Guide book “Frommer’s Alaska 2010” by Charles P. Wohlforth

“I prefer seeing the fjords on an extended floatplane flight (and I certainly recommend it for those susceptible to seasickness). Flying over the scenery is amazing, but it's the floatplane landing that really blows your mind, because then you get a sudden sense of the scale of everything you've seen from the air. The cliffs are magnified while you shrink to a speck. Go in the late afternoon when the light is pretty and the swarms of planes carrying cruise ship passengers are gone.”

“Several air-taxi operators in Ketchikan take flightseeing day trips to Misty Fjords or drop clients at remote cabins… But I like best a smaller company, Island Wings Air Service (tel. 888/854-2444 or 907/225-2444; www.islandwings.com). The owner and pilot is Michelle Madsen, and my flight with her was among the most memorable of the many I've taken around Alaska. She flew the plane with her long blond hair flowing and her little white dog, Perro, at her side (although she offered to leave him behind), offering a choice of music on the iPod as background to her impromptu commentary about the fjords. We soared with Van Morrison while Michelle told us about her favorite places down below. The landing was as long as anyone needed to soak in the awesome surroundings. It felt like an outing with old friends. Madsen charges $229 for a seat on a six-passenger DeHavilland Beaver for a 2-hour flight that includes 45 minutes on the ground at the fjords. She also flies guests to Forest Service cabins (many of them in Misty), places she knows intimately, and she will take the time to help you choose one that suits your interests and budget. Take a look at her informative website for a good start.”

Read more: Frommer's

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Guide book “Lonely Planet Alaska” by Jim DuFrense

“There isn't an air charter in Ketchikan that doesn't do Misty Fiords. The standard offering is a two-hour flight with a lake landing for $199, easily booked at the visitors center. Among them are Island Wings (225-2444, 888-854-2444; www.islandwings.com), a one-plane, one-pilot company run by Michelle Masden”

Read more: Lonely Planet Alaska

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Guide book “Coastal Alaska & the Inside Passage” by Ed & Lynn Readicker Henderson

“The best bargain in flightseeing is at Island Wings Air Service…This is a one plane operation, and it is  small plane…so you get the most intimate, un-crowded view of the Fjords; you are also taken on a longer flight than most other operators offer.  And while others give you a “lake landing” that lets you get out of the plane only long enough to stand on the float, Michelle puts you on shore … to let you look around.”

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Book: “National Geographic Destinations, Treasures of Alaska: The Last Great American Wilderness” by Jeff Rennicke and Michael Melford

"The hazards of flying bush are numerous," says pilot Michelle Masden during takeoff from Misty Fiords National Monument. "You must deal with rain, fog, wind, and tides." But the reward, she says, "is flying in the most beautiful place on Earth."

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Book: “Salmon in the Trees” by Amy Gulick

A self-described “flight junkie”, 47 year old Michelle Masden has spent seventeen thousand hours, or almost two years, above the Earth’s surface.  Her addiction to flying stated early in life.  As a young girl, she frequently traveled alone on commercial flights from her home in Nebraska to visit family in Illinois.  Because she was a child traveling solo, she was looked after by the flight crew, “At the end of each flight, they always tried to give me a stewardess wings pin,” she says, “and I would always tell them I wanted the pilot’s wings.”

At the age of 16, she took her first flying lesson. Her grandmother Esther, who was terrified to fly and never once boarded a plane, paid for the lesson.  By the time she was 17, Masden earned her pilot’s license.  Six years later, she came to Alaska for a summer and never left.

Lured to Alaska by its wild grandeur, she started out working as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat. But her desire to be in the air was strong. She watched seaplanes, the predominate aircraft in Southeast Alaska, take off and land on the water. “Coming from the Midwest, I had never seen a seaplane, but after taking a flightseeing tour in one I decided this is what I would do,” she says.

Today, Masden’s charter business, Island Wings, has been up and flying since 1993.  Her passenger list is as varied as the terrain she flies over in her seaplane Lady Esther. She transports campers and hunters to remote areas, facilitates aerial surveys of wildlife with biologists…and shows tourists the beauty of Southeast Alaska.

The most popular trip Masden makes is a two-hour flightseeing tour to the Misty Fjords National Monument, near her home in Ketchikan.  Misty Fjords covers almost 2.3 million acres, most of which is designated as wilderness area, within the Tongass National Forest. Glacial-carved granite valleys plunge to deep saltwater canals, and the area is home to an incredible array of wildlife, including bears, wolves, and mountain goats. It’s not unusual for Masden to make the trip five times a day, and yet she never tires of showing others the spectacular beauty of the area.

She recalls one time when she landed in a cove with a group of tourists. They were all standing on the floats of the seaplane when a humpback whale surfaced so close that it blew mist onto the wings of the aircraft.  On another occasion, a mother grizzly bear with two cubs fed just 60 feet from her plane.

