More Amphibian Adventures
How to Get Around Kodiak Island: More Amphibian Adventures
(The Grumman Widgeon, Goose and other Amphibians around Kodiak Island:
A Companion Article to “Goose Stories”)
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Grumman Widgeon N56198 waits at the ramp in Kodiak channel in the mid-1950s. Beyond is the K EA building which housed the generators that supplied Kodiak’s power. Amphibians were a main part of the expansion of commercial aviation around Kodiak Island in the postwar years. Across the nose of the Widgeon is painted, “Fly Kodiak Airways!” This plane crashed in the Crown Mountain Pass on a flight from Afognak to Old Harbor in April of 1961. The pilot apparently blacked out due to a carbon monoxide leak in the cabin, and came to out on a snow bank high on the mountain. He was later spotted by other Kodiak Airways pilots, and a Coast Guard helicopter rescued him. (It is impossible to tell the story of these wonderful planes without also recounting the dangers of flying in the challenging airspace around Kodiak Island.)
After World War II, airplane manufacturers thought amphibians and even flying boats were the wave of the future. Howard Hughes tested his magnificent “Spruce Goose” and companies such as Republic and Grumman made amphibious aircraft in an attempt to tap into the private and commercial market. In most places, the idea never caught on, but around Kodiak Island, the amphibian became the most common commercial aircraft, and remained so for the better part of three decades. This article features some very rare photos of those amphibians, and includes a tribute to the Grumman Goose’s “pretty little sister” (my designation), the Widgeon. For this article I am indebted to the shared memories of Bob Hall, founder of Kodiak Airways, Steve Harvey, avid Widgeon pilot and aviation archivist, and Bob Leonard, a pilot who flew amphibians around Kodiak Island for many years. They wrote me after reading the original “Goose Stories” article, and I am honored to share what they shared with me. All photographs are from the Norman L. Smith collection or were taken by me in the 1960s and 70s, except as noted.
The Republic SeaBee with Memories from Bob Hall:
Bob Hall in a new SeaBee in Seattle, preparing to head to Kodiak in 1947.
The SeaBee was a unique amphibian, designed to be popular with the private pilot market. It had only one engine, a “pusher” with the prop facing the tail. It looked a little bit like a small PB-Y, especially toward the tail section (see photos later in this article). Bob Hall, founder of Kodiak Airways, headed north to Kodiak in 1947 in a brand new Republic SeaBee to work ferrying cannery workers from town out to the worksites. He returned to Seattle that winter, but after a couple of shaky seasons, he persuaded pilots such as Gil Jarvella to join with him and soon after, Kodiak Airways was born.
A group of village kids play in the prop wash of a SeaBee as it leaves the beach in Ouzinkie, in this summer photo from the late 1940s. If you look closely, the photo even shows the exhaust smoke. (From Miss Rold’s scrapbook, Baker Cottage Baptist Mission, Ouzinkie).
Kodiak Airways bought some used SeaBees and put them into regular service in the early 1950s, and as Bob Hall says, “we flew their wings off!” They used SeaBees in their commercial operation until they sold the last one in 1959 (they got their first Grumman Widgeon in 1950 and their first Goose in 1956). I saw only a few when I was a kid, and never got to fly in one. But in the postwar 1940s, many were used in Alaska. The Grumman amphibians proved to be better suited to the Alaskan bush, especially where heavy loads, speed or marginal weather conditions were concerned, but the SeaBee holds an important place in Kodiak’s aviation history as the first planes used commercially around the islands by Bob Hall and Kodiak Airways.
A SeaBee prepares to land in the Kodiak channel in this rare photo from the 1940s.
With seven outlying villages and twenty-one operating canneries around the Kodiak Islands, Bob had his work cut out for him. He saw a need and filled it, and in so doing, inaugurated the first year-round flights to the outlying areas. Bob Hall and his crew were flying SeaBees when he persuaded the canneries in the outlying areas to let him handle their mail and packages for $25 a trip. Then he persuaded the post office to pay him twenty-five cents a pound for the service. In this way, he pioneered regular winter flights around Kodiak. “Another challenge,” Bob writes, “was flying around Kodiak Island in the winter. No heat in the plane and with the large windows, each time I taxied in the water, everything would fog over. It was necessary to leave the door open until ready for takeoff!”
