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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Bill English

Jane Dale

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Legends in Alaska Aviation project celebrates the amazing lives of Alaska's long-time aviators who are still with us today. Today we go along for a ride with Bill English.

Less than small town roots, more than nomadic blood

Bill is the product of an unusual intersection between two people who occupied vastly different socio-economic circumstances. He is at once the son of an Inupiat mother who was living, until marrying his father, a nomadic life; and, at the same time, he is the son to a father of a formerly prominent and politically powerful California family.

Bill English was born on Jan. 31, 1923, in Coldfoot, Alaska. On the night he was due, his mother mushed a dog-team from Wiseman, a mining community 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, south to the town of Coldfoot in subzero temperatures in order to secure the services of the only mid-wife in the region.

The sandbar story

Bill was 2 years old when he watched Noel Wien, Richard Wien's father, land a Standard on a gravel bar in front of the Northern Commercial store that his father managed. That landing was the first time a plane had visited Wiseman, and for many residents it was the first mechanized vehicle of any kind that they had seen.

Nothing captures this transition -- and the contrasts between the two worlds Bill would come to inhabit -- better than what happened to him one fall evening 65 years ago:

I was flying a Cessna float plane from Umiat back to Fairbanks in September of 1947. As I entered a narrow pass toward the John River that runs to Bettles, a snow storm closed in and I decided to go back to the north end of Chandler Lake to land. Chandler Lake had a lot of big rocks visible on the shores and I didn’t want to dock the plane against the rocks, so I searched for a grassy place as night approached. As the darkness fell I ran aground on a sand bar just below the water surface about 150 feet from shore. I tried the usual things to free the plane, using the engine with elevators to rock myself free, but the plane would not budge.

I thought that I was alone in the wilderness when I spied two men walking out on the submerged sand spit. One man carried a stick and was probing the water depth to direct their steps along the sand. They pushed and freed the plane from the sand bar and told me where to safely park the plane.

These two were camped on the shores of Chandler Lake at that time and were from the last nomadic Eskimos of Alaska. I was invited to stay the night and was led to their camp. One of them introduced himself to me as my cousin.

Their domed shelter was constructed with a floor of hides and caribou skins stretched across bent willow frames. The willows came from 60 miles away on the Colville River. The shelter was about 12-15 feet in diameter and they cooked by a small 10”x10” stove vented through a four inch stove pipe. The man, his wife, and their two children shared this shelter with me.  For dinner they prepared sheep loin and a type of fry bread. Both were delicious.

I was very happy and honored to be welcomed into a warm place to sleep with good food.

His cousin’s push of Bill’s Cessna off of that Chandler Lake sandbar sent Bill on his way toward the jets he would eventually pilot; and the meal he and his family shared with Bill offered a warm good-bye to a world and a way of life Bill witnessed first-hand at an early age in Wiseman.

The gold mine, the farm hand and the flying machine

Bill’s life as an Alaskan pilot was not a foregone conclusion. When he was 7 years old, his father felt the allure of life in a more-hospitable climate. He purchased a 160-acre farm and relocated his family to Roseburg, Oregon. With little knowledge of farming, Bill’s dad spent most of his savings hiring staff to run the farm. Bill graduated from elementary school in Roseburg. After struggling with the farm, his father decided to return to Wiseman and purchased back a portion of the old store.

Bill traveled to Oakland to live with his Aunt Christine and Aunt Clara. He enrolled in Danville High School and graduated in 1939. Missing the excitement and challenges of his former life, he returned to Alaska to visit the world of his boyhood and to see his parents in Wiseman. While home for the summer, Bill enjoyed hiking, often up the Hammond River and Nolan Creek. He also traveled to Porcupine Creek where the Stanish brothers were gold mining.

In the fall of 1939, Bill returned to Kentfield, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where he attended Marin Junior College. Bill spent two years there before World War II started and was friends with Burr Singleton from Lake Chelan, Wash., and Ed Murray from Kentfield. After the war broke out, Burr and Bill, both in the engineering curriculum in college, left to sign up as Junior Engineering Aides for the Public Roads Administration and helped build the Alaska Highway.