“The Tongass is vast, beautiful and diverse, and I love how free it feels to fly through it,” she says. What does Masden do on her rare days off?  Flies, of course.

“Passion is good fuel to get you through life,” she says.

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Alaska Business Monthly Magazine October 2002

The call of the sky: Bush pilot Michelle Masden followed her dream and opened a floatplane business based out of Ketchikan.” By Matise, Linda

Date: Tuesday, October 1 2002.

A love for flying, ambition for success and steeled determination were the building blocks that turned a child's dream into a thriving Ketchikan floatplane business-Island Wings.

Owned and operated by Michelle Masden, Island Wings is acclaimed by tourists and locals to be a professional, people-oriented service. Although she relishes a degree of triumph, she always credits others who helped along the way.

"I think that what makes a business take off is just plain, old-fashioned stubbornness and tenacity. Never give up," Masden says. Island Wings is by no means a traditional business with a businesswoman at the helm. Masden's office is unique. She does business from the left (pilot's) seat of a cockpit while operating a serious kind of flying machine. You've likely heard of gear up landings, usually in the context of an emergency airport landing. Well Masden has no landing gear. Her plane has floats and lands only on the waterways of the Alexander Archipelago-an area consisting of about 1,100 islands that are the exposed tops of a submerged section of the Coast Ranges.

In her words, the rewards of being the pilot and her own boss are "independence, flying in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the abundance of thank you's from tourists and residents." They often send photos, small gifts and notes of appreciation for having made a floatplane trip the highlight of their vacations. On the other hand, locals reward her with bags of smoked salmon for delivering daily necessities and medication.

Island Wings is published in six tourist guides, and visitors from cruise ships know it is the genuine ticket to experiencing Southeast Alaska's wilderness. Those with advanced reservations are met by a courtesy van and transported to the airplane. In a sense the Internet has been a conduit for attracting new customers-albeit 75 percent of the referrals are by word-of-mouth from satisfied customers. Tour flights range from afternoon trips through Misty Fjords National Monument and over Soule and Through Glaciers to guided hiking, fishing and bear-watching excursions. Log onto islandwings.com and review several vacation packages.

Masden also transports more rugged outdoorsmen and women to U.S. Forest Service cabins located on remote lakes and to lodges for a week's fishing. Some lakes are surrounded by pristine old growth forests with gentle slopes of alder, cedar, hemlock and spruce trees. Others are framed by vertical rock walls that were carved centuries ago by glaciers. Yet today, they, too, are enshrined by fern-carpeted forest. Although cabin camping is not for the faint of heart, it's a rare opportunity to experience the very rudiments of nature. Once you've unloaded your gear and the airplane takes off, you're on your own. There's no telephone, no grocery store and no one else for miles around.

Besides the satisfaction of owning and operating a seaplane, maintenance is somewhat more involved than other kinds of general aviation light airplanes. Airplanes on floats either dock in the water or pull up a ramp onto the dock. Because they frequently land in saltwater, they must be washed down at the end of the day to prevent corrosion. In fact, maintaining a commercial floatplane is pretty expensive-anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, depending on the number of hours flown. Masden says she flies an average of 800 hours per year. Insurance alone is $20,000 annually. Despite these stiff operating costs, Island Wings' tour prices are reasonable and affordable.

It's a well-known fact that entrepreneurship is risky. Every would-be business owner asks: "Where will my customers come from?"  Masden's first customer was a cannery with a fleet of 26 independent boats. She was hired to deliver boat parts, groceries and mail, and to spot fish. The cannery now employs a fleet of 57 boats.

Island Wings awakened another facet of water operations as its reputation grew. Masden now flies Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists to various locations for wildlife and water surveys relating to habitat and conservation. ADF&G's habitat studies involve trapping wolves, deer and elk and equipping them with tracking devices. Their wanderings can be monitored using a telemetry antenna installed on the airplane. Other surveys are performed on kelp beds for herring spawning, evaluating their location and biomass, or for Geoducks (pronounced GOO'-ey-duck), which are large, meaty clams.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation also flies with Island Wings to do water sampling. They test the waters near established (and for potential) oyster farms for paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Occasionally Japanese concerns hire Masden to fly employees to logging rafts to inspect logs for purchase. Timber surveyors often fly to a forested area to walk a stand of forest. Dot this rigorous schedule with ongoing supply, equipment and mail deliveries and Island Wings has a thriving business that flies year-round.

Floatplane service is a highly competitive business and few bush pilots are able to fly a full 12 months. The weather is often moody and even challenging at times-particularly during winter months. Driving winds and low ceilings frequently ground scheduled flights.

