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  • Anna Chabukina

Knik Tribe Drone Pilots Taking The 2024 Winter Games Even Higher

The Mat-Su 2024 Arctic Winter Games is proud to partner with various video teams this week to assist in making the Games accessible to everyone -whether sold out, unable to travel, or even just if you prefer to Games & chill at home - our video team is making it happen. It is their expertise and dedication that allows the livestream view and record our outdoor sports such as snowboarding, alpine ski, and more. Today we have Bre Wong (Caddo of the Oklahoma Nation) and Kevin Lytlehere to share their expertise and allow us to get to know them.


Q: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.


BW: My name is Bre Wong, and I'm an instructor for the Horizons grant at the Benteh STEAM Academy which is through Knik Tribe. We teach drone piloting, drone careers and engineering to our students in middle and high school.


KL: I do the same thing, I'm with Knik Tribe. It's a federal ANE - Alaska Native Education- grant, specifically focusing on teaching drones and aviation with culturally connective lessons.


Q:Did you always want to do drone work or did it kind of lead you in that direction and blossomed?


BW:I have been working with ANE grants for the last – I want to say 9 years. Specifically teaching different STEAM formats and the most recent one, I was able to get was through Horizons, working aviation style, working in the aviation field. I always wanted to be a pilot. I was really interested in flying. I wanted to do it as a career, but it never panned out the way I hoped it would. I started on my private pilot's license, so I hope to finish that soon. When the opportunity arose for me to take on the lead of this grant, the manager of the program was like, 'Yo, you'd be perfect, we think you'd fit in very well.' I said, 'Sure!' And I jumped on board. Since then, I'm been having a lot of fun and our students are really engaged. I think it's a great way to reach them and give them opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise have.


KL: I am a retired police officer out of Waukegan, IL, just halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. In about 2018, I helped start our drone unit for that police department that did things like search and rescue and processing. I got my pilot's license through there and again in this previous year, I had to medically retire due to a duty injury. I've known Bre for about 8 years. I moved here with my partner. When we arrived, Bre reached out and said 'Hey, we have this position open that would be perfect for you. You've been flying drones for years, you have a huge background in this'. I onboarded with Knik Tribe because the federal grant was specifically drone focused. I have about four to five years experience. I helped to start and run our drone unit. I also have a pilot license. My experience with drone use includes the integration of the public and law enforcement side. Even with what we do at AWG, there's still a lot of contact that we have to have with the FAA and local law enforcement in order to make sure we are flying legally and safely.


Q: Did you have a mentor growing up that helped shape your interest in this field?


BW: When I was really young, my parents were very active in Alaska. They wanted to get us out to do as much outdoor stuff we possibly could. One of the things that we did every single year is, there is this cabin on the Resurrection Trail at Swan Lake. It's a specific spot. At the far end of that lake, which is the largest one on the trail system, you would have to fly in on a float plane. Ever since I was a kid, we're talking three years old and up, I was a toddler the first time we went out there, my parents would make a week-long trip and we would always go out there, every year. I got to know the pilots really well. I was always in the front with the little headset on. Some of my favorite photos as a child are me in a bush plane with a headset on talking to the pilots, just flying. When I was growing up, as I got a little older, a lot of our family friends also had aircrafts, so being able to jump in those planes and get some hands on experience, learning about flying, all of that really boiled down to; I don't have one mentor, I had a community around me of pilots that were encouraging and awesome.

I know it's really common for girls to feel like 'oh, I can't get my hands dirty. The pilots were like, “Nah, you got this. Here help me put this back together. Or, let's take apart this plane and fix it'. I learned fabricing, riveting, and the engine process. All of that from these awesome pilots and awesome people who had these planes. That's where I got my interest and experience from.


KL: For me, growing up, it was actually my interest in robotics that led to my interest in drones. It was Battle Bots on Comedy Central. Me and my older brother would watch that every Wednesday. As he got older, he ended up, in his free time, building and competing in micro battle boy competitions. He loves it. I've always really enjoyed watching what he does so when the opportunity came up with drones and to develop the drone unit and get my pilot’s license, I jumped on that right away. I didn't have the time and opportunity to build robots and battle bots but if they were going to pay for me to go through and get my license to be able to fly drones and get paid for it, I was really excited about that. We were able to put them to good use where we were working. For me, that kind of where it stems from, watching my brother do all these really cool and fun things with robots and finally having the opportunity myself.


Q: What is the hardest challenge you have overcome, whether personal or in the field?


BW: I think the challenge I am constantly facing and fighting against is just the idea that I work in the STEM field. The STEM field is primarily male-dominated and being able to stand up for myself, constantly be that light for the students who are also doing that, has been the biggest challenge and will continue to be the biggest challenge at least for a little while longer. Until people realize that women are just as capable, If not more awesome at times in this field. I think that has always been the biggest challenge. But I think it has inspired me to keep going constantly.


KL: For me, I think it was that I had to medically retire because of a physical duty injury that is now a permanent disability for me. For me that's one of the hardest things I struggle to move forward with. Learning how to live with this disability, how it affects my life and my work and how I can go forward through that, but on a deeper level, how can I use that to move forward and teach people. What can I do to foster some disability representation in those different fields? That is something I don't know how to do super well. I'm still trying to figure it out because it is so new for me.


BW: I would also like to add that queer representation in STEM fields is also under represented and undervalued.That's another thing that we really need to step up and show. It's not just being a female, it's being a queer woman standing up for myself and being able to do all that. I think that is also one of the biggest issues that we currently face out here in the valley.


The Knik Tribe Drone Team is assisting Home Team Live in providing video coverage across outdoor venues this week. Their footage will be viewable in the on-demand section of awg2024.org/livestream


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