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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Bill Stedman

Brice Banning
Courtesy Brice Banning

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Legends in Alaska Aviation project celebrates pioneers in the field of Alaska aviation who are still with us today. We've already taken a look at the lives of a few amazing men: Al Wright and Harold Esmailka. Today, we go along for the ride with Bill Stedman.

Early years in Petersburg

Bill was the first baby born in Petersburg’s new facility, on Sept. 27, 1923, in the U.S. Signal Core building on Main Street.

Bill’s aviation career was off to a great start after receiving his first ride in a Fairchild 71 airplane while in high school. The Fairchild was bound for Juneau with a group and businessmen and Charlie Whyte let Bill take the extra seat. Later that same month, Bill met Tony Schwamm. Tony Schwamm had started Petersburg Air Service with a Curtis Robin sea plane and Bill quickly became part of Tony’s operation.   

"After school and on weekends, I was a projectionist at the theatre," Steadman recounted. "Tony met the theatre manager looking for some young guy to hire help to pump out pontoons, clean windows and gas airplanes. I got paid a bid sum of $0.50/week plus flying lessons. Tony was a Lieutenant in the naval reserves and was a good, really good pilot. While I worked for Tony, I could take lessons in the Curtis Robin."

Tony sold the Curtis Robin in October 1939 and purchased a WACO. Bill was welcomed to fill an empty seat anytime and enjoyed learning about the country, weather and on occasion flying.

In 1941, Tony purchased a brand new Taylor craft and later that year Bill soloed. The custom for a sea plane solo, he explains, is to “throw you into the water. They want you to know how cold the water is if you foul up.”

Later that same year, Pearl Harbor was bombed and Tony was called back to service in the Naval Reserve. The airplanes were sold and Petersburg Air Service was closed.     

That summer, Bill went to work for Morrison-Knudson Construction, which was building the Northway Airport at the time. Bill was the mechanic on Morrison Knutson’s fleet of airplanes, including two Pilgrims’, Boeing Tri Motor, Stinson Trimotor, Travel Air 600, and the Spartan Executive. Harold Gilliam was their chief pilot. Bill would fly co-pilot every chance he had on the Boeings with Mudhole Smith or Frank Barr. 

One day Gilliam picked Bill up in the Lockheed 10A in Juneau, flew him to Cordova, and then to Nebesna a few days later. The construction supplies arrived in Valdez by boat and then were trucked to a staging area about 8 miles from Nebesna. From the staging area they were hauled to the airstrip by a cat train. Pilots flew all the materials from the airstrip to Northway. 

"Planes were moving 24 hours a day, all summer," Bill said.

Morrison Knutson’s task was to build a 10,000 foot runway. They needed to move a boiler into Northway to heat up the tar and chose the Boeing 80A to bring it in because the aircraft had a 6-foot door. They loaded the boiler into the airplane, but couldn’t close the doors, as weight caused the mid-section to deflect. Bill placed jacks in the mid-section of the aircraft and jacked it up until they were finally able to close the aircraft doors. The plane successfully arrived and Northway Airport was constructed. 

That fall Bill left and flew back to Petersburg via Fairbanks. 

National Travels

In 1943, Bill went to work as a mechanic for Alaska Coastal in Juneau, which was created in 1939 when Alaska Air Transport and Marine Airways of Juneau merged. Bill moved in with Tink Martin and Walt Ludtke who also worked there. 

With the war on, the three guys were ready to enlist. They gave away their furnishings, got on a boat and traveled to San Francisco to join the Navy. There were thousands of guys waiting in line for their physicals; Bill eventually made it through but was way down on the list due to a perforated ear drum. So a couple other guys and Bill pooled their money and purchased a bus ticket to Seattle, and met up with Tony who was in the hospital and was getting a medical discharge. Tony immediately put Bill to work looking for an airplane to bring to Petersburg and start Petersburg Air Service back up.

Tony asked Bill to travel to Caldwell, Idaho, to look at a WACO; it had been completely taken apart. Bill spent a week putting it back together. Bill recalls, “there was no flying on the West Coast during the war but somehow Tony got a ferry permit” and Bill flew the airplane to Kent, Wash.

Tony was then able to obtain permission to store the aircraft in hangars at the Sand Point, Lake Washington base in Seattle and Tony flew the airplane there. By August, the airplane was in Petersburg.

In 1945, Tony wanted a bigger airplane, the Ryan B5. So Bill was sent to Ely, Minn, where he recalled "almost freezing" in May. In addition, Bill didn’t like the airplane. So he packed up and left. 

Later Tony acquired a Travel Air 6000 that lasted one year, later replaced with a Fairchild 24. By the end of the year, Tony sold the company to Slim Walters and it became Alaska Island Airlines. Tony went on to become the Airport Manager for Anchorage International Airport. 

In April 1949, Bill received his A&P license. By May, he earned his private pilot’s license. By September, he decided to travel to Hawthorne, Calif., and attend Northrup Aeronautical to receive formal education for his A&P, which he already had. Bill graduated in 1950, number one in his class, and was offered a job with Alaska Coastal Airlines in Juneau.

