alaska blog

A Myriad Of Missions — A Day In The Life Of Pilot Jeff McMillan

From abandoned World War II battlegrounds, animal conservation and to oil spill response — Jeff McMillan’s role as a pilot has been hugely diverse. Chief Pilot at Security Aviation, Jeff shares where his flight path has taken him.

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Jeff grew on a farm in Herbert, the South Island of New Zealand. His father was a farmer, but also a trained pilot. Jeff began learning to fly at 14, while his dad was learning to become a flight instructor. It became a complementary relationship, as Jeff became his father's number 1 pupil as he pursued his passion for teaching.

At the ripe age of 18, Jeff began commercial flying and he hasn’t looked back.

“I knew I would be a pilot. Always did. It got such a buzz — and still do.”

Jeff’s work has been diverse, but he’s spent most of his time between two beautiful countries — Alaska and New Zealand. Jeff moved to Alaska with his wife, who he met when she was fishing in the West Coast of New Zealand in the early 80s.

They returned to New Zealand to raise their children, spending 20 years in Balclutha running a top dressing business. Jeff has extended his hand to flying helicopters, flight training and agriculture. There’s certainly little uniformity to the work he’s been exposed to. In New Zealand, the buzz was also passed onto his daughter, Rhyan, who now flies for an oil company in Alaska.

Jeff has found it easy to shift back and forward between New Zealand and Alaska, likening the “down to earth” people, culture and the flying conditions!

“The people in Alaska are a lot like New Zealanders — kind, outgoing, down to earth and friendly. They also don’t tend to get too dressed up. So, I naturally felt good here.”

Jeff is the Chief Pilot at Security Aviation, a premier air charter company based in Anchorage. Jeff’s role at Security Aviation offered him a year-round position that fused of his passion for flying, exploring landscapes and history.

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Security Aviation runs a LearJet 45, four Cessna Conquest turbo props, and two Piper Navajo’s. They fly all over Alaska, the USA, and Canada carrying freight or fisherman, doctors who’re harvesting organs from an organ donation or Australian oil company staff. Their missions extend from medivac and air ambulance to conservation response. No one day is the same for Jeff and his team.

Not only does Jeff's position offer diverse missions, but the flying conditions can change vastly in a short space of time.

“Alaska has a stigma that it’s a tough place to fly, but actually it’s not dissimilar from New Zealand. It’s like the West Coast of New Zealand, you have low cloud, fog and difficult weather conditions to contend with.”

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Alaska is famous for scenery and wildlife and there’s no better way to explore the State than by plane.

“The wildlife and scenery is incredible. Every day I'm treated with sights of polar bears, moose, caribou, bear, grizzly bears. You can go from one side of the state to the other and see so much variety in the landscape. It’s fantastic.”

Jeff’s passion for the outdoors and flying came to a head in 1989 when he was first on the scene at the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

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The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, struck Prince William Sound's, Bligh Reef. The Sound was abundant with wildlife  from salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds so a quick response was vital.

Considered one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters, the tanker spilt 10.8 million gallons of crude oil over the following days.

The Sound’s extremely remote location, accessible only by helicopter, plane, or boat, made response efforts extremely difficult.

“I landed shortly after it happened. Watching the oil and devastation it caused was incredible.”

Jeff’s role was to carry birds who’d been damaged by the oil and to return them to a safe place where conservationists attempted to save them.

“We flew daylight to dark to try and save the birds. There were many different roles, but this was my task. It was a tough few weeks, but an amazing thing to be a part of.”

bird oil spill

Alaska is synonymous with aviation. The largest state in the US, roughly a third of Alaska's population is reachable only by boat or aeroplane. Pilots and skippers provide a lifeline to those in the state, and many locals rely on aircraft to get around.

On almost any day, you can peer into the sky and find small planes weaving through the woods and mountains. Harsh weather, rough terrain, size and the diversity of the landscape sets Alaska apart from almost anywhere else.

Because of this, Jeff finds himself jet-setting to some extremely remote spots on some extremely interesting missions.

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This year, Jeff flew to Attu Island with the 60 Minutes film crew — as a lover of war history, this was a highlight.

Attu is the westernmost and largest island in the Near Islands group of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and the westernmost point of land relative to Alaska.

If you know your WW2 history well, you’ll know that ‘The Battle of Attu’, took place for two weeks in May 1943 — a battle between US Forces, aided by the Canadian reconnaissance and fighter-bomber support, and Japan. It was the only land battle from WW2 fought on the incorporated territory of the United States.

The more than two-week battle ended when most of the Japanese defenders were killed in brutal hand-to-hand combat after a final banzai charge broke through American lines. Jeff flew an author who had written a book on this battle along with the 60 Minutes crew to the site for three days for filming.

“Attu is about halfway to Japan from Alaska, 1600 miles from Anchorage. It’s extremely remote, and known for its atrocious weather.”

Machine guns, plane engines, and original war-time buildings still stand.

“Attu houses so much history. It’s an amazing place, especially if you’re fascinated with war history.”

When I spoke to Jeff he was also getting prepared to fly to Amchitka, the site of all the underground nuclear testing in the 60s and 70s. In fact Amchitka Island is home to one of the USA's most powerful underground nuclear test to date. On November 6, 1971, the massive, five-megaton blast detonated more than a mile below remote, windswept Amchitka Island in Alaska. 

“These are just some of the fantastic stories I am able to reflect on. For me, this is what it is all about.”

Like many, Jeff believes the biggest threat to the industry in 2018 and beyond will be a shortage of pilots, especially in commercial and charter work. As Chief Pilot, trying to find capable staff in Alaska can be hard going. Alaska’s remoteness, short gravel runways and severe weather patterns require skilled pilots — which are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

“There’s no better time to become a pilot. The requirements for hiring people has dropped, companies are more willing to teach and invest in their students and staff, and there is always work.”

 This pilot shortage offers immense opportunity for anyone who's interested in a future in aviation, and not just in the airline sector. 

“Young pilots tend to be attracted to the opportunities an airline can provide them. I have never been interested in this work. For me no day is the same, I have seen the world and had fantastic experiences. I will retire with these rich memories.”

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Although Jeff admits he might be sitting on a larger nest egg if he’d pursued the airline pilot path, he believes "there’s more than 8-5pm." 

“I love that feeling of dropping everything, and not knowing where you’re going to be one day to the next. No day or mission is the same, and I am consequently blessed with some of the most picturesque sights on the planet.”

A lover of travel, scenery and history, Jeff has fused his passions into the ultimate career. We look forward to seeing where Jeff's career will take him next.