The following story appears in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal, on sale now.
-By Chris Cocoles
Photos by Ariel Tweto
Ariel Tweto can’t stay on the ground for very long. Neither can she stop smiling, laughing and making her friends and family giggle.
It’s no wonder this tiny sparkplug from tiny Unakleet, Alaska, is part of one of the state’s first family of flight. Her parents, Jim and Ferno Tweto, co-own and operate Ravn Alaska airlines, an important carrier throughout the Last Frontier. The family business has been featured on the TV series Flying Wild Alaska, which returned to the airwaves this year on the Outdoor Channel after originally appearing on the Discovery Channel.
Ariel’s become quite the success story, having been one of the driving forces behind her family’s show getting on the air in the first place.
“I’m so happy with all the decisions I’ve made so far,” she says. “You might regret some of the stuff you do. But I’m going to hold onto these moments.”
THE FRIENDLY SKIES
Flying Wild Alaska focused on the Tweto family’s role in their aviation company, then known as Era Alaska.
“We tried to make it as honest as possible and actually show the real Alaska, including the bad things about it,” says Tweto, who turns 28 this year. “And then I hope we were able to get people excited about aviation. That was another one of our goals. So many people are so scared (of flying), and we wanted to highlight and show the honest aspect of flying. We hoped we would get a younger generation excited about flying.”
The airplane was certainly inspiring to the Tweto patriarch. Jim Tweto came to Alaska on a hockey scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage. His career as a goalie wasn’t going to take him to the NHL so he took up work as a welder in the Nome-area village of Unakleet, currently populated by 712.
“When he went to the village and first met my mom, he built boats. And my grandpa (Ferno’s father) was one of the first native pilots who lived up there,” Ariel Tweto says. “All of my uncles flew and my dad just fell in love with it.”
Jim started his own company, a one-plane operation that took off (literally) around the time Ariel and her sister, Ayla, were toddlers. In 1990 he partnered up to form another successful venture, Hageland Aviation, and eventually Jim Tweto and partners Mike Hageland and John Hajdukovich eventually molded Era Alaska into a regional powerhouse of the skies. Today, the company is called Ravn Alaska and has a fleet of over 70 planes.
“My parents are still working every day. And they never take breaks,” she says. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from my parents: They don’t stop working. They wake up at 6 and sometimes in summer they stay up until like 11 or 12 at night. Last year was the first time in like 20 years they went on a vacation (to Hawaii). I asked them why they don’t take more vacations and they say, ‘We just like working.’”
Ariel’s mom jokes that she likes to work as much as her daughter likes to travel. But the work-hard, play-hard mantra also rubbed off in a good way.
“They made us work hard as kids,” Tweto said of herself and two sisters. “They set rules for us, disciplined us. A lot of families don’t have parents who are supportive like ours. I’m just really fortunate that they were supportive, but they made us work hard. I definitely think we’re a family of overachievers.”
Tweto can boast two hometowns now: Unakleet – “I go there at least once a month” – and Los Angeles, which she fell for like so many others seeking the Southern California lifestyle after she attended Chapman University in Orange County. Furthermore, Tweto stays busy enough with multiple projects in the works.
“I haven’t been to my house in L.A. in a couple months because I was (out and about so much),” she said during an interview in late spring. “I go to L.A. and usually can last maybe 10 days or two weeks and then I have to get out.”
“I met some amazing friends there (in Southern California) and I love the weather and being warm. But I love Alaska; there’s no place quite like it. It’s where my best friends live and my family lives.”
Some of the friends Tweto met in Los Angeles visited her in Alaska and plan to go back north, perhaps even staying permanently. That’s the magnetic appeal the Last Frontier can have on ambitious Lower 48ers looking for a challenge or new start.
Tweto encourages anyone making a trip to Alaska to be around during the Iditarod sled dog race every March.
“It’s so much fun. Everyone is so excited because the (day)light is back; the sun is coming back out and the weather is warming up. You sit and talk to the mushers and hear their stories. You’re out there and the (sleds) are finishing, you run into a bar and have a beer and then you run back outside and cheer for the next one,” she says. “It’s so much fun and it’s just gorgeous at that time of year.”
