Anchorage & aviation: Flying through time
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of 10 articles by the Journal of Commerce recognizing the Anchorage Centennial and examining the events and the industries that have shaped Alaska’s largest city. The series will be released as a single special edition of the Journal in time for the Solstice celebrations June 20 and will be available at centennial events throughout the summer.
“Owning a Widgeon, living in Anchorage and flying in Alaska, there’s just nothing left. You just can’t get any better than that,” said George Pappas in his deliberate cadence, with the hint of a grin showing through.
The 86-year-old Pappas has lived the history of aviation in Anchorage for more than 60 years. For nearly 30 of those years he used the versatility of his Grumman Widgeon, an amphibious twin-engine aircraft, to enjoy the fruits of Southcentral Alaska and run a rare breed of business.
A farm kid from Western Nebraska, Pappas came to Anchorage by way of California in 1953 with a new airframe and engine mechanic’s license (known today as an airframe and powerplant, or A&P, license).
Growing up on the Great Plains, Pappas knew right away as youngster that raising sugar beets, the family profession, was not for him.
“There was nothing I wanted more than to get involved in aviation,” he recalled. “Being a dirt farmer just wasn’t my way, wasn’t something I had any interest in.”
His traditional education ended in the eighth grade, at age 12, when a bone infection pulled him out of school and put him in the hospital. At the time, Nebraska had a vocational program for kids in his situation. However, without an aeronautical program to fit his desire near home, Pappas headed to The Golden State to learn about the insides of airplanes.
He graduated in 1948 at age 19.
“That was very young for someone to have that license and frankly I didn’t know a damn thing,” Pappas said.
His training timeline was backwards compared to most aircraft mechanics of the day; he got his education first and then began gaining experience with airplanes.
When he arrived in the Territory of Alaska in the spring of 1953, he knew instantly he didn’t want to leave.
“It was a glorious summer, just like we’ve had these past few weeks,” Pappas said June 1 from his Anchorage home. “I just knew that I had died and gone to heaven. Here I was in this beautiful place with beautiful weather and I was up to my armpits in airplanes.”
He had landed a job as a mechanic with Alaska Aeronautical Industries, a maintenance shop at Merrill Field.
An aircraft mechanic without a pilot’s license, it didn’t take long for his new acquaintances around Merrill to get Pappas into the cockpit of a Cessna 140, the plane he learned to fly in, he said.
In 1956, with a new job at a local Cessna dealership, Pappas really began putting his pilot’s license to use. He started running “ferry trips,” flying commercially to the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kan., and returning in a new Cessna back to the dealership in Anchorage.
“In the spring I would go to Wichita and pick up an airplane — first stop out of Wichita is West Nebraska so I could visit my folks,” he said.
Pappas first flew a four-seat Cessna 170 north from Kansas, and eventually flew nearly every small plane the company made over the years up to a Cessna 206. He made the convenient trip off and on for nearly 30 years, he said, sometimes multiple times a year and often with his wife, Ruby, also a pilot.
Pappas followed the Alaska Highway through Canada, a method of navigation that astounded Outside pilots, who said they would worry about getting lost above the wilderness. He said it was actually harder to stay on course farther south.
“You take off out of Wichita and there’s just roads and railroads everywhere — pretty hard to navigate following a map,” Pappas recalled. “But once you get out of Great Falls, (Mont.,) and head north there was one road to follow.”
The advent and popularity of the Cessna 180, a larger, more powerful four- or six-seat plane than the 170 series, helped Pappas launch the business he ran for 50 years, he said.
Pappas formed Aircraft Rebuilders in 1959 after being tasked with recovering a ditched Grumman Goose near Redoubt Bay along West Cook Inlet.
“The snow was about eight feet deep. The airplane was sitting out there and you could walk right over the top of it,” Pappas described. “It was the damndest thing you ever saw, but I managed to get down under it and I could see what was damaged and what it took to be repaired.”
So, he flew back to Anchorage in a borrowed Cessna 170 and returned with new landing gear, parts to patch the fuselage and a piece of plywood to replace a window, he said.
The plane was on an oil exploration site, so with the aide of a nearby crane it was lifted out, repaired, and flown home by an out-of-work Goose pilot Pappas paid $100 for the trip.
“He took off (on the snow) on the hull just like water with the gear up and then when he got back to Merrill he could put the gear down and land on Merrill,” he said. “He beat me back to town by quite a bit and when I landed there was my repair job parked right in front of the hangar and I was in business.”
Alaska Air Carriers Association Executive Director Jane Dale described Pappas as a “sheet metal wizard,” able to repair nearly anything that was remotely salvageable.
