Part of the “How to Get to Kodiak” series of articles
By Timothy Smith, 1999 (revised with new text and photos, 2011)
A Grumman Goose amphibian races for the sky in this photo from the Fred Ball collection
Introduction to the Twelfth Anniversary Edition:
It’s been twelve years since the following article was first posted on Tanignak.com.
When it was first written, the Grumman Goose was still in regular service around
Kodiak Island. As one of the the first five postings on my page, the article needed
a little sprucing up and revision. This 2011 rewrite is almost all the original
text, with a few updates and corrections as needed. But the graphics and scans and
layout are new. I hope you like this new version of an article that has prompted
emails from all over the world. I’m not the only one who loves those wonderful old
Bob Hall, founder of Kodiak Airways, in the hatch of a Grumman in the 1950’s. A more
detailed article on Bob’s early days is called “More Amphibian Adventures,” also
on Tanignak.com. This article is dedicated to him and to the many other Kodiak bush
pilots who have passed on.
A landmark event in the history of Kodiak Island in the 1950’s and 1960’s is the
emergence of regular bush pilot service. But this fact alone doesn’t quite explain
just how deeply the pilots and planes became part of the lives of the remote inhabitants
of the Kodiak Island area. To this day, old timers refer to pilots by name, and
affectionately tell stories of adventures in various planes. The aircraft are called
by their alphanumeric designations, as if repeating the names of old friends. The
pilots who were part of that elite group who flew for Kodiak Airways, Harvey’s Flying
Service or a handful of other outfits in the early days have begun to tell their
stories, many of which can be found in this series of articles at Tanignak.com. Pilots
of those vintage Grummans can hold forth for hours about close calls, survived crashes,
the fate of every plane they ever flew, and the legacy of colleagues that have passed
on. I got to have a few phone conversations with Bob Hall, founder of Kodiak Airways,
in the years before he passed away, and I am honored to dedicate this 2011 rewrite
of my original article to his memory.
A Peninsula Airways pilot on our flight to Larsen Bay in 1997 uses a GPS to fly through
the mountain passes. The bush pilots in the old Grummans had no such advantage!
In the summer of 1997 I was privileged to fly back to Larsen Bay, my first home,
which I had not seen since the mid 1960’s. I flew in a modern, high-capacity land-based
airplane, which featured a small screen attached to the steering yoke: a hookup to
a Global Positioning Satellite system (now it’s in practically every cell phone).
Every river, mountain and bay was displayed for the pilot, who flew around treacherous
peaks and down twisting valleys in the clouds with complete confidence. “Flying
by Nintendo,” one old-timer called it. (What do you call a Kodiak Airways pilot in
the clouds? Lost!) We landed on a modern gravel airstrip replete with wind sock,
directly behind the village. We were met by the local mail and freight agent driving
a pickup, in a scene that could be repeated in village after village across the islands.
As long as the airstrips at both ends of the journey were in the clear, the GPS
could navigate through whatever soup was in-between.
What a far cry such modern flying is from the early bush pilot era, which extended
well into the 1970’s. I was a regular passenger on Kodiak Airways in the late 1960’s
as a boarding student, living away from home to go to high school. Climbing in and
out of various amphibious and float planes at the seaplane terminal in the Kodiak
Channel was as normal as jumping on a subway is for a resident of Manhattan. But
as the GPS and the smooth runway in Larsen Bay reminded me, a plane with wheels could
be working anywhere. Those old Grumman amphibians were pure Alaska.
A Widgeon prototype “up on the step” in this Grumman photo from the late 1930’s.
The Back Story on the Goose and Widgeon:
The Goose and Widgeon were amphibious planes developed for military use in the late
1930’s and pressed into extensive service in World War II. The military needed planes
that could search for downed Navy fliers, supply remote island outposts, and tend
to navigational, meteorological and intelligence-gathering equipment in nearly inaccessible
bays and inlets, then return and land on anybody’s runway or landing strip. The
Grummans served their purpose admirably, and in spite of being as heavy as a brick
spittoon, were soon legendary for hardiness, dependability and versatility.
