Alaska's 1930s Bush Pilots

April 16, 2007
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.)

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:

". . . [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.