace of life everywhere you go, and everybody that’s visiting those places should respect that and not just expect it to be the way it was where they came from. No one can say this is my land, because they’re really just a blip in this timeline of this world. So when I think about it that way I don’t get annoyed.”

IMG_5470Trent immersed himself in tourism as an outsider when he landed a job flying in Hawaii. After a chance meeting in Alaska with the owner of Skydive Kauai, Trent accepted an invitation to check out the operation in the winter. “I kinda went on a whim, brought my girlfriend with me and said ‘I’ll figure it out.’” Before long, Trent became their full-time pilot flying skydivers and hour-long air tours.

Most single-engine pilots eventually chase money into larger aircraft, a tendency Trent calls, “The big shiny jet syndrome.” Although most of Trent’s flight hours have been single-engine, time in the Navajos and a recently earned Airline Transport Pilot license diversifies his marketability should he decide to pursue something larger, which seems unlikely. He illustrated the dilemma musing over the ski planes he’s flown professionally. “Flying bigger airplanes doesn’t really appeal to me. Even going from the Beaver to the Otter, all of a sudden it’s a slower-turning airplane, I mean it’s awesome, but it’s not a 185. The 185 is like a little hot rod and then compare that to the Otter, it’s like driving a dump truck.” The idea of the airlines conjures adventure for some, but sounds mundane to Trent. A more appealing step to him would be fire-bombing for wildfire control or flying with the Department of Natural Resources.

Looking toward Anderson Pass in Denali

Looking toward Anderson Pass in Denali

Although repetitious flying invites monotony, Trent recognizes his good fortune. “Every day is different. Even though it’s the same mountains and the same terrain, the scenery is always changing. The clouds, the weather, the winds; the picture is painted differently every day, but with the same background.” Trent has witnessed spectacular sights from the cockpit, from humpback whales breaching in Hawaii to northern lights in Western Alaska. “I saw 7 bears on a beached whale one time. One of them I distinctly remember was laying on its back and its belly was, like, over its rib cage, and he’s almost just scratching itself looking up at me, not a care in the world sitting next to this huge stinking gray whale. Those bears were in heaven. I feel pretty lucky to be seeing those kinds of things.”

Aviation is just one of Trent’s many interests, but it certainly adds a dynamic when indulging his other hobbies. Now that he owns a Tripacer he expects he’ll still be flying on weekends. “But it will be a means to an end. I’ll go straight to where I’m going, land, and have an adventure. That’s what it’s all about: getting to those way cool out of the way spots that are otherwise unobtainable. I like to see stuff from the air, but I don’t really have an ambition, like, ‘I want to go fly the Grand Canyon.’ I have much more ambition to raft the canyon, or fly somewhere and get out there and hike. That’s what an airplane allows up here is there’s so much freedom where you can go. You can fly out there and then enjoy this total, untouched wilderness.”

Although Trent opted not to return to Skydive Kauai this winter he is planning a long surf vacation in the off-season. “If I had a warm ocean and waves [in Talkeetna], I would never leave. That’s what my other passion is. Really being next to the ocean, being in the ocean—I love surfing.” Ultimately, there may be a way to combine his passions. “I’d love to fly for, like, a surf adventure company and go to these exotic spots with a float plane or a Twin Otter, and just drop people down out there for, like, a week at a time and have boats to get them out to surf spots. It would be amazing.” The gift of this lifestyle is that such dreams are viable. If he tinkers long enough, Trent might just figure out how to transform this idea into reality.

Continue to: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Commercial Pilot.

Kauai sunrise at 10,000 ft.

Kauai sunrise at 10,000 ft.


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