Kodiak Airways’ workhorse Goose, N87U, delivers the mail in Ouzinkie in 1969 (Travis
North photo) and is featured in a display at the Smithsonian (where they got the
paint scheme mostly right). The text with the graphic reads in part:
In Alaska, where mountains and glaciers dramatically combine with picturesque bays
and inlets, commuting by air is a way of life. Coastal communities without airports
depend upon seaplanes for transportation, groceries, and supplies. Beginning with
Alaska Coastal Airlines’ purchase of a G-21 in 1945, the Goose has a long history
of Alaskan commuter airline service.
In the postwar era a few were built exclusively for the civilian market (one such
cushioned, curtained luxury Goose graces the Smithsonian, right below the “Spirit
of St. Louis” and a replica of the Wright Brothers’ first plane). But when the projected
boom in postwar aviation and especially seaplane business failed to materialize,
the models were discontinued. The postwar single flight of Howard Hughes’ magnificent
“Spruce Goose” seaplane, which was already outmoded before it was finished, illustrates
the sudden change in the aviation industry. Grumman kept making the larger Albatross
amphibian for the Navy, but turned its focus elsewhere, becoming an aerospace giant.
The Goose and Widgeon found regular use in the Caribbean and tourist places like
California’s Catalina Island, but when pilots began acquiring them for use along
the massive Alaskan coastline, legends were born. The planes are perfect for the
remote Kodiak environment: tough, versatile and dependable. The Grumman airframes
are able to survive horrendous abuse, and capable of being rebuilt even after being
fairly squashed in some mishap. The article, “Runways to Remember” in this series
describes a Goose that was fished out of a lake, pounded back into shape by a couple
of intrepid Kodiak Airways workers, and coaxed back to Kodiak for further repairs.
It is now in private hands, and features some of the most advanced electronics ever
stuffed into a Goose. By the 1960’s, mechanics regularly built their own replacement
parts, forming an important if unheralded closet industry dedicated to keeping the
grand old birds afloat and aloft. Grumman seaplanes and spare parts were scrounged
from dozens of remote sites around the planet in the effort to keep the aging equipment
working, a process that continues to this day.
Organizations such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as well as a few bush
airlines and a dwindling cadre of well-heeled enthusiasts work to keep the old birds
flying. Some lucky pilots, such as Fred Ball, get tapped to ferry restored Grummans
to well-heeled collectors in tropical and European resorts (see the Tanignak.com
article, “Still Flying”). Bush pilots using decades-old skills push the aging birds
to uses that would crumple less worthy designs. Young children and their grandparents
still awe at the spectacle of a Goose setting down in some quiet bay in a shower
of spray. Thanks to YouTube and a lot of folks with video cameras, you can experience
the Goose or Widgeon from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Kodiak Airways logos from the early and late 1960’s (from correspondence found in
my Dad’s desk)
The Early Days:
When Bob Hall started up his self-named flying service, which became Kodiak Airways,
I was just an infant living in Larsen Bay. The mail still came to the remote villages
on the Shuyak, a converted fishing boat which was often delayed for weeks by harsh
winter weather. The advantage of seaplane mail service to the villages was obvious,
since they could land as soon as the clouds raised up a little, and could slip in
and out of a protected cove while ignoring the waves of the open ocean. A plane
could be in and out between storms, while a boat would likely be delayed by impassable
seas. By the time I was a high school kid commuting to Ouzinkie on weekends, Kodiak
Airways had long been contracted to deliver the island mail.
Four decades later, the ancient Goose and its more delicately-styled smaller sibling,
the Widgeon, have all but disappeared from Kodiak skies, supplanted by a mostly charmless
collection of land planes originally built for stateside business commuters. One
could argue that the Beaver float plane has taken its place, and the current boom
in fishing and bear-guide business in Kodiak has benefited greatly from that sturdy
craft. But it’s a pair of vintage airframes that are the focus of my attention. This
article contains the unabashedly affectionate recollections of people from the islands
who have grown attached to a couple of mere pieces of equipment that helped to define
their lives for so long: the Grumman Widgeon and especially the Grumman Goose.
The famous “Easter Egg” Widgeon on the beach in the 1950’s. The rare top hatch (as
opposed to the typical side hatch) hangs open in this shot. Only a few Widgeons with
the “coffin door” top hatch were produced, for World War II evacuation of casualties
on stretchers. Incidentally, there’s no way to accurately color match the old slide
and the odd color scheme, but this is based on recollections and written data.
