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Robert Fairbanks hails from Kotzebue, where he grew up unloading NAC planes.

Pilot Robert Fairbanks joined Northern Air Cargo (NAC) just last year as a 737 First Officer, but his relationship with the iconic Alaskan company – and the whole of the state’s prolific aviation community – is storied and deep.

Fairbanks grew up in Kotzebue, a city of roughly 3,000 residents, the seat of Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough and one of NAC’s larger hubs. His parents, Mark and Marcia Fairbanks, own the ground services company FBX, which loads and unloads NAC and other aircraft in Kotzebue.

“I grew up loading and unloading NAC planes,” he said. “I’ve known of Northern Air Cargo since I was a little boy. NAC sponsored my uncle, who mushed dogs in the Iditarod for 17 years in a row – he won in 2011.”

Fairbanks has two older brothers, Jeff and Jeremy, a twin brother, Donald, and a younger sister, Fallon. And while Don and Fallon eventually took over their parents’ company in Kotzebue, Fairbanks decided on a different route.

‘By far the best job I’ve ever had’

Fairbanks joined the U.S. Army in 2006 after completing his first year of college, lured by a signing bonus and the idea of fulfilling a life-long dream. While he served, his brother Donald went to flight school.

“In Kotzebue, you either have to own an airplane or a boat – those are the only two ways out of town,” he explained, “so we got the Cessna 172 and Donald could fly it – that was exciting.”

The family’s “camp” in Candle, Alaska, is only accessible by air. As to how Fairbanks ended up with his pilot’s license?

“It’s kind of a funny story,” he laughed. “If I wanted to go to camp, I had to ask my brother for a flight, and then he’d go and tell his girlfriend he was leaving for a while. But if his girlfriend was in a bad mood, I didn’t get to go.”

After about the seventh time it happened, he said, he decided he needed to be able to fly himself around. Then, in 2013, Donald was flying the Cessna when it went down. He walked away from the crash, but after a lengthy FAA investigation, Fairbanks said Donald never got around to taking the test flight required to restore his license. Suddenly, Fairbanks was the only pilot in the family, and he’d soon be profiting off the skill he’d acquired.

“Where our camp is in Candle, there’s a lot of gold miners there. I met a miner from New Mexico who was chartering an airplane to come in and land on this small runway – from where the creek ended to where it began again, a maximum of 750 feet. I’d just fly in and visit with him occasionally. Finally, after a year, he asked me, ‘Hey. You’re coming here anyway – can you bring some stuff for me?’ I was still working at the family business, but that’s how I became the official pilot of the Glacier Creek Gold Mine.”

Two years later, Fairbanks was introduced to the miner’s daughter – who’s now his wife.

“I didn’t even know he had kids when I met him,” Fairbanks laughed.

Fairbanks and his wife stayed in Kotzebue for a year while he, Don, and Fallon continued to work at FBX.

“I would say that Don’s role was like, Director of Operations,” he explained. “He’s a jack-of-all-trades – anything but office work. My sister, she’s like the CFO and Office Manager rolled into one. I was like the Station Manager, doing the warehouse work.”

In the end, while his siblings elected to stay, Fairbanks knew he had to go.

“There were too many leaders and not enough followers,” he said.

Fairbanks moved with his wife and daughter from a previous relationship to Colorado for a year to upgrade his pilot’s license from private to commercial. The family moved back to Alaska and bought a house in Eagle River, outside Anchorage, and Fairbanks spent the next four years flying for Alaska Central Express until the NAC hiring window opened.

“It’s by far the best job I’ve ever had.”

“My grandfather, Bob Baker, founded Red Dog Mine, and three of my cousins are working there. I’m flying in for NAC with supplies. When he founded the mine, I don’t think he imagined that four of his grandchildren would still be involved more than 50 years later.

Robert Fairbanks

‘Rita would be very proud’

Fairbanks explained he couldn’t wait to work for NAC – his grandmother, Marge Baker, and NAC co-founder Rita Sholton were “the best of friends.”

“The people you work with over there are super people,” he said. “The pilots I fly with – they’ve all been at NAC for between 12 and 20 years. It’s the environment, too. It might be gray and rainy outside, but everyone’s always perky; everyone always has a good attitude.”

Fairbanks said it’s always been his dream to fly the 737 into Kotzebue in late January or early February.

“Maybe the wind is blowing, maybe it’s cold and miserable,” he joked, painting the picture. “I’d park in front of my parents’ building and get off the plane and tell my brother and my dad, ‘we’ve got two bellies’ (compartments ready to unload). And then go sit inside with a hot cup of coffee until it’s done. I unloaded so many planes in the freezing cold; it would be nice to take a load off.”

Fairbanks said his parents and siblings frequently express their happiness and pride in the fact that he’s doing what he loves.

“They tell me all the time that they are very, very proud. It’s an iconic company. It’s an iconic plane. It’s a very big deal to my parents and all of my family.”

He described a “moment” he had recently with Donald.

“I was on a route that took us from Anchorage to Kotzebue to Nome and then back to Anchorage, but we got stuck in Kotzebue for like two hours. The captain decided to go inside, and I got to bring Donald up into the jet, and he sat in my seat, and we got to talk for a good 20 minutes. It was great to be able to catch up that way.”

Fairbanks said that while he enjoys flying from Alaska down into the Lower 48, soon, he’s going to try sticking closer to home. In addition to his now 13-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, his wife is due to deliver a second son this month. He said he hopes to grow into his role and NAC and can’t picture himself anywhere else.

“I’ve got 30, 31 years left in my jet-flying career. Definitely, the outlook is good. I can’t tell you how blessed I am to have gotten on at a company like NAC. NAC was always the big bush carrier, flying into the same places, the same small outposts but with jets. It’s such a prestigious thing to work here.”

As an Alaskan, he said, it’s hard not to appreciate how the companies built by previous generations continue to provide.

“My grandfather, Bob Baker, founded Red Dog Mine, and three of my cousins are working there. I’m flying in for NAC with supplies. When he founded the mine, I don’t think he imagined that four of his grandchildren would still be involved more than 50 years later. I’d love to give a giant ‘thank you’ to my parents for putting me through flight school in the beginning and encouraging me to leave the family business and try something else if I wanted to. And, of course, Gideon Garcia and the whole NAC pilot group that helped me get on. I’m sure Rita would be very proud.”

Fairbanks stands on the tarmac. A NAC cargo jet tail behind him.

For more on Northern Air Cargo and its sister companies, Aloha Air Cargo and StratAir, check out our interview with Northern Aviation Services President Betsy Seaton here.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.