Zackary Vaara can be found either working at Safeway, where he has been employed for 12 years, or walking or biking around the Airport Dike Trail, watching the arriving and departing planes of all shapes and sizes.
Ask Vaara his interests and he’ll say airplanes and taking photographs. He shoots with a Nikon — like the pros — though in April or May he had his camera and coat stolen when he accidentally left them in a cart at Safeway. He has a new camera now. Vaara’s mother, Melinda Dana, boasts that when she showed her son’s photos to a professional photographer friend, he had plenty of praise for the composition.
Vaara’s first camera, a gift from Richard Kwong who, with his wife, runs the Canton House, triggered years of enjoyment and thousands of photographs. Mostly of airplanes.
It was this infatuation with airplanes that drew together Vaara and Alaska Airlines Capt. Bryan Burks a year or so ago. Burks had a couple hours to spend in Juneau and decided to hike the Airport Dike Trail, where he saw Vaara “with a bike, reflective vest and scanner,” he said.
“I saw myself in him.” Burks said.
That day was the beginning of a friendship. Burks said he flashed the landing lights over the trail when he departed that day so Vaara would know it was him flying overhead.
Burks’ infatuation with airplanes, which began as a teen, led to flying lessons as early as 15 and a long, successful career. At only 2- to 3-weeks-old in 1962, Burks may have been the youngest child to fly at that point and now he has flown with Alaska Airlines for 17 years and he flew with Mark Air and Skagway Air before that.
Vaara’s infatuation with airplanes hasn’t provided quite the same opportunities Burks has experienced. Though Vaara lives on his own, holds a job and has hobbies many share, he experiences a mental disability. He receives help and support from REACH and from his mother, who lives nearby.
Burks has a 15-year-old daughter who experiences autism. He said he is waiting for her to find her passion, the way Vaara has found his. Vaara gives him a lot of hope.
Vaara’s capability and independence sometimes impresses and surprises even his own mother, who, for example, hadn’t realized how her son learned of the scanner he uses to listen to airport chatter.
“I thought Bryan must have told him about it.” she said.
A customer from Safeway told him about it.
“I got it at Radio Shack.” Vaara said to Dana. “Two years ago.”
Dana also commented that, when they are out and about in Juneau, Vaara knows everyone and everyone knows him from his job at Safeway.
“Hi Zack. Hi Zack. Hi Zack.” she mimicked.
During the brief interview, he waved to no fewer than three people from our café seating near the front of the store.
Vaara was spare with his words, though Dana says others might tell a different story. Burks said he and Vaara often speak a couple times a week. And Vaara will know when Burks is in town because, “He’ll call me,” Vaara said.
He has a shelf at home dedicated to aviation memorabilia, much of which was given to him by Burks. He has Burks’ captain’s wings — a cherished gift, a couple model planes; some trading cards and photographs he has taken.
Which seat does he prefer?
It’s the best seat, clearly.
Dana said one of his favorite flights was to Las Vegas, almost certainly because of the view of the strip’s dazzling lights at arrival and departure.
Though Vaara has been on some commercial jet flights, including the trip he and his mother took when they moved to Juneau in 1999, and one helicopter flight, Burks wanted him to experience what he sees as the superior flight experience: a float plane trip over the Juneau Ice Field.
Burks said he called up Mike Stedman with Wings Airways and organized for Vaara to take a flight if there were seats free.
On what Dana described as a “clear as a bell” blue-sky day Monday in downtown Juneau, Vaara and Burks hopped on a plane with Wings Airways pilot Tim Ward, who invited Vaara to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.
Vaara got a big smile on his face when that came up.
“It’s pretty fun, plane riding.” Vaara said.
Vaara doesn’t need to fly the plane to enjoy aviation. He loves to watch planes, photograph planes, or simply be a passenger on planes. Even turbulence and ear-popping don’t take any joy out of flight for him.
And it seems that Vaara’s happiness and success bring a lot of joy to his mother. And to Burks. And probably the customers at Safeway or anyone else who knows him.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.