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Helicopter pilot: ‘Ketchikan is a beautiful place to fly’: Schwausch enjoying career as helicopter tour pilot
Pilot Carrie Schwausch ascends above the Tongass Narrows in a Robinson R44 helicopter on June 28 at the Helicopter Air Alaska landing area off Tongass Avenue. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Helicopter Air Alaska pilot Carrie Schwausch, who recently relocated to Ketchikan as a year-round resident, believes that “Ketchikan is a beautiful place to fly.”

Schwausch will celebrate her eighth year as a certified pilot this October, and has been flying for Helicopter Air Alaska since early April. As a seasonal tour company, Helicopter Air Alaska takes one or two passengers at a time on tours of Ketchikan and its surrounding areas. This can include Ketchikan Lakes, Mahoney Falls, upper and lower Mahoney Lakes, George Inlet, Annette Island and Anvil Mountain.

Tours average one hour or less in duration – this includes flight time, landing time, and the allotted time for quick landings to admire the view.

“Just about everybody gets off the helicopter with a gigantic smile on their face,” said Schwausch.

Helicopter Air Alaska uses three different models of Robinson helicopters for their tours: the two-seat R-22, four-seat R-44, and five-seat R-66. Schwausch usually flies the R-44 model, which she refers to as the company's “main machine.”

Schwausch, who is originally from California, didn't set out to become a helicopter pilot in Alaska. For the past 11 years, she worked as a firefighter. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as a mechanical engineer, building and testing prototype versions of various “mechanisms.”

“I got tired of sitting in front of the computer all day as an engineer, so I was looking for something different,” Schwausch said.

After leaving her job as a mechanical engineer, she decided to start working towards the goal of becoming an arson investigator. Before she could advance from firefighter to investigator, she decided to pursue a career as a helicopter pilot.

“I tell people that I finally found out what I want to do,” Schwausch joked.

 She found the job at Helicopter Air Alaska after meeting with the parent company in Anchorage. After her visit, she believed the company had a “safe workshop and impressive training.”

“(The conditions of the shop) generally says a lot about the maintenance of the aircraft,” Schwausch added.

Before she became a pilot, flying was a frequent event for Schwausch, who with her husband, owns and operates a sport fishing camp. Since 2004, Schwausch has been making yearly trips to Alaska to check in at the camp. She always enjoyed the flights she took during these visits.

Schwausch's interests in flying helicopters were piqued after taking a flight in 2008 she describes as “amazing.”

“My desire to fly helicopters came from a flight in Alaska, and my goal has been to come back here,”  Schwausch said.

“I had always enjoyed them (helicopters),” Schwausch said. “I got off the helicopter and told my husband that's what I wanted my new career to be. So I saved my money and started flight training and went to Alaska to fly.”  

Schwausch's journey to becoming a pilot was difficult – she cautions other future pilots that obtaining their certifications will not be easy.

Schwausch — who said that her previous job experiences helped her “not be afraid to get dirty” — spent over a year learning to fly and becoming certified. As she continued to work her other full-time jobs, Schwausch would spend time with a one-on-one instructor completing practice flights up to an hour and a half long, in addition to a structured course of book-based testing.

“I wouldn't call it a roadblock, but it was a struggle to get everything done and still work,” Schwausch said.

She also added that it was an expensive process.

Schwausch enjoys the scenery that comes with flying in Ketchikan, stating she “is floored that the backyard is Mahoney Falls,” among other landmark sights.

“We (Helicopter Air Alaska) have this fabulous dock, and I can look outside and see eagles and seals. It's a good company to work for.”