One of Bob Hall’s first regular visitors to Larsen Bay was a fabled Grumman Goose
painted pink and purple, affectionately dubbed the “Easter Egg” by locals. (See
“More Amphibian Adventures” for more on that plane, the first one to catch my imagination
as a child) On one memorable trip in it as a very young boy, I got to fly low over
a Kodiak Bear. I marveled at the way the big old plane seemed to be nearly level
while the world outside was tilting wildly. Centrifugal force slammed my little
body into my barely padded seat cushion, and my little nose was glued to the Plexiglas
as we swooped to a landing in Larsen Bay. Plane flights were rare for us in those
days because Dad had the Evangel and we almost always did our journeying by boat.
(See the Evangel Voyages index for our adventures) But it was more than enough to
inspire me with an awe that has never departed and an undying affection for the old
plane, which remain no matter how many trips I take in a Goose.
The sensations associated with flying in a Goose are seared into my recollections
and mix with the more personal ones as though to remove the memory of a Goose would
be to erase my past. When my wife Debbie and I brought our children to Alaska for
the first time in the summer of 1996, we were able to charter the white PenAir Goose
and land it in Anton Larsen Bay for the sake of the experience. The photos tell
it all; my children sported ear-to-ear grins as we skimmed back into the air, and
when we landed in Kodiak, both kids said essentially, “Daddy, buy me that!” These
are kids that have been to Disneyland and Magic Mountain and every other wild and
crazy civilized amusement, and yet were just as impressed as I was by the almost
hypnotic power of a Goose ride. I was in a Goose for the first time in two decades,
and I was gratified that my memory had not deceived me, for the old bird was still
as compelling a piece of metal as was ever devised by intelligent life.
Our 1996 Goose Ride:
...son Nathan gets the coveted copilot’s seat...
My family’s Goose charter ride in the summer of 1996 involved a departure from the
airstrip at Ouzinkie...
...a quick turn around the north end of Spruce Island, looking out across Marmot
..a water landing in Anton Larsen Bay (here the pilot looks back while I take a photo
of our daughter Kirsti, and you can see the water and shoreline faintly through the
...a water takeoff...
...and a spectacular flight through the pass behind the Coast Guard base (that’s
Pyramid mountain to the right) to land at the ADQ airport.
A Goose Ride in the 1960’s:
(NOTE: Most of the photos in this section are black and white, processed at the time
in my little darkroom in Ouzinkie. Color photos are from my Dad’s slides in the
same time frame)
Traveling by Goose is no longer an everyday occurrence for Kodiak Island passengers.
The only way to recreate the ambiance of those adventurous days now is to let memory
play tricks with you and create a hybrid experience based on scores of memorable
journeys. Let’s take a trip to Ouzinkie in the pre-airstrip days. Let’s say it’s
a Saturday morning in early December of 1969. In a land famous for spruce trees,
Kodiak Airways’ little waiting room inexplicably boasts a silver aluminum Christmas
tree, lighted by a spotlight with a rotating multicolored plastic lens. The tree
dramatically changes from yellow to blue as I approach the counter.
I march my bag up to the counter, where Archie Zehe, legendary dispatcher for Kodiak
Airways, is talking by short-wave marine band radio to remote sites around the island
in a near constant update of weather conditions. The information is what the pilots
depend on to make it safely to their destinations. He calls Ouzinkie, a mere five-minute
ride by air, yet often sporting its own conditions in the often infuriating local
tradition of unpredictable weather. There will be no problem today. Archie picks
up the mike, presses the button, pauses briefly to let the circuitry respond and
speaks clearly in a voice as recognizable to islanders as Walter Cronkhite’s is to
Statesiders. “KWA26, 26 Ouzinkie, this is KXJ66 Kodiak Airways. How does it look
this morning?” In Ouzinkie, the storekeeper’s voice almost instantly responds. Archie
knows without any self-consciousness that every marine band radio around the islands
is tuned now to 2450 kilocycles (nee hertz) and that nearly every coffee cup is paused
midway to mouth as scores of cannery radio operators and would-be passengers are
focused intently on his informal weather survey.
The Kodiak Airways terminal on the Kodiak channel, taken by Travis North in 1971
as we passed by in a skiff. This photo is also featured in “From Shore to Sky,”
one of the other articles here at Tanignak.com. In the text, I’m in the blue building
getting ready to hop in a Goose. In the photo, you can clearly see the tracks of
the last amphibian on the gravel ramp.