The Alaska Airlines Sikorsky at Mission Beach:
The above photo presented quite a mystery at first. It was taken by my dad, Rev. Norman Smith, in 1951, at the seaplane ramp that used to be at Mission Beach in Kodiak. My resources for research were limited and I could not determine which model it was, so I sent the photo to Bob Leonard, former Kodiak Airways pilot, who sent me the following information: this is a Sikorsky S-43 (JRS-1), first flown in 1935, and it held fifteen passengers. Bob writes, “I would have loved to have those 15 seats when we were transporting cannery workers down to the Alitak and Larsen Bay canneries. A Pacific Northern Airlines “Connie” would bring in 45 - 55 cannery workers and we would be running back and forth getting them down there before dark (only five passengers to a Widgeon or nine to a Goose at a time!)” There was apparently only a few dozen of this model that made it out of the war and into commercial service, and this might be the only one that saw service in the Kodiak area. Steve Harvey adds that this plane was operated by Alaska Airlines out of Anchorage, and was used to ferry cannery workers out to Chignik and Kodiak from there. While landing in Chignik it hit a log, and sank before they could beach it. I heard a rumor that an effort to reconstruct and restore this plane was undertaken, but I have no information as to the progress of that project. But these two photographs document yet another unusual item in Kodiak’s rich aviation history!
Here is the Sikorsky S-43 taking off near Mission Beach, taken moments after the previous photo. The three famous 300-foot high FAA navigation towers on Woody Island (which were a local landmark until they were dismantled in 1964) are visible across the channel in this photo.
The Consolidated PB-Y “Catalina”
The PB-Y Catalina was a venerable World War II workhorse, and many photos exist of it in action in Alaska during the war, especially on reconnaissance patrols and search and rescue missions. Apparently quite a few were based out at the Kodiak Naval Air Station during the war. But a few were used in the early 1950s to ferry cannery workers from Kodiak out to the sites – a process Bob Leonard alluded to above. The PB-Y was not in general use in the Kodiak area by the time I was old enough to remember. But in this rare photo, a PB-Y 1 (identified as model 1 by the distinctive pontoon bracing and as an amphibian and not a flying boat model by the tire along the side) lands in Larsen Bay to unload passengers for the Alaska Packers Association cannery there. (Norman Smith photo, circa 1952)
I shot this interesting photo in 2004 of a World War II PB-Y that was recently retrieved from a swamp and moved to the museum near the Anchorage airport. This one will never fly again, and I have no information about the fate of its crew, but its presence is a stark reminder of the immense effort made by the American military forces to defend Alaska during World War II, and the many sacrifices that effort required. The PB-Y was built in San Diego during the War, and there is an antique store in the Gaslamp district there that specializes in PB-Y memorabilia. I make sure to visit it every time I’m in town.
A Goose Gallery from the 1950s and 60s:
Goose N1583V had a long history. It began its service in Iceland during the War years, then it was brought to the United States where it flew for years with Catalina Airlines in California, providing service to and from Avalon. Then it was brought to Alaska in 1956 to be part of the Kodiak Airways fleet as the first Goose they had. It was lost with five fatalities (including the pilot, my friend Robbie Hall) on a flight from Old Harbor to Kodiak in December of 1974. In this rare photo it is waiting on the beach in the Kodiak channel, still painted in its Catalina Airlines colors.
Here is N1583V looking brilliant in its brand new Kodiak Airways colors a few months later, as it roars up onto the beach in the Kodiak channel.
This Grumman Goose (also most likely N1583V in its third paint scheme with Kodiak Airways) takes off in Kodiak channel in this publicity shot from a Kodiak Airways postcard in the 1960s. “A Shower of Spray and We’re Away!” was the company motto.
A Goose’s wing and pontoon (sporting the Kodiak Airways, Inc. logo) frame the scenery in a flight to Kodiak from Ouzinkie in 1968.
N87U had a bit of trouble in February of 1966 when it lost an engine. Here the Madre Dolorosa hauls it in to town. They hoisted it off the stern and brought it up the ramp (next photo). Incidentally, the fishing boat later went down under tragic circumstances, but N87U is still flying as of May 2005, and has been restored to its original Navy paint scheme.