Pappas credited the Cessna 180s for the duration of his recovery and repair business. The newer, expensive planes were “heavily financed and heavily insured,” he said, meaning there was great interest in getting damaged ones back in the air.
“Whoever had an accident — you’d hardly stop sliding and there’d be an insurance adjuster there wanting to get that airplane back to get repaired,” Pappas said.
With his Grumman Widgeon, Pappas could not only get to the best fishing spots on land or sea, but he could also land alongside nearly any downed plane that needed saving.
When the repair business dried up in the 1980s as the major fleet of 180-series Cessnas aged, he moved Aircraft Rebuilders off of Merrill Field and transformed the business to primarily a custom parts shop.
Pappas was honored by the Air Carriers Association as an Alaskan Aviation Legend in 2013, one of more than 40 individuals the association has recognized for their contributions to Alaska aviation culture since 2012.
Dale said the acknowledgments were started the association board and former director Joy Journeay.
“(Pappas) is quite a brilliant man and we’re just honored to be able to recognize him and share his story and get to know him,” Dale said.
Wein, Merrill and McGee
Thirty-one years before Pappas moved north, an Anchorage machinist named C.O. Hammertree changed Anchorage forever. His Boeing seaplane arrived on April 24, 1922, and introduced the infant city to aviation for the first time. The first flight in the state took place in nine years earlier on July 3, 1913, in Fairbanks.
The first Anchorage flight was short-lived.
Roy Troxell took off in the plane over Cook Inlet and began to turn back to the city once he gained a few hundred feet of altitude, according to an account of the flight by the municipality. Troxell quickly crashed in the mud flats and survived the accident, but the Boeing did not.
In 1923, a year after Troxell’s ill-fated first flight, a strip of land at the edge of the Anchorage was cleared for a nine-hole golf course and a small runway.
By the following summer of 1924 the Delany Park Strip was open for business. On July 4, having been in Alaska less than two months, Noel Wien performed aerial stunts in Hisso Standard biplane he named “Anchorage” to commemorate the opening of the park.
A pioneering Alaska bush pilot, Wien also made the first flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks that same July. With his brothers Ralph, Sig and Fritz, he founded Wien Air Alaska in 1927, the first airline in the state. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the quartet made $4,000 in the first two months of the airline.
The state’s largest airline — Alaska Airlines — also traces its roots to this period. According to its official history, the airline dates to 1932 when Mac McGee began flying a three-seat Stinson between Anchorage and Bristol Bay; later McGee Airways merged with Star Air Service to become the state’s biggest in 1934.
Alaska Airlines cemented its statewide reach in the late 1960s when it merged with Alaska Coastal-Ellis and Cordova airlines, and then acquired Horizon Air in 1987.
Growth in the early industry spurred the development of Aviation Field in August 1929, Anchorage’s first dedicated airport. The city had crept beyond Ninth Street and the park strip couldn’t handle the flight activity.
It had two runways and was almost instantly one of the busiest airports in the world.
On April 2, 1930, the Anchorage Woman’s Club successfully pushed through a resolution to change the name of airport from Aviation Field to Merrill Field, in honor of Russel Hyde Merrill, another Alaska aviation pioneer, according to the municipality.
Among other accomplishments, Merrill is known for being the second pilot to fly from the Lower 48 to Alaska. He also mistakenly found the most advantageous route through the Alaska Range from Anchorage to Bethel in November 1927, when he flew farther south than intended and went through what is now Merrill Pass.
Less than two years later, Merrill had become a busy commercial pilot. During his third flight of Sept. 16, 1929, bound for Bethel, Merrill disappeared. A month later part of the tail of his plane was discovered on a beach along Cook Inlet. The cause of the crash is still unclear.
A year after it officially became Merrill Field, the Woman’s Club got the city council to approve a tower and signal beacon at the airport. Also in 1931, the park strip was closed to aircraft and Merrill Field was it for Anchorage — on land anyway.
All good in Lake Hood
Once sporadic but consistently growing seaplane activity forced development the Lake Hood seaplane base in 1938. That year a channel was dug between lakes Hood and Spenard, thus creating what is today the busiest seaplane base on Earth.
The Lake Hood Seaplane Base served 67,000 flight operations in 2012, according to a McDowell Group economic report. In June alone that year, there were 13,159 operations, an average of 439 per day.
Lake Hood in total contributed 230 jobs and $42 million to the Anchorage economy in 2012, the study estimates.
The floatplane hub — surrounded by wilderness when the channel was dug — also got a 2,200-foot gravel runway.
World War II provided the state, particularly Southwest Alaska, with runways and airports. Infrastructure the military built during the early 1940s to support the war effort quickly turned civilian in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, PenAir founder Orin Seybert said.