A real luggage tag ticket (hardly ever needed) and a copy of a plane ticket (on the
venerable N87U) that I found in a box of my high school things are memorabilia of
a long-gone era.
Shortly after Archie’s transmission, the marine band radio crackles with a clear
reply. The Ouzinkie storekeeper is prefacing his words during each transmission
with an “Ahh” sound to let the transmitter catch up: “Ahh, Roger, KWA26 back to
KXJ66. We got CAVU here this morning, Archie. Looks real good here. Got winds
south-southeast no more than 10 knots.” The CAVU or CVU refers to the best weather,
Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. The slight south-southeast breeze means that the
Goose will most likely land in Ouzinkie from its most dramatic angle, over the church
hill and through the boats moored in the bay. I realize this and hope I will get
the copilot seat for a good view. More brief pleasantries are exchanged, and the
storekeeper lists two Public Health Service workers who have been conducting a clinic
for the return trip. Archie mentally notes that they’ll have to make a separate
run to Port Lions on account of the PHS nurses’ freight. His radio conversation
over, Archie looks up, addresses me by name and sends me and bag out to the waiting
Goose, painted in cheery Kodiak Airways red and white.
As the first one there, I happily clamber up the narrow aisle of recently reupholstered
brown and ochre seats, step over the aluminum housing for the landing gear with its
little “double-check” window and slide into the dark brown leather copilot seat.
Any idiot knows to leave the controls alone, so I content myself with strapping
in. Everything loaded, the pilot slides into his seat after unceremoniously slamming
shut the sometimes temperamental two-piece outer door. He is dressed as might be
expected: olive-colored, fleece-lined flight jacket, Air Force sunglasses, and (only
because of the December weather) a cream-colored muffler. He knows his role in local
lore, but any swagger and sneer is only in my imagination, for he greets me warmly
and goes about his preflight check with appropriate dedication. He knows the drill;
I know the drill. We start out without any of the usual airline speeches, as is
the universal custom. On the other hand, if he told me to go stand on my head in
the tail cargo area I’d do it in a heartbeat; even more than aboard a ship, his word
is law and our lives are in his hands.
Various switches are switched and buttons are depressed and the starters are engaged.
The big radial engines whine, cough and sputter to life in a cloud of blue smoke,
and the brakes and landing gear groan in protest as the seaplane is turned and forced
down the beach into the water. Once safely away from the ramp, the pilot busies
himself with making sure the wheels are up. This model has a little crank to make
sure the ancient hydraulics got the job done. It is one of the most dangerous parts
of the flight. As a true amphibian, landing a Goose on a runway wheels-up is a very
“iffy” proposition, but landing a Goose on water with wheels down will flip the plane
and probably cost some lives. Such was the case with the beloved “Easter Egg” Goose
of my youth, which flipped on landing in the very channel we are entering. (For more
on channel landings, see “From Shore to Sky”)
This ghostly-looking photo, location and date unknown, shows a plane’s-eye view of
a Widgeon belly-up in shallow water in the Kodiak area. Even though the plane is
under water and the photo was taken from some distance above, its landing wheels
are clearly visible in the “down” position. Amphibians just can’t do that, and the
results are almost always tragic. It was common practice on all the flights I took
with Kodiak Airways for pilots to check and double-check to make sure their landing
gear was where it belonged! The photo has been digitally enhanced to show the plane
under about ten feet of water, hence the odd colors.
Satisfied that the landing gear is where it belongs, the pilot turns the Goose down
the channel, pulls the yoke into his chest, gives it a half-turn, and holding it
against him with one forearm, he reaches overhead to ram the twin throttles full
forward. The roar of the radial engines is loud inside the cabin and near deafening
outside, echoing off Pillar Mountain and Near Island as though a dozen Gooses are
taking off. The thrust slams me back into the seat, and at first I feel as though
the ocean is going to win, for the old bird seems to be standing on its tail, glued
to the sea. Spray kicked up by the propellers is swirling everywhere in the mighty
contest between propellers and water. This effect is temporary, for soon the seaplane
is speeding faster than any speedboat and skimming the waves as smoothly as a hockey
puck glides on ice. Abruptly the Goose leaps into the air, trailing a long stream
of water from its bulbous underbelly. In one poetic moment of sheer power, a boat
has magically converted into an airplane.
