Flying Alaska’s Friendly Skies

PHOTO: Fish biologists and ConocoPhillips personnel at a sampling site pre-pandemic

Recognizing and respecting the choice of Indigenous communities to live as distinct peoples, with their own cultures and relationships to the land, is a cornerstone of our operations. On Alaska’s North Slope, this includes working to ensure that our activities don’t interfere with the subsistence lifestyle of our neighbors – both on the ground and in the air.

During helicopter season, Village Outreach Liaison Mark Jennings starts each day by having a quick phone call with helicopter operators and stakeholders from the nearby community of Nuiqsut, talking about planned helicopter and small aircraft operations. In turn, the designated village subsistence representative shares the anticipated locations of hunting and gathering activities. Call participants discuss where wildlife has been spotted on the slope, allowing helicopter pilots to make necessary adjustments to avoid these areas. If it is safe to do so, pilots also adjust flight paths to avoid disturbing large groups of caribou, hunters and gatherers, other community members and gravel roads being used for subsistence activities. They are also asked to avoid flight routes along gravel roads where subsistence users may be traveling or hunting.

“Last summer the community reported that a large herd of caribou were about to cross the Colville River near Nuiqsut, and they were concerned about helicopter noise disrupting their subsistence hunting activities. The community depends on caribou for a large portion of their diet. So, we discussed the situation internally and decided that, based on the work scheduled for that week, we would postpone flights for a week until the herd had crossed the river,” Jennings noted.

Helicopter in Alaska
A pilot and a Nuiqsut resident about to depart the Alpine Field to inspect the family’s native allotment.

The daily calls have been taking place for about 10 years, beginning annually around mid-May and continuing until the helicopter work is complete, typically mid-September. The key to program success, Jennings said, is consistent communication and coordination with pilots. In his role as the village liaison coordinator for helicopter activity on the North Slope, he aims to ensure that flights are not disruptive. In support of this effort, Jennings began inviting industry peers to participate in the daily exchange of information, asking everyone to share flight plans as an added safety measure in the remote terrain. ConocoPhillips Alaska also created a poster with photos of the helicopters used on the North Slope to help residents and other operators easily identify aircraft and owners. Since the program started, successful coordination efforts have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of community concerns regarding helicopters.

“It’s all about transparency, communication, and working together, minimizing our impact on people and the environment,” said Jennings. “The process has evolved – we now have confidence that the community knows who is flying where and when. We also provide a toll-free number that people can call anytime for updates on the daily flight plans.”

Helicopters are commonly used to access the vast, undeveloped land of the North Slope. Passengers include surveyors and technicians who install and check stream gauges along creeks and rivers, watch for ice jams and flooding, inspect pipelines, and check culverts and bridges to make sure they are not blocked so that water and fish can easily pass. Scientists and technicians conducting studies on fish, wildlife, birds, tundra plants, archaeological resources, air and water quality, permafrost and climate change also rely on the helicopters. Other frequent fliers include engineers examining the landscape to develop road, pad and infrastructure concepts that minimize environmental impacts.