In order to reach what Alaskans call "The Bush" — villages isolated across tundra — you'll need a bush pilot. That's where John Bouker comes in.
Most of Bouker's passengers are civilians he transports to and from Alaska's remote villages. He does his job with the nonchalance of a suburban dad in a minivan dropping his kids off at the mall.
But this nonchalance is deceptive. Bouker is actually one of the most reliable pilots in Alaska's Bristol Bay area. Acting as an unofficial arm of local law enforcement, Bouker helps state troopers reach isolated areas and bring prisoners back from villages.
He likes flying the cops around, but it can sometimes lead to awkward situations, especially when cops sit next to civilians who smuggle booze into villages where alcohol is illegal.
Click on the audio link above to hear NPR's Martin Kaste recount his experience flying with Bouker.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now we're going airborne. We're going to get a tour of what Alaskans call The Bush, the vast regions where people live in villages completely off the road system. Bush pilots are a critical connection to the outside world. NPR's Martin Kaste sent us this postcard after spending time with one of them, a man who's become an unofficial arm of the local law enforcement.
JOHN BOUKER: Have they done this right? I don't think so.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Here's a piece of advice. If you're nervous about flying with a Bush pilot, do not let on. It just encourages them.
BOUKER: You ever see a real airplane wreck? Look.
KASTE: This is John Bouker at the controls of his Cessna 207. Moments after taking off from an airstrip near Alaska's Bristol Bay, he banks hard to the right, just so I can get a good look at the pieces of a crashed plane in the tundra below.
BOUKER: Pretty cool, huh?
KASTE: Then he points out the spot in the distance where he found another crashed plane four years ago, the crash that killed a former U.S. senator.
BOUKER: That's where Ted Stevens went down, right over there. You see that big hill? Right on the down slope.
KASTE: He's got one hand on the yoke while the other digs into a can of Kodiak Chew, and he's kind enough to offer me some, too. On the console there's an instrument labeled panic button, but it's just a sticker. On this run, he's making a stop to drop his teenage son and a friend off at a fish processing plant so they can run an errand. He just plops the plane down in what looks like a weedy alley between the buildings.
BOUKER: OK, I'm not going to shut down. You boys just hop out. Open your door.
KASTE: What's striking is how nonchalantly this all happens. The plane barely stops rolling, and the boys jump out. It's like a suburban dad in a minivan dropping his kids off at the mall.
BOUKER: Don't go towards the prop. OK, we're out of here.
KASTE: But this nonchalance is deceptive. Bouker actually has a rep in the Bristol Bay area - a rep for being one of the most reliable pilots around. When state troopers need a lift to some isolated village, they come to him. Here at the Dillingham Airport, trooper Mark Eldridge is hanging around the tarmac, hoping to hitch a ride.
MARK ELDRIDGE: I've got some paperwork to serve for the courts here, so we come to the local air taxis and they're the ones that get us out to where we need to go.
KASTE: And Bouker likes flying the cops around, though it can sometimes lead to some awkward situations. That's because most of his passengers are still civilians, and inevitably some of them are smuggling booze into the villages where alcohol is illegal. After I got out of Bouker's plane, I saw a plain-clothed state trooper zero in on another passenger - a native woman.
UNIDENTIFIED STATE TROOPER: Can I check you, make sure you don't have it on you? It's just your pockets here? Can you unzip your coat?
KASTE: While the trooper asked her about contraband, Bouker kept his distance. He says he can usually tell who's packing alcohol.
BOUKER: I was born and raised here. You know all the players, you know?
KASTE: So you see someone, you're pretty sure that's what's going on. You're not a cop. What do you do?
BOUKER: You don't do anything, you know? Unless you see it, you can't just go start grabbing their stuff. That's not our job.
KASTE: And Bouker relishes the other aspects of his role as the unofficial pilot for local law enforcement. He talks about helping troopers bring prisoners back from the villages. If one of them's especially unruly, he says they'll take the seat out of the back of the Cessna and chain him face down on the floor.
BOUKER: We've responded to half a dozen - dozen murders over the years, you know, where the guy's loose in the village. There's been some pretty crazy stuff going out here, you know?
KASTE: But as a pilot, Bouker also exercises a kind of veto power over law enforcement in the Bush. There have been times when the troopers are in a hurry to respond to a call, and Bouker's the one who says no.
BOUKER: If the weather's an issue, we don't go. We're not risking our lives just because something bad's happened, you know? You don't live long by doing that.
KASTE: Ultimately, he's pretty confident in the safety of what he does. Sure, he says, the engine my conk out, but look at all the places he could land. There's tundra, beaches, ice. He says unlike being a passenger in some big airliner, out here he's got some control over his destiny. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.