During Southeast's summer season, May through September, it is estimated that between 75 and 80 bush pilots fly tourists and services in the Misty Fjords National Monument and the Ketchikan-Wrangell-Petersburg area. In contrast, however, there are between 25 and 30 pilots who continue to fly through the winter months.

Having overcome numerous trials to build Island Wings, there is a natural curiosity about the woman pilot in command. Who would choose such a machismo profession most often thought to be a man's job? As a little girl in Omaha, Neb., Masden dreamed of flying as early as the third grade.
As an adolescent she took the bus to the airport to watch the airplanes take off and land. She eventually got her private pilot's license but aspired to become a commercial airline pilot. On a summer college getaway Masden sailed from Seattle to Ketchikan and fell in love with Southeast.  When she saw floatplanes landing in Ketchikan's Tongass Strait, she quickly lost interest in piloting a passenger airliner.

Fascinated with the idea of flying an airplane that landed on water, she started looking for ways to earn enough money to achieve her goal. Local fishermen advised her she could get a good job making great money on a salmon fishing boat. So, she returned to Ketchikan the following summer and joined a fishing crew. Masden recounts, "Fishing allowed me to work at a job, not nine-to-five, but seasonal for relatively short periods of time. What could you do with a nine-to-five job? Fishing paid well enough that I was able to save enough to buy my first airplane."

Having survived her first summer, she turned this job into a three-month summer stint for the next six years. This enabled her to earn her instrument rating and commercial licenses and buy a Cessna 172. Masden eventually flew south to the warmer waters of the Virgin Islands and operated an air taxi service for four years, transporting sailors to regattas and tourists to St. Thomas for shopping. Once again drawn to Ketchikan, she purchased her first floatplane, a Cessna 185, in 1993. She subsequently got her seaplane rating in Florida, en route to Alaska.

Masden said she relied upon the direction of other bush pilots for piloting information and business logistics. She attributes much support and development to the late Jack Cousins, a retired 48-year veteran Bush pilot. At last count Cousins is said to have taught 300 student pilots to fly.

Masden said she wasn't intimidated by the prospect that she would have to measure up in a male-dominated profession. She has mastered the principles of making dreams come true. Hope, stick-to-itiveness and a resolute goal transposed Masden's dream into a way of life.

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Hooked on the Outdoors Magazine April/May 2001

“Alaska the Floating Campground” By Chad Fuller
Date: April/May 2001 Edition

"BEING THERE:…We highly recommend Misty Fjords National Monument for backpacking and paddling. Get there with Island Wings and hit up pilot Masden for extra advice.”

“…My next stop was the Misty Fjords National Monument.  Misty Fjords is composed of glacially carved fjords that contain massive granite walls towering 2,000 feet above sapphire blue lakes.  Interspersed throughout the monument are US Forest Service cabins, which can be reserved in advance and provide a very rustic camping experience. Because access to the monument is limited to boat or float plane, I chose to fly with Island Wings. Owner and pilot Michelle Masden had been flying in the area for many years and knows it well. For an unforgettable wilderness experience, the Misty Fjords is a side trip that should not be missed.”

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The San Francisco Chronicle May 10, 2009

“Nature's icy sculptures dazzle Alaska panhandle” by Richard Jordan

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ketchikan

This small city is the southernmost Alaskan port where cruise ships stop. The most popular sightseeing opportunity here is not glaciers themselves, but what they sculpted: the Misty Fjords (a National Monument managed by the U.S. Forest Service).

If you spend some time on the Ketchikan waterfront when the cruise ships are in port, you'll see floatplane after floatplane skip across the bay, climb into the sky and head off south toward the fjords.

Michelle Madsen, a 22-year veteran of flying in the Alaskan bush and owner of Island Wings, ferries passengers up to Rudyard Bay in her beautifully restored DeHavilland Beaver, swooping over vast tracts of the 23 million-acre Tongass National Forest. For us, she dipped the wings from time to time so we could see waterfalls descending like streamers down the steep mountainsides and into the deep fjords.

She set us down gently as a feather at the head of a bay so we could explore the shoreline - and where a harbor seal lounging on a log in the water looked up as if to say "Howdy." My only regret was that I hadn't booked the additional half-hour-plus extended flight that takes passengers on up to the hanging glaciers near the Canadian border.

Read more: San Francisco Chronicle

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The Dallas Morning News August 16, 2009

“Glacial pace – Go with the floe and see what southeast Alaska has to offer” by Nancy Caranna

Sunday, August 16 2009

– Ketchikan – This southern most Alaskan port is another major stop for cruise ships. Glaciers to the southeast carved Misty Fjords National Monument. On summer days, floatplanes roar down the waterfront and lift off from the waves, carrying tourists to the splendid cliffs, valleys and lakes.

