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Ellen Paneok was the first Alaska Native woman pilot. She worked as a commercial pilot in Alaska for 17 years and ferried everything from dynamite to live wolverines, the U.S. mail, passengers and medical patients. Paneok accumulated more than 15, 000 miles of flight time during her life. The elders called her “Owl Eyes” because she could see and fly in any type of weather. To her knowledge, she was the only Native American (Eskimo) woman pilot.
Paneok was born in Bedford, Va., in 1959. Her mother, Bernice Evak Burgandine, was an Inupiaq Eskimo from Kotzebue. Her father, Ron Burgandine, was in the United States Air Force stationed in Alaska. Her parents divorced when she was in the fifth grade and after the divorce, her mother moved Paneok and her two sisters to Anchorage. From the age of nine she took on the role of mother to her two sisters. A state social service agency broke the family up when she was 12 – her younger sister was adopted and she and her other sister were sent to separate foster homes. Paneok bounced around foster homes until she was put in “girls’ lock down” at the age of 14. Fortunately, her last foster home was a loving environment and helped her turn her life around.
When she was 15, Paneok found a flying magazine and after reading it decided she wanted to give it a try. At the age of 16 she received a $1,500 dividend from the Cook Inlet Regional Corporation and used it to take flying lessons. Eventually, the money ran out and Paneok started doing pen-and ink-drawings that she sold for $10 each. At the age of 17 she began ivory carving and scrimshaw, selling her work to tourists. She used the money to complete her training. Never liking school, Paneok would skip English and History to take flying lessons. At the age of 20, Paneok received her GED and her private pilot’s license.
By the time Paneok was 23, she had her commercial and flight-instructor certificates. In 1983 her first flying job was in Kiana, flying a Piper Cherokee Six. She chased polar bears from runways in the line of duty. “The most challenging part,” she said in the 1997 book “Women and Flight,” “is the off-airport work, like landing on the sandbars, landing on top of a mountain with big tires, maybe on a 20-degree grade, landing uphill and taking off downhill – to me, that’s the epitome of Bush flying.” Paneok said she was honored to be one of the few pilots authorized to fly the vintage aircraft owned by the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum. After flying for air taxi operations throughout the Bush, Paneok worked for the Federal Aviation Administration for five years as an operations inspector, then for the Alaska Aviation Foundation as the Statewide viation Safety Coordinator.
Paneok was published widely in such magazines as AOPA Pilot and Alaska Magazine and was featured in numerous books on women and aviation, including “Bush Pilots of Alaska” and “Women Pilots of Alaska”. She was also referenced in a number of other publications for her unique experience and knowledge of high-Arctic flying. Her article “With Trusting Eyes Behind Me” was included in “The Last Frontier,” a collection of the best of Alaska Magazine. Paneok was included in Ann Lewis Cooper’s Book “Stars of the Sky, Legends All”. She was one of only 37 pilots featured in the “Women in Flight” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. She is remembered as a “heroine in aviation”. That was the name of an exhibit sponsored by the Chicago Airport System which also chronicled Paneok’s extraordinary life.
Paneok created ivory scrimshaw that hailed from her Inupiaq tribal traditions as well as her interest in the changing world. She exhibited her work at many Alaska Federation of Natives conventions and arts-and-crafts shows. Her work can be found in art and antique galleries in Anchorage and Haines and in Minnesota and Maine as well as in many private collections.
Paneok was a long-time member and supporter of the Alaska 99’s, the International Organization of Pilots. She also volunteered her time and sat on the board of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Big Brothers and Big Sisters Anchorage, the Alaska Historical Commission and Challenge Alaska. She spent countless hours inspiring the youth of Anchorage and village communities to look to the sky and to their own dreams. When Paneok spoke to groups of at-risk kids, she could relate from her own personal experience. She told them: “I was just like you. I got no encouragement. When you decide to do something, don’t let anyone or anything discourage you. It’s up to you.”
Shortly after her death in March of 2008, Paneok was honored by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Congressional Record.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/Vgt0pO4kU9s