Jon Kotwicki and Steph Blanchard are certified flight instructors and the creators behind the popular YouTube channel and online flight school, Fly8MA. We sat down with Jon and Steph to hear about their experiences flying in Alaska and remote locations around the world.
How did you get into flying? Who or what inspired you?
Jon: Growing up, I was always fascinated by airplanes. Around the age of 19, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who was a pilot for American Airlines and encouraged me to pursue my private pilot license as a hobby, which quickly became an obsession and turned into a career path.
Steph: I never thought I could be a pilot. My friend, Jack, who is a true bush pilot, convinced me I could do it too and taught me how to fly. At first, it was out of necessity to run a business off the road system in Alaska, but then a passion was born.
What’s your favorite part of flying in Alaska?
Jon: Alaska is a place where you will never have a boring flight. It’s a huge, beautiful wilderness with very few roads. The only way to access many towns, riverbeds, lakes, hunting, and fishing spots is by plane. On a simple flight from Anchorage to Kodiak, you can easily see eagles, bears, moose, salmon, and bears, along with a few glaciers and waterfalls too!
Steph: Alaska is a playground for pilots, unlike anywhere else I have experienced. The level of freedom you experience when you go full throttle and take off into the sky is unreal. I love going to see glaciers, landing on beaches, and exploring Alaska’s small towns. My favorite thing is to pack bikes and camping gear into the plane and go exploring.
Tell us about your airplanes. What modifications have you made for bush flying?
Jon & Steph: Our Cessna 170 is the airplane Steph learned to fly in. We’ve upgraded the panel for IFR, added 29” Alaskan bush wheels, and switched the 76” aluminum Hartzell prop to an 83” Hartzell trailblazer. We’ve only had the new prop for a few months and so far have really noticed the improvement in the performance of the airplane. We feel it provides a larger margin of error; however, pilot skill and experience is the ultimate defining factor to experiencing these backcountry locations.
Our Bearhawk Patrol came equipped with an 80” Hartzell Trailblazer and 180-hp Lycoming O-360 engine. We’ve put about 100 hours on the plane so far and love the performance combo of the 80” Trailblazer with the 180-hp. While it is a very similar engine/prop combo as the 170, the wing and overall weight of the airplane is quite different, giving it great takeoff, climb, and cruise numbers.
You share a lot of great educational and flight safety content online. Why is it important to you to share the message of safety in this way?
Jon: It wasn’t long after beginning flight training that a pilot in our club was lost in an accident. It became apparent quickly to me that safety and being safety conscious would be the only way to ensure a long career in aviation, and as an instructor, the responsibility weighs heavily with me to ensure I do what I can within reason to help keep students and any pilots I meet safe.
Sharing our content via YouTube and other platforms gives us great reach to spread a positive safety message and educate pilots in a fun, interactive, and effective way to help decrease GA accidents and fatalities, all while helping to increase the utility pilots can achieve from their aircraft. We offer online safety seminars at fly8ma.com and conduct WINGs Safety Seminars in each state we travel to in person.
Tell us about your goal to fly to all 50 states in the U.S. What is the mission or purpose behind your trip?
Jon: The idea for the trip started when I left the airlines in 2018. Although I was very fortunate to fly for almost 2 years, the airline lifestyle and flying was not the same flying I fell in love with when I first got a taste of GA taking private pilot lessons years prior. I wanted to get back to flying GA, get back to instructing and sharing the love of aviation with others, as well as inspiring others to take up flying and helping them to join the aviation community.
We have traveled to 29 states so far, giving away rides in our airplanes, teaching along the way, and doing our best to document the incredible access aviation provides to our country. The challenging parts have been the planning, logistics of moving airplanes, equipment, and housing for us, as well as maintaining our regular income to finance the trip. Luckily, we’ve covered nearly 50,000 miles in two years and somehow pulled it all together. The people and places we have met along the way is more than we could have ever hoped for, and being able to share the beauty of our country by air with others, and highlight how aviation can enrich our lives and the lives of others has been one of the greatest experiences on my life.
Steph: The main mission for the trip is to spread the love for aviation and to let people know this is something anyone can do with enough determination. This country provides amazing opportunities to explore by small plane and we were impressed by the kindness we encountered in many small airports throughout the nation. There are so many amazing places to explore, so many beautiful national parks, natural wonders, small towns, and communities of people we would’ve never known about if it hadn’t been for flying!
What do you love most about backcountry flying?
Jon: The most rewarding aspect of flying in the backcountry is the incredible access to places that are breathtakingly beautiful, and the ability to share that with others. As for the places, you easily find yourself 50 miles from the nearest human and experience total silence — it’s so quiet, it makes your ears ring! Alternatively, you can easily load up with a tent and some gear, land at a popular backcountry strip and meet other pilots, share stories, and make friends that last a lifetime.
Steph: My favorite thing about general aviation is that it is accessible to everyone and it doesn’t discriminate, as long as there is motivation and willingness. It’s so rewarding to share experiences with other people, especially those who are not pilots but appreciate aviation. Every flightseeing trip I make with visitors and tourists ends with them expressing it was the highlight of their Alaska trip.