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  • Writer's pictureEmerald Air Service

Alaska's common bush aircraft: a brief overview

This article is to encourage visitors and Alaskan residents who don’t have bush aviation as a part of their lives. Friends, backcountry aviation IS a real option for you to access new parts of Alaska—be it remote locations or the unmatched vantage-point of seeing Alaska from the air. A first practical step is knowing a thing or two about common bush planes. This will help you know what kind of plane suits your dream, week-long backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic, or a 45 minute flight-see with visiting family.

The following briefly overviews special strengths and differences between the most common, capable, single-engine bush aircraft you will find while exploring Alaska: (1) Piper Super Cub, (2) Cessna 185, (3) Cessna 206, (4) De Havilland Beaver, and (5) De Havilland Otter.


A special note

An aircraft's cruising speed and payload maximums (meaning how much weight it can carry, not counting essential gear) all vary depending on the engine type/size, the weight of the fuel, and whether the plane is on wheels, tundra tires, floats, amphibious floats, or skis. The following are estimated maximums gathered from Alaska's Department of Transportation. Get specifics from operators about their planes and take their weight limits seriously.


common bush aircraft: smallest to biggest

1. Piper Super Cub

One of the essentials qualities of a bush plane is that it can cope with short, rough runways. This requires a hardiness and power for lift. The super cub has these qualities while remaining a light and responsive little plane.


The limit of both space and weight in a Cub makes this plane most suited for a flight-see or air taxi trip for 1 passenger and a pilot. If the single passenger was wanting to be dropped off for a solo remote camping trip, they may not have enough space/weight capacity in a super cub to accommodate both their own body weight and their gear (imagine a packable/folding kayak or a bear fence and generator).


Seats, including pilot: 2

Est. Payload Maximum: 375 lbs

Est. Cruise Speed: 110 knots


Piper PA-18 Super Cub equipped with tundra tires
Piper PA-18 Super Cub used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for law enforcement in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (equipped with tundra tires).

2. Cessna 185

The Cessna 185, or “Skywagon” was developed in the 1960s and has proven itself to be an excellent light utility plane, ideal for a few passengers or some freight transport to hard-to-access airstrips. With many of the planes that were developed in the 1950s and 60s, it seems they were designed with smaller average person in mind. While a 185 does seat 6 (including the pilot), it is a tight squeeze involving a sling bench backseat.

This is a wonderful plane for a small group of friends.


Seats, including pilot: 6, squeezed together

Est. Payload Maximum: 1,400 lbs

Est. Cruise Speed: 145 knots


Cessna 185 equipped with amphibious floats.
Cessna 185 equipped with amphibious floats.

3. Cessna 206

Also known as the “Super Skywagon,” Cessna describes the 206 as the “sport-utility vehicle of the air.” Compared to its 185 counterpart, the 206 and shares all the same pros while being slightly heavier, having a slightly more powerful engine, and needing a little bit more room for take off and landing.


Seats, including pilot: 6, packed together but not as much as the 185

Est. Payload Maximum: 1,400 lbs

Est. Cruise Speed: 120 knots


Cessna 206 equipped with floats.
Cessna 206 equipped with floats.


4. De havilland beaver

De Havilland is unrivaled in its lift power. This means that even though they are larger planes, they have the power to get off of short runways (such as small lakes), carrying a load that Cessnas can not manage. De Havilland had a philosophy of designing each of their planes progressively larger and yet still able to take off from a 1,000-foot dirt airstrip. With significance Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) performance, the De Havilland aircraft have become legendary, the Beaver being the earliest aircraft that de Havilland designed for significant loads. Beaver’s are perfect for heavier loads and especially hard to access lakes.


Seats, including pilot: 8

Est. Payload Maximum: 1,500 lbs

Est. Cruise Speed: 133 knots


De Havilland Beaver equipped with floats.
De Havilland Beaver equipped with floats.

5. de havilland otter

Substantially heavier and larger than the Beaver, the Otter has the room for every passenger to have a window all to themselves; a cabin where you can, conceivably, stretch your legs (Otters are the only plane on this list that can brag that); and the ability to carry massive loads. Like their smaller counterpart, the Beaver, Otter’s are specifically designed to lift large payloads off of short runways, making them ideal bushcraft for Alaska.


Seats, including pilot: 11 (including pilot)

Est. Payload Maximum: 4,000

Est. Cruise Speed: 104 knots



Two De Havilland Otters (orange) flanked by a Beaver (blue).
Two De Havilland Otters (orange) flanked by a Beaver (blue).

Adventure is out there

Alaska has 393,747,000 acres of state and national park land. Four of the eight national parks are not accessible by road. And even these beautiful places that are on the road system (like our home, Kachemak Bay) have even more to show when you seeing them from the air. There is a lot to do and see in this amazing state, and even if bush aviation isn't a part of your life now, that doesn’t mean it cannot have a part to play in your future. It can.

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