Alaska's 1930s Bush Pilots

Remarkable fliers and creative mechanics keeping the engine oil warm at 60 below.

If you live in Alaska or have flown into the 49th state anytime before 2001, you already know about pioneer bush pilot and founder of Reeve Aleutian Airways (RAA), Robert "Bob" Reeve. Born in 1902, Reeve's life spanned the advent of manned flight into the space age. Raised in Wisconsin, and briefly serving in the U.S. Army, Reeve followed his passion for flying by working for barnstormers in Texas. Already an accomplished mechanic, Reeve was among the first to become a Certified Airplane Mechanic when licensing began under the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) in 1926. In 1928 Reeve flew mail in South America, with legendary flights in dangerous terrain which honed his skills for the uncharted glaciers and extreme weather flying in the territory of Alaska. From 1932 until his death in 1980, Bob Reeve influenced the development of aviation in Alaska and earned several honors including induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1975) and the Alaska Aviation Hall of Fame (2005). Reeve was as much a mechanic as a pilot alongside that special breed of early Alaskan aviators, Ed Young, Joe Crosson, S.E. Robbins, Frank Dorbrandt, Noel Wien, Matt Niemen, Harvey Barnhill, Harold Gillam, Ben Eielson, and others.

Had Reeve kept his mechanic's license current until the year he died, he would have qualified for the Charles Taylor Award.

The stories of Reeve's Alaskan adventures are well told in several history books, none better than The Flying North, by Jean Potter, and Glacier Pilot, by Beth Day. A signed copy of Glacier Pilot proudly sits on the bookshelf of Neil and Judy Marshall in southern California. Judy's father was the chief of staff on the U.S. Naval Base at Kodiak between 1960-1962, when the family met Reeve and his wife, "Tilly." "He was a wonderful person to talk with," says Judy, remembering the walls of the Reeve home on which hung signed photographs of famous people in the company of Reeve. "My sister and I baked him a birthday cake and wrote his favorite title in frosting: "World Champion Skunk Trapper."

Reeve probably built the trap.

Reeve was cut out to be an Alaskan; independent and self-sufficient he built whatever he needed and could not buy. Pilot Noel Wien remembered Reeve building a small tool shed on the airfield in Valdez. "He loved nothing better than to putter around, working on his plane in his spare time . . . out there on the field in his greasy coveralls, with airplane parts and tools spread all over the ground."

Inventive maintenance

Invention was often part of maintenance and Reeve was resourceful as well as clever. Glacier Pilot's author, Day describes a "sort of flentner" device created by Reeve to, "counteract the increased speed of landings and take-offs in the rarefied air at high altitudes . . . Bob warped the wings of his Fairchild to attain a greater angle of attack and great consequent lift, by lengthening the front struts and shortening the plane's rear wing struts. This resulted in the angle of attack being considerably in excess of that called for by factory blueprints. But Reeve compensated for the greater stress on the wing by a complete realignment of the internal wire bracing." Reeve told Day that he used tin snips to cut aluminum, making a 6-inch-wide extension on the trailing edge of the elevator. ". . . fastening them to the rib sections for strength, he then secured them with bolts and bent them slightly upward, forming a "booster" to deflect the elevators downward in a fixed position in flight. By test flights he determined their most efficient position for maximum lift and minimum drag."

If the term "flentner" (misspelled by Day) doesn't ring a bell, you are not alone. It may have been common equipment during the 1930s, but the definition wasn't immediately obvious. Aviation historians came to my rescue with suggestions that it was actually a "flettner;" a trim tab, named after its German inventor, Anton Flettner (1885-1961.)

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