Alaska's 1930s Bush Pilots

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


". . . [he] broke 12 inches off the end of the prop. He picked up the splinters and fitted them together like a jigsaw puzzle. He slipped a piece of stovepipe on the blade to hold them in place and wrapped the whole with wire. Propelled by this classic piece of patchwork, he managed to get his ship safely into the air and flew 300 miles home."

Eventually, Moller went to work as a Pan American flight mechanic, creating a reputation for precise work bordering on legend. In 1943, Moller decided to quit PAA, buy a plane and go prospecting again. Living in a tar-paper shack, Moller rebuilt a wrecked Curtiss Robin with a J-6-5 Wright engine. Taking off for the first time he promptly crashed into a PAA service truck, ruining the power plant. Unfazed, Moller began repairs and intended to fly in the spring. Tragically, Moller along with his PAA mechanic replacement, Ted Seltenreich, the pilot and crew, were all killed in a Pilgrim outside Nome, making headlines in the Anchorage Daily News during April 1944. Potter remarks, "He could not fly. He never hit it rich. But few men in the North have had the sharp pioneer spirit of Little Freddie Moller."

During the 1930s, Alaskan roadhouses were stops for pilots, and other travelers in need of a place to sleep and enjoy a hot meal. Huge wood-burning stoves were in continuous use and the heart of activity. Oil freezes at the same rate as water in subzero weather, so after landing, pilots raced frantically to rid their power plants of oil before it froze over. Capturing the oil in a can, the pilot carried it hastily into the roadhouse and placed it beside the stove to keep it warm. In Reeve's words, "Alaskan roadhouses all smelled the same – a mixture of warm oil and boiling coffee."

The next time you think it's too hot in your shop or too cold on the field, remember these mechanics who worked at 60 below zero — by choice.

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