When Seybert founded Peninsula Airways Inc. in 1955 he was “just a kid out of high school and one airplane,” he said.
That airplane was a two-seat Taylorcraft and Seybert was 19 years old.
Peninsula Airways was shortened to its current “official nickname” of PenAir by passengers who refused to say the whole name, he said.
Today, Seybert has logged more than 30,000 hours in a cockpit and serves on the Board of Directors of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum on the south shore of Lake Hood. He is also a former president of the museum.
Seybert is eager to show off the restored aircraft and artifacts the museum has collected.
“It’s so important to preserve this aviation history because it’s so unique in the whole United States,” he said.
Anchorage goes International
It wasn’t until 1948 that Anchorage’s flagship airport was born.
In May, Congress authorized site selection for the airport and approved $12 million for its construction, which began the following spring.
The site adjacent to Lake Hood was selected because it was away from the city and there was already a road from Anchorage to Lake Hood.
It was open for business in January 1952 with two runways, a main 8,400-foot east-west runway and a 5,000-foot crosswind strip.
A wooden control tower shipped in from Yakutat was used until the terminal was finished the following year, when the wooden tower was moved to Lake Hood.
The Anchorage International Airport was transferred to the State of Alaska, its current owner, as a part of statehood in 1959. It was assessed at $11.65 million just prior to the transfer.
The main runway grew to longer than 10,000 feet in 1961 and parking aprons were enhanced to handle growing commercial jet traffic.
There was one fatality at Anchorage International during the March 27, 1964, earthquake. Tower controller Bill Taylor was killed when falling debris struck and killed him as he came down the tower stairs.
Lighting and electrical systems were damaged at Lake Hood and the International Airport, but daylight operations resumed at the airport the following day.
In the 51 years since the earthquake, the Anchorage International Airport, now named after the late Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, has gone through a couple business transformations.
In the 1970s, international passenger traffic was king in Anchorage, according to airport manager John Parrott. Before the Soviet Union opened its airspace, planes flying between Europe and Asia made a technical stop in Anchorage to refuel while on the circumpolar route.
As Boeing’s 747 became the de facto choice for trans-ocean travel later in the decade, it was believed the stop in Anchorage would become obsolete, Parrott said, but that didn’t happen. Rather, the passenger business in Anchorage collapsed with the Berlin Wall and the opening of Russia’s skies.
Fortuitously, Asia’s manufacturing industry and FedEx were growing rapidly at about the same time, Parrott said, and Anchorage International Airport quickly transitioned from a passenger stop to one of the world’s busiest cargo hubs — a title it retains today.
Anchorage was the fifth-busiest cargo airport in the world in 2013, according to the Airports Council International. Nearly 2.5 million metric tons of freight landed at the airport two years ago. Domestically, Anchorage was second behind Memphis International, FedEx’s homeport.
Even with most major cargo airlines flying the latest and long range capable 747-8s, it makes economic sense for the jumbo jets to carry more cargo and less fuel — thus making a technical stop in Anchorage — on their way from Asia to the Lower 48, rather than sacrifice carrying capacity to fly direct.
Parrott said the latest 747s can make a trans-Pacific flight if about 100,000 pounds of cargo capacity is sacrificed.
“At a dollar a pound, that’s $100,000 for stopping here,” per flight, he said.
Aviation an economic force
The impact aviation has had on Anchorage is visible everywhere.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport supports one of every 10 jobs in the city, either through direct jobs in the terminals and hangars or a myriad of related offsite positions, according to the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
Merrill Field and Lake Hood are still the centers of general aviation and small air-taxi services, many of which cater to the ever-growing tourist industry.
Pappas and Seybert said the busy skies above Anchorage haven’t changed much over the years and the pilots familiar with the airspace know where to go and generally stay out of trouble without issue. However, Pappas said pilots he’s flown with from Outside are astounded at the number of planes in the sky.
The one difference Pappas noted is that fewer flights out of Merrill Field are simply pilots flying for fun, mainly because of the cost of planes and fuel, he said.
Yet, “there’s no place that has traffic like Merrill Field does on a sunny day,” Pappas said.
And Anchorage’s airports — the five controlled airports among the 20-some uncontrolled lakes and airstrips within the municipal limits — still help support the 82 percent of Alaska communities that are reached only by boat or plane.
Dale, of the Alaska Air Carrier Association, said during a recent meeting with Federal Aviation Administration leadership she was approached by an astounded FAA official.
“He said, ‘Jane, what’s that number you just said, 82 percent of the communities?’” Dale recalled. “Not everybody is aware of that but it’s still incredibly relevant. All of the industries (in Alaska) rely on commercial aviation.”
Its biggest city is no different.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].