The plane pitches and yaws a bit as the pilot adjusts the trim and cuts back on the
throttles. It may be only a ten-knot wind in Ouzinkie, but as we pass over the Loran
station on Spruce Cape, the Goose finds a couple of drafts which give momentary roller
coaster effects. The old plane seems to enjoy the little challenge, and roars defiantly
toward its destination. I busy myself with trying to identify the boat traffic below,
and look over the pilot’s arms at the morning sun glinting off the snowy Three Sisters
mountains. Even though I am a local boy and supposedly used to such daily displays
of beauty, I am completely transfixed. The pilot sees my satisfied expression. “Nice
day!” the pilot states, matter-of-factly. He knows and I know that on days like
this he has the finest job in the world.
This photo is from around April, and is from a Widgeon. But it is the same gorgeous
side view of the Three Sisters mountains as described in the article. The plexiglass
windows made a few odd reflections.
In a few short minutes the plane reaches the far end of Spruce Island. He circles
the town’s northwest fringe, swinging wide over Sourdough’s Flats and Otherside Beach
before lining himself up behind the school for his descent over the Church hill.
He made a careful note of the boats anchored in the bay as he made the first turn,
so he won’t be facing any surprises as he lands. He cuts power a little and drops
some flaps, and the plane abruptly sinks like a stone, feeling as though it will
pancake into the swamp below. He guns it and levels off; a Goose with no power is
basically a big rock. We do not actually descend over the Church hill; we find an
imaginary tube between the clump of tall spruce trees beside the store warehouse
and the trees which frame the Russian Orthodox Church to the east. At one point
in our short descent we are almost eye level with the church and are below the tops
of the trees by the store. We seem to have no more than fifty feet vertically between
the red bottom of the Goose and Mike Chernikoff’s little yellow boathouse that juts
out into the bay. To people on the trail below, the big engines have slowed to a
percussive rattle, and the big plane passes close overhead with an awe-inspiring
whoosh. It is yet another visitation by their giant red-bellied angel, greeted with
anticipation and affection.
From my vantage point in the cockpit, I feel the engines idle, and the momentary
pause as the Goose struggles to remain airborne on its own lift and momentum. Just
kidding with us, the Goose resigns itself to its fate and settles down politely on
the bay, again taking on the persona of a speedboat for a few seconds before the
ocean wins and the plane settles off the step. Arriving at this angle means that
the pilot will have to taxi for some distance to reach the broad, sandy beach behind
us. The pilot is in a bit of a hurry today. If he goes too slowly to be up on the
step, he will release such a wake that he is sure to disturb some of the boats in
the bay. We slow down long enough to turn toward the beach, and then he guns it
as though taking off again, a disconcerting feeling for the passengers since the
broad side of the church hill is dead ahead. With just enough taxi room to spare,
my pilot idles the plane again, and it settles like a heavy seiner into the water.
As soon as we have slowed, he begins the process of dropping the landing gear, winching
it into locked position with his hand crank. With a bump we hit the sand below,
and the pilot guns it for all it’s worth; the Grumman Goose is a most inefficient
dune buggy and must be maneuvered and steered only by the sheer force of its massive
radial engines. The sand of the beach is notoriously soft in spots, and planes have
been known to get stuck for awhile until assisted by the tide. This time the sand
holds, and we spin noisily in a semicircle, high on the drier and more stable sand
below the church hill.
With its tail now facing the shoreline, the pilot cuts the power and the engines
sputter to a stop. Even before the props have stopped turning, villagers have crowded
around the plane. As the rear door opens from the inside, the pilot is greeted by
first name, as warmly as Lindbergh ever was. My arrival is noted, and within minutes
the entire village will know that I’m home. The pilot begins unloading freight,
and soon everyone will know who got a shipment of what. My bag is unceremoniously
dumped in my arms, and the pilot states the obvious about seeing me on the return
trip. I head up the trail toward home. I am almost to the front door when the roar
of his engines echoes from the foothills of Mount Herman and off the mountains across
the channel on the Kodiak side, before gradually fading out of earshot. It will
be a few minutes before I catch my breath and feel acclimated to solid ground again.