After being unloaded from the deck of the crab boat, N87U limps back to the ramp in Kodiak with the help of the Kodiak Airways truck after losing an engine in flight. My dad, Rev. Norman Smith, shot this photo in the late winter afternoon sun.
For more on the Grumman Goose and the experience of flying in one, please check out my “Goose Stories” article. For more photos of Gooses in action (including N87U), see the “Ouzinkie Rebuilt!” article.
The Widgeon, Goose’s Pretty Little Sister:
Super Widgeon N91040 is featured in another Kodiak Airways publicity postcard photo. Kodiak Airways began using Widgeons in 1955, and continued to use them until they ceased operations. I call the Widgeon the Goose’s “pretty little sister” because of its smoother lines, streamlined engine cowlings (there were several engine styles used) and stylish windshield, especially when compared with the rather dowdy-looking Goose.
Kodiak Airways bought their first Goose in 1956 according to Bob Hall, and they gradually became the flagship aircraft of Kodiak Airways. By the time I began traveling regularly in the late 1960s (I was in boarding school in Kodiak, and commuted home to Ouzinkie a few times a month), Kodiak Airways had more Gooses than Widgeons in their fleet. But the Widgeon has a longer history in Kodiak’s commercial aviation, and like its older and larger sibling can still be found flying in the Kodiak area. Steve Harvey’s gorgeous Widgeon is still in regular commercial use in Kodiak, and I am sure there are other pilots who find it to be perfect for reaching the remote areas quickly and efficiently. (For more on recent planes and pilots, see the next article in this series: “Goose and Widgeon: Still Flying!”) The next two sections of this article feature the venerable Grumman Widgeon, through the memories of two legendary Alaskan “bush pilots,” Bob Hall and Bob Leonard.
A Widgeon unloads passengers in Ouzinkie in this detail of a photo taken from the window of a departing Goose (circa 1969). I once landed in Ouzinkie channel (we came in around the point past the dock) in three foot swells in a Widgeon, when such a landing could have caught a pontoon and flipped her. It was a bone-jarring experience! Most of the pilots I knew were more cautious about such things, for as the saying goes, “There are brave pilots and there are old pilots, but there are no brave old pilots!” This Widgeon is the same one as in the previous publicity postcard photo, was manufactured in 1942, and is still flying in Oklahoma (of all places)!
Bob Hall Remembers:
Most of the details about Kodiak Airways in this section and throughout the article are from an eight-page collection of memories that Bob Hall wrote in 1997 and shared with a reunion of Kodiak Airways pilots and friends that was held in Washington State. He graciously sent me a copy after reviewing my article “Goose Stories” and I am honored to share some of his memories with you.
A sea level view of the seaplane ramp in Kodiak channel. Kodiak Airways’ first hangar warehouse glares white beyond the Widgeon, which sports the color scheme Kodiak Airways used in the 1950s (this photo is probably from 1952). Behind it is Alvine’s boat repair facility, and in the upper left is Griffin Memorial Hospital, where I was born. Bob Hall got permission from the Alvines to tie up his planes on this beach, and later bought the property, including the green house on the right. This yellow and red Widgeon is probably the one Bob Hall bought from the Washington Fish and Oyster Company, which ran Port Williams on Shuyak Island. Bob used the yellow and red color scheme for many years. The original hangar was refurbished and an office was also built (see the next photo), but this entire area of the channel was swept clean by the Tidal Wave of March, 1964. Kodiak Airways rebuilt on the edge of the small boat harbor, and later built a hangar on the far side of the city airport. This photo is a still from 16mm movie footage shot by my father, Rev. Norman Smith.
Alaska aviation legend Bob Hall and a Widgeon in the 1950s.
Bob Hall flew SeaBees in the early years, but was very impressed with the performance of the Grumman Widgeon, a plane that was later to become a main part of his operation. He writes, “Port Williams had an ex-Navy pilot by the name of Bill Hingston who was the store bookkeeper and also flew a beautiful Grumman Widgeon for the company. He could fly so quietly and so fast, compared to our SeaBees. But one day Bill got caught in a williwaw (sudden downdraft) and coasted his Widgeon onto the rocks at Port Williams, tearing the bottom out of it. So they loaded it onto a boat and sent it south for repairs. The next year, Bill brought a different Widgeon and again dazzled us with its speed. However, he took the drain plugs out on the beach to let excess water out, and then put it out on a buoy for the night. The night watchman caught sight of it just as it sank – the plugs had not been put in place!” Then the company got the original Widgeon after it was repaired and brought it back to Port Williams. Bob says, “it was repaired and was painted a shiny yellow with red trim. They offered to sell me the plane and give me all their business in exchange for half my billings until the plane was paid off. It was an offer I could not refuse!” Thus Kodiak Airways acquired their first Widgeon in 1950, and gradually adopted the yellow and red color scheme for their subsequent fleet of Widgeons.
