Get to the chopper

by Matt Jardin  |   

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Aviation maintenance technology grad Sarah Snell, C.T.C. ’07, credits her time attending UAA and flying in bush Alaska for giving her the street cred that would prove useful in the aviation community beyond the Last Frontier, most recently helping her land helicopter piloting positions in Africa and Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Snell)


Aviation alumna Sarah Snell’s life and career can be defined by a series of moves, both literal and figurative. Growing up in California and Oregon, she bonded with her astrophysicist father by flying gliders, which was a hobby of his. Snell was well on her way to making flight more than a hobby by obtaining certification as a private pilot for gliders and fixed-wing aircraft by age 17. 

By the age of 21, Snell added ratings as a commercial pilot and flight instructor to her repertoire. She worked as a flight instructor and airframe and powerplant (A&P) apprentice in McMinnville Oregon, discovering the art of “dope and fabric” while repairing and rebuilding gliders. Next, she set her sights on earning her certification as an A&P mechanic, which combined with her commercial piloting certificates, would be the one-two punch for landing a good position with remote based operators. 

At this point, Snell had lived between California and Oregon all her life and describes feeling the need to finally leave the nest. In 2004, she did just that and made the move to Alaska and enrolled at UAA.

“I definitely came to Alaska to go to UAA. I sought out the certification program to get the ratings to continue my career as a combination unit — as a person who could fix and fly,” said Snell. "Another good quality of going to UAA is that it’s a school that the local air operators like. In my case, a major cargo airline in Anchorage was willing to take me on as an apprentice line mechanic while I was attending classes because they knew I was in that certification program.”

Not only did UAA give Snell the desired technical skills, but also the street cred that would prove useful in the aviation community far beyond the Last Frontier.

“What characterizes aviation is you’re always two degrees of separation away from somebody who knows you or your instructor. One clear niche of that community is Alaska and it holds a lot of prestige and desirability from a hiring standpoint,” said Snell. “If you have been vetted or have gone through the Alaska networks and did a good job, say you graduated from the University of Alaska and went out and worked in the bush for a while, that’s a really good commendation on your resume. There’s nowhere else in the U.S. that will give you a learning experience as credible and useful as the one Alaska gives."

Right out of UAA, Snell immediately started working as a fixed-wing pilot and mechanic across the state — from providing bear viewing tours for Smokey Bay Air in Homer to transporting cargo and passengers for Hageland Aviation Services throughout the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta.

In 2011, seemingly out of the blue, Snell was offered a position as a pilot and mechanic for a charter tourism airline in the Chyulu Hills of Kenya, East Africa. While her move to Alaska was to leave the nest, Snell’s move to Africa was to finally leave behind the cold.

Once in Africa, Snell made the career transition to helicopter piloting, got married and had two children. The decision to shift to helicopters was a way to grow her career and income while still maintaining the element of passenger interaction that she loved so much about working for small operators.

“I couldn’t really find how to make that next step in adulting. I was at a crossroads where the only remaining upward career move in fixed-wing was to join the airlines, and I wasn’t ready for that, so I switched to helicopters,” said Snell. “Also, in Africa it’s a really useful application machine. They’re used to offer safari tours, prevent poaching, help wildlife, conduct search and rescue missions, and for many utility operations. I was really attracted to that ability of helicopters and I haven’t looked back.”

Snell’s last big move was in 2018, seven years after relocating to Kenya. While not yet ready to again withstand the cold Pacific Northwest climate, Snell and her family moved to Hawaii where she provides sightseeing tours for Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Snell describes her recent position as an anomaly in helicopter aviation given that it’s not remotely based and the schedule is dependable and brings her home every night, which is a good spot to be in as she plans her next move and enjoys family life.

“I went to UAA with the intention of obtaining certification, which is the industry minimum,” said Snell. “UAA did a brilliant job of getting me through that, but there were also all these amazing degree programs which I didn’t take advantage of. If there’s a message I could send to aspiring A&Ps or commercial pilots, it’s to settle down and spend the extra time and money to obtain an A.A.S. or B.S. in addition to the base certification. The industry is paying a lot more attention to the academic credentials of aviation professionals, and that is what the UAA aviation program is all about.”  


Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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