Photos Chronicling Arrivals and Departures in Ouzinkie in the 1960’s:
A Goose taxis in after landing, heading toward the sandy beach below the church hill
A Goose roars up onto the beach (1967, one of my favorite early photos)
The plane turns around on the sandy beach below the church hill (1968)...
...and unloads passengers and mail. ( one of my early photos, with an inferior camera,
A Goose heads out into the bay in choppy seas, in for a bumpy takeoff! Meanwhile,
at least one kid engages in one of our favorite things to do: to run through the
A Goose throttles up to take off, far enough away from the beach and boats to avoid
hitting anything with its spray. (1974)
Sometimes, the tide was too high to get to the beach, so a skiff had to load and
unload the plane. (1974)
Every now and then, the beach in Ouzinkie was a busy place! (1969)
Now back to the story...
The Return Trip
Since I am only on a short weekend visit, I start worrying about the return trip
by Sunday afternoon when clouds, light snow and a light breeze indicate that the
weather is changing. Dad taps the barometer and listens to the weather report on
an Anchorage station: “Shumagin Islands to the Barren Islands including Shelikoff
Straight: North to northwest winds 20 to 25 knots becoming light and variable winds
by morning. Snow showers and temperatures in the mid to upper 20s.” Dad shakes
his head and tells me to plan to stay another day.
Monday morning dawns gray with low clouds and snow flurries. I look out the dining
room window and can’t see Prokoda Island (called “Cat Island” supposedly because
of a peculiar local form of pet euthanasia, although some say it’s because the island
resembles a reposing cat). Nice weather if it were already Christmas I suppose,
but definitely unflyable. I am “socked in”. I resign myself to enjoy the extra
day, as sad as Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, and presume the school will understand
on Tuesday. Sometimes the car-culture statesiders in town don’t really “get” the
difficulties the village students face just getting from point A to point B.
Spray engulfs “Cat Island” in the Ouzinkie Narrows in a rare clear weather storm,
As often happens around Kodiak, Tuesday morning dawns with no memory whatsoever
of the previous bad weather. Another nearly cloudless, bright and cold winter morning.
Archie’s voice on the marine band informs us that our flight will be arriving in
Ouzinkie first, then deliver passengers and mail in the village of Port Lions and
the Kadiak Fisheries cannery of Port Bailey. I might get to class by third period
(I’m broken hearted, of course). When the plane taxis up on the beach, I note with
some irritation that the copilot seat is already taken. I slouch into one of the
seven other seats behind the cockpit bulkhead. Suddenly, the pilot turns around
and in a somewhat strained voice begins rattling off official-sounding information
about seat belts, smoking materials, flotation devices, exits and remaining seated.
I pipe up with an amused, “Who do you think you are, Western Airlines?”
We take off, deliver the mail and add a few passengers in Port Lions, and head toward
Port Bailey cannery. The inexplicable airline-style spiel about remaining seated,
etc. is repeated, this time to a near chorus of amusement from the passengers. I
notice that the mysterious man has not disembarked; he must be a Kadiak Fisheries
official headed for the cannery. We strain up the narrow wooden plane ramp at Port
Bailey, built at a steep angle made worse by the natural incline of the Goose’s landing
gear. The sides are so close that I can’t see the planks from the plane’s window,
and the angle is so acute that the Goose seems to be trying to roll straight up.
We reach the top with determination and turn around on the postage stamp-sized platform,
made all the more treacherous by the freezing weather. Although I’ve been to Port
Bailey by plane many times, the experience of a Goose actually turning around on
that tiny little platform again amazes me. Still the unknown man does not get out
of the cockpit. Since no new passengers are joining us, the pilot is blissfully
silent as we coast swiftly back down the narrow ramp and slap the water.
The pilot opts to return to Kodiak via the Spruce Cape route rather than the more
dramatic cut through the passes behind the Navy Base, since there is a stubborn case
of low fog in the pass over Buskin between Pyramid and Barometer mountains. It’s
probably why he went to Port Lions first, in case that cloud cover was heading that
direction. As we descend into the Kodiak channel, I look up at the high school on
the hill and note ruefully that I’ve missed most of third period. (Seaplanes never
land this way in Kodiak now. They would risk tangling themselves in the Near Island
Bridge. When I first walked across it in 1996 and looked down at the houses and
canneries, I was inexplicably disoriented, until I remembered that the last time
I had seen the town from that angle it was from the window of a Goose in flight.)