Bob Hall (with sacks of mail) and the same Widgeon as the previous photo, repainted in a pretty color scheme that was not used on any other plane. For years the yellow and red color scheme predominated, but by the late 1960s, all Kodiak Airways planes were in white and red.
Although there were other sources of revenue, such as Bob’s increasing village passenger and mail services, 1959 was a disastrous year for nearly everyone. A horrible salmon season meant the little air service was not getting enough business. Bob notes, “A couple of floating canneries left the island owing us several thousand dollars each. I was also faced with closing the doors because none of the local people could pay their bills. However, Wakefield Fisheries, which was a herring processor at the time, changed their tactics and pioneered the king crab fisheries. All the locals went to work for them and suddenly, Kodiak Airways was back in the swing of things.” (For more information on Port Wakefield and photos of their early crab operation, please see my article called “Cannery Work” at this website).
Kodiak Airways’ fleet of Widgeons awaits a break in the weather in this rare photo, most likely from the winter of 1953-54. (The mission boat Evangel, run by my parents, Rev. Norman and Joyce Smith, and featured in a series of articles at this site, waits at the dock beyond.) The hangar to the right was remodeled from scrounged military surplus materials, and constructed with the help of Bob Hall’s good friend, master carpenter and mechanic Benny Benson, who worked for Kodiak Airways from 1950 until his death. Benny Benson was also the designer of the Alaskan Flag. Benny (although an unassuming man) was a local celebrity because of that fact, and when I was a kid I was more than a little in awe of him.
Bob’s experience of the Earthquake and Tidal Wave was dramatic and moving. Although none of his pilots were lost in the disaster, Kodiak Airways was nearly destroyed. He writes, “Kodiak Airways was left with two flyable planes. The hangar with all tools, spare parts and freight to be delivered was swept away. Our office building and all records were also gone, with the exception of the U. S. Mail, which was in bags that we were able to quickly remove. I threw the mail on our truck along with the cash box and drove up the hill as the water covered the back wheels. The reward for this effort was a plaque from the Post Office Department. Our home was on high ground, and all the Airways employees and families gathered there. The city power was out, and so we bought out the Coleman gas stoves and kept food before everyone. We watched the water surge in and out in the light of a full moon. All our losses except the planes were not covered by insurance.”
Kodiak Airways’ first Goose, N1583V, in its temporary quarters at Harvey’s Flying Service shortly after the Tidal Wave in 1964.
The following day, the workers of Kodiak Airways had a meeting. Every one of Bob Hall’s team decided to keep going, and to find a way to get back in business. The only problem was a few months later when Bob and his lawyer went to Washington D.C. to try to finalize the loans that would be necessary to rebuild. Bob remarks, “Washington runs on paperwork. We were repeatedly asked for records, and we repeatedly reminded them that the records are gone! The only records were the quarterly and annual reports we had previously sent to Washington. It finally penetrated,” and Bob returned from D.C. with enough funds to start the recovery operation.
Kodiak Airways after the Tidal Wave: an envelope full of these old Kodiak Airways flight schedules was found in my Dad’s office after he passed away. This one shows a flight between Larsen Bay and Port Wakefield in October of 1964, a time when Dad was beginning to visit the villages by air. It is signed B. L., which possibly indicates Bob Leonard was the pilot. The ticket still lists several sites that by that time had been wiped out by the Tidal Wave of March of that year.
A Goose pilot often had to deal with lots of freight and mail, as evidenced by this photo from Old Harbor in 1966. When the weather cleared up after days or weeks of delay, the pilots would have their hands full trying to catch up on mail, passenger and freight traffic that had stacked up at all the stops, a problem that still plagues fliers in the Kodiak Island area. Kodiak Airways bounced back from the loss of all but two aircraft in the Tidal Wave, and by the mid-60s, business was booming again.