Tweto, no stranger to the outdoors, also loves to come back in June and July to fish. Heading to the Kenai Peninsula or joining at a friend’s fish camp for a week is a favorite Tweto summer pastime. Last year around this time, a Kenai salmon trip netted some big fish, including one that the diminutive but feisty woman temporarily lost the battle to while winning the war.
“I fell out of the boat,” Tweto says with her classic shrugging-her-shoulders-and-laughing-it-off candor.
“The fish was so heavy and I just got super excited, so I took one step back and flipped over. Oh, well.”
Last year she went to Scotland with her friend, former CBS talk-show host Craig Ferguson (see sidebar) and his family. In the spring Tweto traveled to Rio de Janeiro as part of a TV commercial for a Brazilian beer company. The Tweto sisters, including Flying Wild Alaska regular Ayla, visited their father’s homeland of Norway in the summer. The Philippines beckon in the coming months.
“It’s fun living out of a suitcase,” Tweto says. “If someone told me I had to stay in one location, I couldn’t do it.”
A GREATER CAUSE
But it’s not just about frequent-flier miles, fishing and fun in the sun. There’s a method to Tweto’s madness.
“For me it’s about meeting random people and hearing their stories,” she says. “I feel if you see someone walking down the street and start talking to (him or her), you’ll learn something.”
She has also become a licensed and accomplished pilot and hopes to get her commercial license soon. She has the same passion for aviation as her parents did dating back to their humbling start in the industry in Alaska.
“They are more proud of the fact when we (successfully) follow through with a plan,” Tweto says. “I knew I was going to do it, because when we have a goal we’re going to accomplish it, even if it’s something like learning how to bake a pie.”
At some point, Tweto would love to have her own television empire. She has aspirations to someday be the “Eskimo Oprah.”
“Everyone in the villages really never sees Eskimos on TV,” Tweto says. “I’d love to have an adventure show and a talk show. I love that (Oprah Winfrey) does so much and she’s such an inspiration for me. One thing about Oprah is she connects with people, and I like that. She built an empire and I just want to build my own brand and inspire people.”
She also wants to help others like her. Tweto started a nonprofit, Popping Bubbles (facebook.com/arieltwetopoppingbubbles).
“I go to rural communities around Canada and Alaska and talk to (the kids). It started out as more of a suicide prevention thing, but now it’s just as much about kids setting goals and dreaming big,” Tweto says. “I’m from a small community and now I get to travel the world. I try to get them to get excited about traveling and adventure – setting goals.”
Some stories she’s heard from the kids in isolated Native Alaskan and Canadian villages can be heartbreaking to stomach. She talked to one group about the effects and tragic consequences bullying can have on victims. Afterwards she was asked to give the speech in neighboring communities. “It’s very emotional,” Tweto says. “I definitely didn’t think it would turn into an actual organization. I’m really happy about it. It can be draining because you’re talking about suicide and issues like that.”
Clearly, Tweto is taking the fight (and the experience) to the world rather than sitting back. Sitting still and settling down can wait for later.
“I can’t be in one place for more than two weeks, which is horrible for my personal life, since I’m 27 and still single,” she deadpans. “I haven’t met anyone yet who understands that I like moving around and don’t like having to text anyone and say where I’m at. I don’t like anyone telling me what to do – so sorry.” ASJ
Editor’s note: Follow Ariel Tweto on Instagram and Twitter (both @arieltweto)
LATE NIGHT STAR
Ariel Tweto is no stranger to the couches and comfy chairs of late-night television. She’s been a guest on the Late Show With David Letterman, but Tweto was something of a folk heroine during Craig Ferguson’s run on CBS’Late Late Show.
“I think I was on like 15 times or something like that,” says the star of the Discovery Channel/Outdoor Channel series Flying Wild Alaska. “He’s the best.”
On Tweto’s last visit, she talked about spending Thanksgiving with Ferguson and his wife, Megan Wallace-Cunningham. She was also part of a group of family and friends who visited Ferguson’s native Scotland together.
“Can we just sit here for a while longer? It’s sort of sad,” Tweto told Ferguson as her last appearance on the show was imminent. “Thank you for everything. You did change my life.”
“Did I?” Ferguson asked.
“You did. You opened so many doors that I wouldn’t have gotten to walk through. I didn’t even try to memorize that line, but that was pretty good.”
“He’s such a great guy,” she told the audience in Los Angeles about the affable Ferguson. “He’s amazing.” –CC