A Goose heads toward the Kodiak Airways terminal in the Kodiak channel in the summer
of 1975, with Barometer Mountain in the background. Cody Custer photo
Our plane coasts off the step in the channel and wallows briefly until our own surf
catches up with us and pushes us forward. In the process, a wave higher than the
bottom of the leaky cabin windows spills a cup or two of water into my lap. Kodiak
Airways’ motto is, “A shower of spray and we’re away.” I decide I’d better write
them a new one about landing. We roar out of the channel and up the ramp at the
Kodiak Airways terminal, and I hang around a little just to see who was the mysterious
figure “along for the ride” in the copilot’s seat. A Dick Tracy look-alike gets
out and goes in to talk to Archie. I mention my curiosity to the pilot, and he pulls
me aside. “Why did you say all that big-time stuff?” I begin. “That was an FAA
official,” he reveals, with a bemused look on his face. He pauses for a moment to
let the meaning sink in. Remembering my rude comments about Western Airlines, I
am profuse in my apologies, but he shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he states
with a laugh. “Everybody up and down the island said the same things!”
As I carried my bag up toward the school I chuckled a little at that story, and yet
a little nagging thought kept intruding. Times were changing, and I didn’t much
like it. Within a few years, Kodiak Airways became Kodiak Western Alaska Airlines
(it had merged with an airline with Bristol Bay and Dutch Harbor routes) and sported
a brand-new helicopter flown by a Vietnam Vet in addition to the amphibians and float
planes. My brother Kelly landed his first airline job at Kodiak Western, while
I left town for college. My schoolmates Robert (Robbie) Hall, Jr. and Warren Zehe
died in Goose crashes and another pilot wrecked a Widgeon at the Base. A few years
later, Kodiak Western folded, and the advent of landing strips up and down the islands
changed flying forever. Yet there are still many areas around Kodiak Island that
will always need the versatile freight-hauling, go-anywhere capabilities filled so
admirably by the venerable Grummans. In their place, the crown seems to have passed
to the Canadian float plane, the sturdy DeHavilland Beaver.
This nice graphic of a DeHavilland Beaver appeared in a 1971 edition of Kodiak’s
Kadiak Times, as part of an ad for a charter outfit that has long since folded. (artist
unknown) For more on the Beaver, check out the article, “From Shore to Sky”.
Until the turn of the millennium, longtime pilots such as Fred Ball kept a couple
of Gooses flying, under the banner of Peninsula Airways (PenAir). Steve Harvey,
son of Kodiak aviation legend Bill Harvey, still flies his lovely Grumman Widgeon
for bear hunting and salmon fishing expeditions. (See the article, “Still Flying”)
Thankfully, PenAir’s Goose fleet allowed my children to experience one of the authentic
joys of living in Kodiak when we took our Goose ride in the summer of 1996 (and another
in 1998, see “Runways to Remember”). But in 2011, the Grumman amphibians represent
an era of Kodiak history that is gone forever, and in some deep, inexpressible way,
is sorely missed. Old, clunky, smelly, noisy, drafty, unforgettable – the Grumman
amphibians live forever in the most sentimental corners of our memories.
In closing, a photo of Hal Deirich’s lovely Grumman Goose on Karluk Lake, taken by
Mike Vivion, reminds us of the pilots and planes that have left us. Hal’s Goose
went down near Spruce Island, and he and his passengers did not survive. As I look
at the photo, I can smell the av-gas fumes, and hear the percussive rattle of the
radial engines that can erupt in a roar of raw power. The wheels are down, and the
plane is almost to the shore. So many of our friends are already there. Thanks forever
to the rare breed of pilots that brought these wonderful planes into our lives. There
are too many to mention, but goodbye Hal Deirich, Robbie Hall, Warren Zehe, Bill
Harvey, and especially Bob Hall, the founder of the Golden Age of Kodiak Aviation.
You really did give us wings.
For more on Kodiak aviation (including much more information on the Goose and Widgeon,
and many more historic photos) please follow the links at the bottom of this page.
The author poses with a prototype civilian Grumman Goose (replete with couches and
curtains) in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. In October, 1997. (I
eventually noticed that Lindberg’s plane and a replica of the Wright Brothers’ first
airplane were hanging overhead. Apparently they had moon rocks there, too. But I
was overjoyed to see the Goose get some recognition!)