By the mid-60s the company had resumed full operation, and had a booming business all around the Island. Then in the early 70s, the oil boom at Prudhoe Bay sapped the company of good mechanics and pilots, who went elsewhere for better pay than Kodiak Airways could provide. In the mid 1970s, an ill-fated merger with an airline that mainly serviced the Aleutian Chain plus a huge increase in aviation fuel costs put pressure on the company. The newly-merged Kodiak Western Alaska Airways company lasted until March of 1981, when Bob sold his interest in it and moved to Washington State. The new owners went bankrupt eleven months later, and the last vestiges of Kodiak Airways passed into Alaska aviation history.
With the beach still strewn with the wreckage and debris, venerable Kodiak Airways Goose N87U departs Ouzinkie at high tide a year or so after the Tidal Wave. This Goose was purchased the summer after the Tidal Wave, to replace a Goose that was in had been swept away in the hangar in Kodiak channel when the tsunami hit. Incidentally, I recently did a Google search for “Grumman Goose” and found out that good old N87U, the same plane that is featured in many of the photos at this website (and in a plaque at the Smithsonian), is apparently once again for sale, although it has been repainted in World War II Navy Blue with authentic decals and gray underbelly. Anybody want to start an airline?
The Other Aircraft of Kodiak Airways: a helicopter and float plane (I just didn’t think it was fair to leave these two out of the article). Although flying in the helicopter was an exercise in high tech fun, and a trip in a float plane such as this Cessna 185 guaranteed a fun water landing (and likely as not, some wet feet while jumping to shore), neither of these aircraft could hope to match the authentic, antique, bush pilot adventure of a ride in a Grumman amphibian. The photos are from rare Kodiak Airways postcards.
The Other Aircraft continued: The Piper Super Cub (venerable “puddle jumper”) was, and still is, one of the best ways to get a small load in or out of a very small patch of water. A Piper Cub pilot told me that to take off from a small lake, you often have to taxi around in circles until the plane is “up on the step” and then roar out in a semi-circular motion! In this photo my father, Rev. Norman Smith, hops into a Kodiak Airways Super Cub at the sandy beach in Ouzinkie in 1966.
Bob Leonard’s Larsen Bay Widgeon Experience:
Bob Leonard was a Kodiak Airways pilot, flying everything from the Piper Super Cub float plane to the Grumman Goose. Kodiak Airways used Larsen Bay as a fueling station for the South End. For several seasons in the 1960s, Bob Leonard worked out of Larsen Bay with a Grumman Widgeon, using it as a way of keeping the Alaska Packers’ Association’s fleet of salmon seiners supplied and as a way of getting an advantage over other canneries. Each cannery had a fleet of seiners, usually sporting the cannery’s unique paint scheme, plus a fleet of larger tenders, which would load up the fish from several seiners and rush them to the cannery for processing. Whichever cannery’s seiners got to the fish first, and then got their tenders to the seiners first, would have the most fish to process, and hence the greatest profit. Likewise, scheduling the tenders to arrive at staggered intervals helped keep the cannery well-supplied with a steady flow of salmon. Bob’s partnership with Joe, the fleet boss at the Alaska Packers Association cannery in Larsen Bay was ingenious and efficient, and demonstrated yet another way that these versatile aircraft made themselves indispensable to the local economy. It was Bob’s job every morning (starting at about 3:30 AM, because it is already light out) to take Joe to check on his fleet of seiners. Bob would swoop down to allow Joe to get a good look at the orange and black APA seiners. Bob picks up the narrative from there:
“As the fleet boss Joe is responsible for finding out and keeping a total of the amount of fish his fleet is catching each day. His second job, based on the amount of fish his fleet is catching, is to schedule the cannery tenders to the various bays to collect the fish from the small seine boats. This is a real balancing act, because he needs to have one or more full tenders arriving at the cannery each day in order to keep the cannery processing fish on a day-to-day basis. This is where Joe earns his money. The amount of salmon varies from bay to bay. His boats might be catching a large number of fish in bay #3 while bay #2 has just a light number caught. Then he finds that bay #1, which was a light catch yesterday, has come upon a heavy run this morning. Now, he needs to send a second tender quickly to bay #1. Adding to this scheduling problem is that the various bays are all of different distances from the cannery and the travel times of his tenders varies depending on which bay they are servicing. So, Joe uses my airplane to try to keep an overall picture of his fleet’s daily catch and location in his head. Not an easy task!”