The U.S. had just entered the war. There was pressure to complete the highway and the government was desperate for any equipment they could use. Bill’s job was to drive or fly to the mines and see if miners would sell equipment. If they were interested, Bill would report back, mechanics would evaluate the equipment, and Mr. Clarkson, manager of the project in Fairbanks, would negotiate a sales price. Burr’s job was out in the boonies battling the mud and mosquitoes as part of the survey crew between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. From early 1942 until late 1943, Bill and Burr worked their respective duties until the highway was passable.

Both men were eventually drafted into the U.S. military. Bill went into the U.S. Army Air Force and Burr went into the U.S. Navy. Bill was stationed at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, which was considered “overseas” by the military. Burr was sent to the Pacific theater on a navy ship conducting survey and fire power directed toward enemy positions from U.S. cruisers and battleships. Meanwhile Ed Murray was flying a B-29 dropping bombs over Japan. Both pals were on the front line and Bill’s duty was managing the pool in Fairbanks -- a rather sharp contrast in assignments. After two years, Bill was transferred to the post office on base and finally to the downtown post office. The war ended and Bill was honorably discharged but remained living in Fairbanks.

The Lee family who had been mining over by Safety moved to Fairbanks and purchased a Rearwin Sportster, a tandem aircraft. One day Bill walked into the Lee’s office in the Nordale building and asked for flying lessons. After eight hours in the air, he was ready to solo but since it was the owner’s only airplane, they were reluctant. At that time there were no rules or regulations governing when a trainee could solo, but Bill knew he was ready. Soon Mr. Lee realized it was only fair to let Bill fly, but once he soloed, Mr. Lee was adamant that there would be no more flying.

Air Transport Pilots were bringing aircraft to Fairbanks from the Lower 48 for Russian pilots to ferry into Russia. Bill asked one of the ATPs to give him flight time and instruction in a Luscombe 8A that was at hand. Whenever a transport pilot was available, Bill would ask for instruction.

This approach was slow. Bill, along with good friend, Davy Johnson, another young native man eager to learn to fly, purchased a two-cylinder Aeronca K, fully equipped with a 10-gallon gas tank, but without brakes. It burned 2.5 gph, and cruised at 40 mph. Both young pilots built up time and by 1946 earned their private licenses. Don Gretzer, the check ride examiner for the CAA (today’s FAA) gave the check ride.

Surviving a survival story

Bill built up more time by flying passengers in a rented Piper J-5 and asked them to pay for the gas. During one such flight with the Piper, a couple asked Bill to fly them to Fort Yukon. The weather looked good for the flight even though some cloud cover existed over the route. Once the plane got beyond the White Mountains, Bill could see fog on the ground. He decided it was best to turn back to Fairbanks. Conditions, however, had deteriorated by the time they got back to the mountains and they could not make safe passage.  Bill found a river with a convenient sandbar to land on. The weather remained down for three days. A limited amount of food was on board the aircraft, and Bill and his two passengers were poorly equipped to survive for a long period of time in the bush.

Bill decided the best course of action was to walk cross country to the road near Central. His male passenger wanted to join him for the hike out. The female passenger was left with the plane. The two men did well for the first couple days.

However, without food or rest, progress painfully slowed as the two men struggled through the thick brush and rugged terrain of the region. By the third night both men were exhausted and lay down to rest on the side of a hill. They awoke soaked by rainfall and struggled to stand up. They had to expend a great deal of effort just to stand and move forward once again. On the fourth day they came across a logging road. The going became much easier on the road and they eventually walked into Central.

The residents of Central knew who they were, fed them, put them to bed, and called for an airplane to lift them back to Fairbanks. A few hours later, an airplane picked them up. Once in Fairbanks, Bill went to see Dr. Weston, a local army doctor, to assess any potential damage. Bill was fine except he had lost a few pounds. But, what about that female passenger left with the plane? Fortunately, the weather cleared on the day after the men started walking. The owner of the downed Piper J-5 along with another pilot spotted it from the air and landed. The owner flew the Piper J-5 and the stranded female passenger back to Fairbanks.

A pilot's pilot

Eventually Bill passed both a written and flight test from Don Gretzer and earned his commercial pilot’s license. Subsequently, Wien hired him on a part time basis to fly mail into villages 150 miles from Fairbanks (Fort Yukon, Stevens Village and Beaver). At that time, Wien needed 1,500-hour pilots to fly passengers. Bill only had 300 hours. To build up hours, he flew mail only on a trial basis in a Taylorcraft between 1946 and 1947.

