This story originally appeared on KYUK and is republished here with permission.
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BETHEL — Pilot Dolena Fox is flying a silver and blue-striped Cessna 207 to Tuntutuliak. At 26 years old, Fox is at least a decade younger than her plane.
It’s the end of Fox’s first two-week shift as a commercial pilot. She said that the first 10 days have been exhausting, but interesting.
“Lots of learning, and very challenging in a good way,” said Fox.
Fox grew up mostly in Kipnuk, and a little in Kwigillingok and Bethel too. That meant lots of flying back and forth between villages. The first time Fox remembers being excited by the idea of flying was in middle school, when she flew with a female pilot for the first time. It sparked the idea that maybe she could fly too.
“That’s kind of like when it felt real. Like it’s achievable, you know?” said Fox.
Only about 6% of professional American pilots are women. At regional airline Grant Aviation, where Fox works, only five of their 60 pilots are female. Fox is modest, though, and thinks it might be a stretch to call herself the first ever female Yup’ik commercial pilot. But everyone else I talk to calls her that.
“She’s the first that I can think of,” said Andy Fox.
Andy is Fox’s uncle. Like Fox, Andy works for Grant. He’s worked for them on and off for 49 years. He said he was proud of her.
“Yeah. I sure am,” said Andy.
Fox is the first female Yup’ik pilot to work for Grant. There’s been at least one other female Yup’ik commercial pilot before her. Lindsey Jean Laraux flew commercially in the Y-K Delta from 2007-2010.
Fox first worked near airplanes before pursuing her dream of flying them. She worked for a few years at Ravn, selling airplane tickets. Then, during the first year of the pandemic, Ravn went bankrupt and she lost her job. That was the final push she needed.
“And I was like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna go for it.’ So I did. I moved to Anchorage and I went to flight training,” said Fox.
Less than two years later, she had her private pilot’s license, her instructor’s certification, and her commercial pilot’s license.
On the way to Tuntutuliak, we chat about how the job has been. She said that the first village she ever flew to for work was her home village of Kipnuk. She said that it was a coincidence. When she landed, lots of people came to greet the plane.
Once we land in Tuntutuliak, Fox wastes no time in unloading her cargo. She passes each box to the gate agent, a man with a four-wheeler. There’s a box with a grocery store sheet cake, and another with blue sprinkle cupcakes. It’s someone’s birthday in Tuntutuliak. The agent swaps the cargo for passengers: a girl and her mom. Fox greets them and takes their luggage.
The dad who has dropped them off, Andrew Frank, said that it��s incredible to have a pilot in the Y-K Delta who can communicate in Yugtun with them.
“It’s always really impressive and makes us very proud that we see Native pilots. Elders that don’t know how to speak English can always talk to them,” said Frank.
Fox said that speaking Yugtun and flying locals around the Y-K Delta has been her dream since middle school. But she didn’t always think that dream could be a reality.
“For me personally, it was really hard to even just leave Bethel. To go to flight training and to go to school and to do something that I never saw as a successful goal. But I want more people to know that doing what they want to do is actually very achievable,” said Fox.
[When death arrives in Utqiaġvik, volunteer gravediggers answer the call]
Helping people learn how to fly without leaving Bethel is the reason she got her instructor’s certificate. According to Grant Aviation, when there was a local flight school in Bethel there were more pilots from the Y-K Delta. Now, Fox is one of the only ones. Out of the 60 pilots at Grant, only five are from the region.
As far as what’s next for Fox, she may move on to bigger aircraft one day. But for now she’s content to fly in her home region.
“I feel like everything I have on the ground dissipates in the air. That’s all I have to care for: keeping the plane in the air. So everything else, all my problems or all my things I need to do in life, is left on the ground when I take off,” said Fox.