“We spot only three of our seiners along with five or six other boats from our competitors. I position myself so to be able to fly past our three boats while Joe checks where the waterline is. We fly past alongside, keeping about fifty feet above the bay, and, passing each boat, Joe makes a notation on his clipboard. Remember, Joe knows these boats and, believe me when I say it, he can estimate to within 50 fish or so how many fish are lying inside each boat’s hold, all while flying past them!”
The natural question is: why not use the radio instead? Bob’s answer is simple: “Let’s not forget the competition. Those other canneries around the island, who are just as intent on catching more than their share of the fish run, are all listening in for any sign of a heavy fish run starting in one of the bays. If Joe had his boats giving him fish catch totals, via the radio, and they were doing well in a particular bay, the boats of the competition would be coming full speed towards that bay as fast as they could get there.” Thus the flyby method preserves the secrecy and insures that the orange and black team will get their fair share of the catch!
This photo gives a good view of the narrow strip of beach that served as Larsen Bay’s seaplane ramp. At high tide the beach nearly disappeared! This beach is where Bob Leonard based his Widgeon during the summers he worked with the Larsen Bay cannery. It was usable from both directions, as this photo indicates. On the left is the tail of a float plane, while to the right is Kodiak Airways’ Widgeon N68335, with a repaired float painted in aircraft primer. This photo was taken around 1951 or 52, a few years before Bob Leonard began flying his Widgeon out of Larsen Bay.
Bob would fly Joe back to the cannery after the early morning run, take a quick nap, and hop back in the Widgeon for another check of the seiners, and to ferry supplies and spare parts to any of the seiners in any of the bays. As an amphibian, the Widgeon simply would touch down near the seiner, get met by the skiff, unload, and take off again. Bob’s typical day would last until after 10:00 PM, and then up again in a few hours to be in the air by 3:30 AM. But this system made life much easier for Joe, the fleet boss, and resulted in a much more efficient (and hence more profitable) season for the Larsen Bay cannery. Bob sums up his cannery and Widgeon experience:
“Sometimes I would take a mechanic and drop him off at a boat to work. If a crewman got sick I would pick him up so he could get treatment at the cannery health clinic. A few times I picked up crewmembers that had been injured on the job and took them direct to the hospital in Kodiak. There was never a dull day! This second afternoon flight covered the same bays as our morning flight but took much longer because of landing in each bay and dropping off supplies.
Usually I was back to the cannery by 10 pm. After servicing my plane I could catch another block of sleep, maybe three hours or more. Then, awake again. Cold water splashes my face. It was a new day. Soon my Super Widgeon and I would be again flying the fleet boss, Joe. This was my daily schedule during the hectic salmon season, and this was my part in getting those little salmon cans onto your grocery shelves!”
Bob Leonard’s unique narrative is from his story, “That Little Can of Salmon,” and is used with his kind permission.
Gil Jarvella, Kodiak Airways pilot, helps an unidentified passenger (possibly Dorothy Bucklin, a Baptist official) into a Widgeon. The author’s parents, Rev. Norman and Joyce Smith stand beyond the plane, and the author (a young Timmy Smith) watches, fascinated, from the foreground. (Larsen Bay, 1956) This Widgeon features a “coffin” door in the roof as opposed to the side hatch featured on Gooses and most Widgeons. Only 25 coffin-door Widgeons were made, all for the Coast Guard (so as to allow a full stretcher to be loaded), and Kodiak Airways bought two of them for the Kodiak market. This plane is the famous “Easter Egg” Widgeon, so named because it was painted in turquoise and pink with white stripes.