Bill continued to work both part time jobs. Wien observed the dual flying and hired him full time in July 1946. Because flying was more challenging in the winter on the North Slope with few visual markers, Bill was sent in April 1947 to meet Sig Wien at Umiat where Sig took Bill out for some familiarity training. They flew west, made a few turns, and then Sig asked Bill to take him back to Umiat: if Bill could find his way back to Umiat, he would earn the job for Wien doing gravity meter testing on the North Slope. Bill looked for the Colville River and simply followed it back to Umiat. Sig turned him loose on the North Slope in the Cessna 140 on floats and skis with a gravity meter. On every lake three to five miles apart, Bill would land and take gravity meter measurements which provided the oil companies with rock formation data. Bill continued with the project for the next two years and knew the Slope well. He learned to use twigs, lakes and other markers for navigation. Sometimes when visibility became poor, he would just cut the engine and land. He flew daily, seven days a week, every day of the month. When flying on the Slope, Bill earned $600 a month, compared with the standard rate of $300 per month when he flew from Fairbanks.

Bill soon also started flying co-pilot on the DC-3 and accumulated 1,200 hours total time. With the GI bill, Bill and Burt Galbraith, who also flew for Wien, traveled to Long Beach to obtain their instrument ratings. There were no simulators, so they trained in the Air Force Training aircraft. The pilot instructor only had one eye and performed all of the landings and takeoffs. Bill and Burt learned ADF and range approaches. Both did well on the written and flight tests. The training company asked Bill to continue training for an Air Transport Rating. He needed a minimum number of night hours to qualify for the ATR. Bill earned the ATR and continued his education at the University of Southern California (USC) Aviation department in Santa Maria and obtained his DC-3 rating.

Bill was later checked out in the C-46 which had a different gross weight, horsepower, and flying altitude. “It was a good airplane for Alaska. In the Lower 48 there were crashes when they took off in hot weather and engines blew up. But the C-46 was very successful in Alaska.” Wien and Dick King, the Chief Pilot, sent Bill to FAA school in Oklahoma City to train on the DC-4 to become a flight instructor.

In subsequent years, Bill also instructed on the F-27, DC-3, C-46, Lockheed Constellation, and Boeing 737. Because Wien also had new routes to Seattle, Boise, Phoenix, and other locations, and Bill continued to fly.

Over the years, Bill bought a large chunk of Wien shares and ended up on the Board of Directors. He was the youngest and first native on Wien’s board.

Retirement: third time's a charm

Bill retired in 1983 at age 60 after 37 years with Wien. Like many pilots in retirement, he felt a bit lost at first, so he decided to enroll at the University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA) to pursue an A&P license. He had been in classes only a month when Frontier Airlines called and asked him to provide instruction on the Boeing 737. Frontier had a contract to train Saudi pilots. At the end of the semester at UAA, Bill traveled to Denver to train their pilots. He enjoyed the experience and enjoyed training most of the pilots.

After fulfilling the duties of the contract, Bill returned to the A&P School at UAA. Not long after returning, he met Ron Sheardon who had a Lockheed Jet Star and needed a pilot. Ron put Bill in the left seat and Ben Tisdale of Martech, who was interested in buying the jet, was on board. They flew around Mt. McKinley and back to Anchorage. Ben Tisdale decided to buy the Lockheed Jet Star and hired Bill to fly it.

Finally, after teaching Saudi pilots, flying for Ben Tisdale, and becoming a board member for Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI), Bill went back to finish his A&P. It took him a total of ten years, but he did finally get his A&P license. In the end, Bill was so busy he never did go to work as a mechanic but he did perform some of the maintenance on his own Cessna 172 RG parked at Merrill Field in Anchorage.

Looking back, if you consider where I started -- growing up in the remote wilderness with no electricity and no running water and no technology -- and then suddenly thrust into this modern world with computers and cars and yes, jets -- it is remarkable the amount of change I’ve seen and had the privilege to have been a part of. I know I’ve had a lot of helping hands along the way that other native children didn’t necessarily have. My father saw the value of an education. His relatives helped me reach my goals. The many friends I’ve been blessed with have offered support and encouragement and advice along the way. It is for these connections and these relationships that I am most appreciative.