Cade Schlagel of Dillingham opened Bush Hoppers LLC in September, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him.
There’s no question—air taxis are indispensable to Alaskans who live off the road system, where planes connect people and goods like trucks and cars do in bigger cities. Some in the aviation industry are worried that Alaska will suffer from a pilot shortage in the coming years. But for Cade Schlagel, starting an air taxi business in his hometown of Dillingham this September, just a few years after graduating high school, was the natural thing to do.
“I kind of always knew that I was going to be living here in Dillingham and flying,” says Schlagel. “My grandpa did this, and my dad does this. So yeah, it’s kind of in my blood.”
So did his great grandfather, Ken Armstrong, who was the first in the clan to move to the area in the 1940s. Before he came up, Ken Armstrong guided mule tours in the Grand Canyon. His roping skills earned him a nickname when he started flying in Bristol Bay recalls Janet Armstrong-Schlagel, his granddaughter and Cade’s mom.
“And so when he came out to this area, the native people called him cowboy because of the rope tricks. And then my dad grew up out here, and he flew in the 1950s out here. And the people started calling my dad, ‘Cowboy-ayagaq’ which means ‘Little Cowboy.’ And so that stuck. And then my brother Curt flew for the air service, so he was Little Cowboy. I was in the store the other day and one of the passengers that flew in with Cade said how proud he was Cade was flying, and the people were calling him Little Cowboy.”
The Armstrongs and Schlagels have built their businesses around flying and fishing Bristol Bay. Janet Schlagel beams with pride as she talks about Cade and his new outfit, Bush Hoppers LLC, even as she knows it might be a bit of an uphill climb to get going.
“I think that the business of air taxi is very competitive. And I think there’s definitely a market for a young person to, you know, to get into the business. But is very competitive.”
So far Schlagel has had no shortage of business and doesn’t seem to have stepped on any of the veterans’ toes either. Running a bush air taxi isn’t your average nine-to-five job, but he’s getting the hang of it.
"It’s a lot of running around and getting boxes, and, I don’t know, meeting new people and flying to different places,” says Schlagel. “Winter’s going to be a big obstacle, I think, and the darkness. It’s going to be dark all the time. But, I don’t know, I’m just going to have fun with it and still enjoy the things I like to do in life and not let it get in the way but still fly around and have fun with it."
Right now, Schlagel flies a Piper Cherokee 6/300. In the next five years he wants to expand his operations to fly a float plane like his dad. Schlagel enjoys being in the air, and business is taking off. But, of course, that means flying is now his full time job. It’s still fun, he says, but he’d rather go out beach combing for walrus heads or glass balls.
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