We booked our two hour tour with highly recommended Island Wings. Owner and veteran bush pilot Michelle Madsen flew us over vast tracts of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest in her 1959 DeHavilland Beaver. Gray clouds hung overhead while waterfalls streamed down the mountains into the fjords.

Before takeoff, Michelle calmed two young children from a Dallas-area family along for the flight. And after setting the plane down gently in a fjord, she carried each child to the beach, than back again after our half-hour stay. No tears, no wet feet, just wide eyes and broad smiles for those little Texans and their parents.  Our only mistake was not booking Michelle’s longer flight to the hanging glaciers near the Canadian border.

– Courtesy of Nancy Caranna, Grand Prairie, TX 

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Washington Pilots Association September 2004

“More than just a t-shirt!” by Lynn Berkell

September 2004

“My newest addition to my collection of t-shirts is from Island Wings in Ketchikan, Alaska. Arthur and I were on a cruise to Alaska in July and we chose a seaplane tour of Misty Fjords National Monument.  The monument is over 2 million acres of Alaska’s beautiful wilderness. No vacation would be complete without some sort of flying! Our pilot, Michelle Masden and her Kenmore Air Harbor (beautifully) restored Beaver, guided us on an exciting ride though Alaska’s pristine wilderness. We flew over fjords and a sheer solid granite cliff, spotted a plume of smoke (a fire sparked by lightening, the only one in Michelle’s memory) and past herds of mountain goats. We landed on an alpine lake and were afforded the opportunity to walk its shores. When Michelle shut down the engine, it was like emerald silence. The only evidence of previous visitors to this shore were bear tracks! Our visit here was indeed breathtaking and memorable. No subways to this place! Michelle told us the only way to this lake was by seaplane or bear infested trail. (I prefer the former!)  We flew back to Ketchikan and landed in front of town. Our tour of Misty Fjords was over only too soon. We got back to the dock and I bought the t-shirt that will always be a memento of the exciting tour that we got to take in the Misty Fjords National Monument.  Thanks Michelle! If you’re ever in Ketchikan, I’d highly recommend stopping in to see Michelle and take in one of many tours.  And don’t forget the souvenir t-shirt!”

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Alaska Angler News Letter November 1996

“Alaska Angler Field Report” by Steve Haines, Eureka, CA

November 1996

“We chartered with Michelle Masden of Island Wings Air Service.  We give her A-plus.  The lady had it together from start to finish. (She even has (a plane) outfitted with individual ear phones. No more shouting over the engine noise. Nice!)”

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Salinas Area Modelers, INC.

“Float Fly of a Lifetime!” by John Midgorden

This past September Judy and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary by taking an Alaskan cruise in Southeast Alaska. Although the cruise to Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau, Wrangle, Petersburg, and Ketchikan was fantastic, the highlight of the trip for me was a fightseeing flight out of Ketchikan. We had arranged with the cruise line for a flight into the Misty Fjords National Monument. However, when we got on board our ship we were informed the flight had been cancelled because the company the cruise line used was temporality out of business because of an accident.

The day before we arrived in Ketchikan we called a flightseeing company that Judy had read about in a tour book long before we started the cruise. They had room on their 3 P.M. flight on the day we arrived in Ketchikan, so we reserved a space on the airplane.

When we arrived at the dock we were greeted by the sight of the most beautiful DeHaviland Beaver that I had ever seen, either in person or in pictures. Before we boarded, the pilot asked if someone would like to fly co-pilot. I was quick to raise my hand. This meant I had to get in first and climb into the right seat. The photo below shows our first look at the plane and crew.

This was our first flight in a float plane and Judy’s first flight in a small non-airline plane. There were two other couples on the flight, so there was one seat empty. Each passenger had a headset with a voice-activated mic. This way we could talk back and forth, ask questions and the pilot could explain what was happening. The pilot also used her iPod to play music.

Our pilot and owner of the business was Michelle Masden. She told us that she had been flying for 22 years and that it had been over 20 years since she had landed on a hard surface runway. Her plane is a 1969 Beaver with a beautiful $30,000 paint job and there was not a drop of oil on the engine.

We flew for two hours into the Misty Fjords, flying in and out of rain showers. Most of the time we were below 1,000 feet, with the mountains towering above us on both sides of the fjords. Half way through the flight she landed on a fjord, coasted up to the shore, Michelle jumped out and tied the floats down to two rocks, and then instructed us on how we could help each other out of the ship by walking along the left float, ducking under the wing strut. The photo below is of Michelle and her plane. 

Here is a typical view of fjord flying! On Michelle’s website she talks about how she doesn’t do just the required amount of maintenance on her Beaver, but how she spends extra money keeping the plane in tip-top shape. Here is a look at the engine.

John Midgorden

Read more: Salinas Area Modelers, INC. news letter

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