A small helicopter company is hoping to expand its fledgling program designed to inspire Alaska village students into pursuing careers in aviation. For more than two years, Tanalian Aviation has sent one of its helicopters and pilots to Bristol Bay-area villages to get local schoolchildren excited about their educations — a project that can be difficult in places where kids often have trouble connecting the dots between schoolwork and their futures.
The Tanalian Vertical Futures Program was created by Tanalian Aviation owner Joel Natwick, who grew up in the community of Port Alsworth. Natwick wanted to find a way to use his helicopters to spark aviation careers, and was also interested in education in the Bristol Bay region. Natwick put one of his young flight instructors, 24-year-old Abigail “Abby” Seaver, at the controls of the company’s Robinson R-22 helicopter and told her to go to several villages and spread the word about aviation opportunities and how education is key to a future navigating the skies above Alaska.
So far, Seaver has visited Port Alsworth, Nondalton, Kokhanok and Iliamna. In addition to being a licensed commercial flight instructor, Seaver is also a certified aviation mechanic. While she’s at ease in the air, standing in front of a group of teenagers is definitely outside of her comfort zone.
“I don’t like doing it (public speaking),” Seaver said. “While I am flying there I am thinking, ‘OK, I will be good, I will be good.’ But the closer I get, the more nauseous I feel, because I hate standing in front of a class.”
Despite her reservations about being the center of attention, Seaver has found a niche. At just about 5 feet tall, Seaver is a relatively small pilot, but she carries with her a big personality and a passion for helicopters. It is a passion that Seaver and her co-workers have learned is alive and well in rural parts of the state.
Upon landing in Nondalton last year, the school’s principal told Seaver and Natwick that they shouldn’t expect a lot of interaction from the students, who were often wary of people from outside their village.
No one expected what happened when Seaver began to speak.
“I had a whole lesson plan laid out and I think I followed the first bullet point of that lesson plan,” Seaver said. “And they asked so many questions that I couldn’t follow my lesson plan. After an hour and a half I had to say, ‘OK, I have to go, there is weather coming in.’ And seeing that interest and that passion is really inspiring.”
“They were so excited and interested in everything,” said Kokhanok School Principal Nicole Metzgar. “They got to look at the helicopter and sit in it and play around with the controls.”
Seaver said that she first became interested in flying helicopters at the age of 5, when her “kindergarten boyfriend’s” family began a long move out of rural Massachusetts. The family’s car hit a patch of ice, and the car’s airbag deployed, severing the thumb of her young beau’s brother. A medevac helicopter came to take the family to an area hospital.
“And I remember thinking that if I were that pilot I would have seen Gregory (her kindergarten sweetheart) again, and also, ‘This helicopter is really cool,’ ” she said.
When Seaver isn’t teaching flying at Tanalian Aviation’s Merrill Field hangar, she’s looking forward to her next school trip.
“The kids absolutely love her,” said Tanalian Aviation Chief Pilot Mark Varker. “Just think if one of the kids in the villages could become a helicopter pilot or any pilot? They know the terrain, they know the village, and they know the people, and it would give the kids something to shoot for. It’s a realistic career goal.”
Connecting attainable goals to education can often be a challenge in rural Alaska, where the tempo and way of life are as removed from urban areas as the villages themselves. Seaver explains the helicopter’s flight controls to students, but also the importance of math, physics and communication skills to becoming a successful commercial pilot.
But more importantly, to the high school and middle school kids she visits, Seaver represents a tangible example of what is possible.
“Some things feel like they are unattainable or are out of their grasp,” said Metzgar. “So anytime something can come to them, and they can touch it, and smell it, and feel it, it shows kids they do have options. But if it’s just always on TV, or on the Internet, or read about, or is at a distance sometimes the disconnect is a little too big.”
When the class time is finished, Seaver usually takes a few of the students into the helicopter for a quick ride. The results are usually easily apparent.
“Huge smiles,” Metzgar said. “They were grinning ear-to-ear when they came in the door. It is something they will remember forever.”
Tanalian Aviation began the program with help from a grant through the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and the Pebble Partnership. But these days, Tanalian foots the bill for the expense of sending one of its pilots and aircraft to at least two villages per year. Tanalian owner Joel Natwick said he is looking to expand the program to other villages, including in Western and Interior Alaska.
And as much as Seaver loves inspiring kids to careers in aviation, the steely-handed pilot is still throttling back on her fears of leading the classes.
“I am a pilot, not a public speaker,” Seaver said with a laugh. “But I do I find it really rewarding to watch them (the students) light up.”