Here’s a fairly accurate color shot of the “Easter Egg” Widgeon, also taken in Larsen Bay in the mid-1950s. It is nearly sunset, and low tide, and the plane is below the visible high tide line. You can guess why such a wild-colored plane would make an impression on a young boy! According to Verlyn Geriene, the plane was that color when it was purchased. He says that when he was flying it into one of the villages a less-than sober guy on the beach commented, “That looks just like an Easter Egg!” and the name stuck. (Photo taken by Verlyn Geriene, a Kodiak Airways pilot)
Genuine tragedy is also part of the story of amphibious aviation around Kodiak Island. A Widgeon landed in the Kodiak channel with its wheels down, a deadly error, and flipped over with loss of life. Because of this uniquely amphibian potential for disaster, I never flew with any pilot who didn’t check, double check and recheck the little indicator light between the pilot and copilot seats that indicated the status of the landing gear. When in doubt, give the hand crank another turn! Steve Harvey’s dad Bill, who ran Harvey’s Flying Service, died at the Kodiak airstrip in 1967 when his Beechcraft crashed on takeoff. (Although they may have been business competitors, the loss of Bill Harvey was like the death of a family member for all the local pilots, and I remember the loss hit people in the villages pretty hard as well.) Then in quick succession in 1974 and 1975, Bob Hall’s son Robbie, one of my schoolmates and an old friend, died in a Goose crash at the South End, and Warren Zehe, another friend and son of the indispensable Kodiak Airways dispatcher Archie Zehe, also died in a plane crash. Later another Goose’s pilot became disoriented in the fog near Ouzinkie, even though he was carefully flying close to land and within sight of the water, clipped his pontoon and spiraled in at high speed, killing all on board. This too is the legacy of the amphibian pilots in Kodiak Island airspace: danger counterbalanced by skill and determination.
The end of the line: Kodiak Western’s “Peter Rabbit” Goose, so called because of the last two letters of its designation N72PR, purchased in 1976, flies over Kodiak waters in this late ’70s photo. By this time, Kodiak Airways was no more, merged with Western Alaska Airways, and on its way to slow extinction. This Goose was usually flown by Fred Ball when my brother Kelly worked for Kodiak Western. With someone else piloting it, the plane ran off the runway in Old Harbor in 1978 and got pretty beat up. Fred Ball flew in, pounded it back together and coaxed it back to Kodiak (a testament to both plane and pilot)! A hard water landing near Long Island, off Kodiak, caused pontoon damage in October of 1985 while the Goose was owned by Westflight Aviation out of Ketchikan, according to the NTSB. It was later sold to an outfit in Palau, Micronesia, and another small chapter in Alaska aviation drew to a close. This plane was then featured in the television version of “South Pacific” in 2002 (painted in Navy colors), and is currently being restored, according to internet sources. So it’s still having grand amphibious adventures, and still flying!
Epilogue: Still Flying!
Every time I return to Alaska, I am pleased to see that the Grumman Goose and Widgeon are still flying somewhere. But in May of 2004 I had the pleasure of spending the weekend on Catalina Island, twenty-two miles off the coast from Los Angeles. Imagine my great pleasure when I discovered that was the weekend when all the Catalina Island Goose pilots were having their reunion! The old Grumman amphibians had been as big a part of that island’s aviation history in the 1950s and 1960s as they had been around Kodiak Island. I swapped stories, bought a book about the Goose authored by one of the pilots, and even bought a shirt sporting a Grumman Goose logo (which I saved to give to my brother Kelly for his birthday). Although I have lots of photos and fond memories of the planes, my brother actually worked around them during the waning years of Kodiak Western. But on Catalina I spotted a fully-restored Goose, painted in a gorgeous cream and burgundy color scheme, and got my wife Debbie to shoot a few photos of me posing (at a discreet distance behind a fence). The “About Me” section of this website features that photo. I also discovered a local store that sells beautifully painted walnut models of the Goose, and the next time I go back there, I plan to order one in Kodiak Airways red and white.
In the meantime, active pilots still lovingly keep the old birds aloft. The Goose debuted in 1938, and the Widgeon appeared a couple of years later, so parts are hard to come by, but those old planes just keep on flying. One of the pilots who carry the Grumman torch, so to speak, is Steve Harvey, son of Bill Harvey of the old Harvey’s Flying Service, who continues his father’s bush pilot legacy with his beautiful white, yellow and blue Widgeon. Another is Fred Ball, who flew Grumman Goose for PenAir when it was operating out of Kodiak in the late 1990s. The story of the Goose and Widgeon around Kodiak Island today is the subject of the next section of this series, appropriately titled “Goose and Widgeon: Still Flying!”
Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is © 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.
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