Alaska's 1930s Bush Pilots

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


When one of Reeve's Fairchilds developed serious engine problem he resolved it with a temporary, if unorthodox fix. "[He] discovered that the lip of the valves had become leaded and burned," writes Day, "[causing] improper seating of the valves and resulted in blow-bys. Once blow-bys started, the valves were on the road to ruin." The intake valves also fouled causing loss of engine power. Day continued:

"The twin spark plugs in each cylinder became so leaded that they functioned little better than a single plug. When one plug became leaded the firing of the remaining plug caused torching effect of the compressed fuel mixture that seared the top of the piston and both valves . . . [so] after landing, he placed each cylinder at top dead center and whacked the valve rocker arm above the valves with a rubber mallet. The spring back of the valves knocked off the lead and reseated them — to some degree, at least enough for that next trip."

Some bush pilots described their aircraft as "parts flying in tandem," requiring creative mechanical skills to keep them airworthy. During his bush flying days, Bob Reeve owned and maintained an Alexander Eaglerock, a Fairchild 51 (with a Wright Whirlwind), a Boeing 80-A, a Hamilton Metalplane, and a Fairchild 71 (with a WASP). Each aircraft functioned under extraordinary circumstances as Reeve often took passengers where no other plane had been before. In addition to his paying customers (miners and hikers) he never hesitated to respond to an emergency rescue, pushing himself and his planes to heroic limits.

Perhaps no story about Reeve can top the yarn of Pat O'Cotter in The Alaska Weekly of April 1934, who described Reeve's engine kept hot by South American chili peppers run through a meat grinder which replaced the carburetor.

Reeve knew how important his maintenance crew was to the success of Reeve Aleutian Airways, and once gave 10 percent of the airline's stock to his superintendent of maintenance. RAA flew its last passengers out of Anchorage in 2001 after 70 years of commercial flights which began with overnight stops in back-country roadhouses.

Bush mechanic Jim Hutcheson serviced wrecked airplanes on site. Sometimes camping weeks in the woods, he often worked in bone-chilling winds and subzero temperatures. He once bragged that, "There's no plane an Alaska mechanic ever fixed up in the hills that wasn't able to fly back to its home base."

Author Potter's list of "ingenious workers on the ground" includes Loren Frenald, Ernie Hubbard, Tom Appleton, Cecil Higgins, Burrass Smith, Fritz Wien, Matt Parvin, and Harry Bowman and a few anonymous natives who made remarkable repairs to planes after seeing one for the first time.

Less well known is a cabinetmaker from Chicken, AK, who volunteered to repair a Swallow aircraft for pilot A. A. Bennett following a crackup. With no previous experience, (and apparently no first name), Mr. Springbett repaired longerons, replaced fabric, straightened the prop, and rebuilt the lower wings — all in six weeks. He later became chief mechanic for Pan American Airlines at Fairbanks.

Sometimes a mechanic became a flier. None were more capable with a wrench and less skilled at the controls of an airplane than Fred Moller. Adored in Alaskan aviation lore, he remains obscure to the "lower 48" although librarian Ralph Courtney at the University of Anchorage reports that Moller is included in Alaska Aviation History, indexed under "F" for Fred.

The search for gold

Moller arrived in Nome at the turn of the century to look for gold in remote isolated areas impossible to access except by air. He took flying lessons in Spokane from Nick Mamer, but crashed on a solo flight, spending the next 18 months in bandages — the first of dozens of near-death accidents. To make money for more lessons and to buy his own plane, Moller taught himself how to repair old motors. Eventually he became a mechanic for several well-known bush pilots, but he never gave up flying lessons, and was far from a "natural pilot" when he finally got his license. He bought a wrecked Waco with two Curtiss OX-5 engines (also damaged) and rebuilt it entirely on his own at the Fairbanks field where he lived in a modest shack. For two years he ran a passenger service to mining camps, sometimes panning for gold as part of his pay. Potter described one of Moller's many crackups, near the Alaskan town of Shungnak where, on takeoff, he gunned his engine into a pile of rocks:

We Recommend