Back to Alaska

Bill recalled the story of his move north:

“I got out of Northrup and went right to Juneau from L.A. Wind and Snow! There was no place to live up there; the housing was really tight so we were desperate. The town of Douglas set up a bunch of Quonset huts and they were renting them. We spent the rest of the winter living in a Quonset Hut. The only heat was an oil cook stove. In Juneau it blows 100 mph and in Douglas it just whistles, and the fine snow would blow through the key hole and we would wake up in the morning. The doors didn’t fit tight, with snow on the floor. We’d have to get up and stand as close to the oil stove without burning yourself to get dressed. The water in the toilet froze.”

The following year, Alaska Coastal bought out Alaska Island Airlines in Petersburg and Alaska Coastal offered Bill a job in Petersburg; Bill was happy to return home and he and Quinten DeBoer moved to Petersburg with a Widgeon to start operations.

Alaska Coastal asked Bill to fly for them when they purchased an Aeronca Champ. Bill used the Champ to get ready for his commercial test and Quentin DeBoer, his flight instructor, gave him a lot of help. 

On May 4, 1954 Bill flew a Piper Pacer to Juneau to take his flight test for his commercial license. The CAA inspector told him after the flight, “Not the best, but you are safe, that’s the main thing.”

The very next day, Bill had his first commercial flight. “A guy chartered the airplane and wanted to go to Ketchikan. It was a horrible, really horrible, lousy day.” The weather was typical for south east, with low ceilings and fog. Along the way, among the islands in the Snow Pass area, Bill “got lost and landed alongside a boat to ask for directions.” Once Bill got his bearings, he took off for Ketchikan and vowed never to have to ask for directions again. 

The following year, Bill flew to Seattle to get his instrument ticket and multiengine rating at Lake Union Air Service and the ground at Merrill School of Aviation at Boeing Field, which took about a month. 

'I Should Have Stayed in Bed'

On Aug. 19, 1955, Bill was hired to fly $10,000 in cash to a fish-buying scow, along with two additional passengers on board. He admits “I should have stayed in bed, as it was not a very good day.” 

The weather was so bad, “the boats weren’t fishing,” and as he landed a gust caught the right wing and he tipped the left wing into the water and it broke off. The water came up over the wind and eventually the airplane was upside down with only the float bottoms visible. Fortunately everyone got out. A big fish packer picked the airplane up and put in on the dock. At first they couldn’t find the $10,000 cash that had been sitting on the panel. Everyone looked; eventually they found the cash in the tail of the aircraft.

Bill did lot things and found himself in a lot of tight spots over the year and claims he always had a good co-pilot. 

Once while flying for Fish and Wildlife along the Stikine River he flew too close to the hillside and caught a down draft. Bill recalls “I was going down and almost into the trees when he spotted an opening and dove for it, gaining enough speed to climb back up.  It was close.”

Bill also met celebrities during his aviation career. Ice Palace was filmed in 1959 and the fishing, boat and fish trap scenes were filmed in Petersburg. Meta Rebner was the script girl and set up the daily flights with Alaska Coastal. Bill invited Meta to dinner and she brought Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. “Right down stairs they sang Danny Boy!” Bill recalled.

To Retirement and Back

By 1969, Bill was done was flying. He took leave from Alaska Coastal Airlines and went to work for Mitkof Marine, and then Blue Star Plumbing. 

By spring, he retired from Alaska Coastal and decided to build a house. During construction Bill would often catch himself looking up watching aircraft fly by … he missed flying and soon after selling the house started working for Lon’s Flying Service owned by Lloyd Roundtree.  A few months later, Bill talked Lloyd into renaming the business Alaska Island Air Service (1970). The company had 2- C-180's, a De Havilland Beaver, Grumman Goose and later an amphibian C-185. Bill was flying steady and in charge of maintenance. 

One winter day, in 1972, Bill was flying the C-180 alongside a company Beaver from Kake. The weather had been great. On the way back, they ran into snow around Towers Lake and suddenly he saw smoke coming out of the engine. They had to land, so they went to a nearby Towers lake and landed on over a foot of snow. Bill made sure everyone was out and then radioed the company to request a helicopter be dispatched to pick everyone up. 

Bill returned the next day to figure what was wrong. “I tried to turn the prop, but it would not budge and the oil screen was so full of metal I had a hard time removing it,” he recalled.

Bill knew the only way that the airplane was coming off the lake was with a new engine. They moved it over to a Forest Service cabin using a chain saw winch, then built an a-frame Visqueen cover over the engine. Bill got the manual out and removed everything but the two top engines mount bolts. The helicopter came out and hovered while they connected the cable to the engine lift as they removed the last two bolts. The helicopter flew the engine off. Later that year, after the replacement engine overhaul was finished, they flew in a new engine. After being stuck on the lake for months, the plane was finally free to roam the skies again.

By 1987, Bill was ready for a real retirement and taxied up to the float, got out, and never looked back. 

In 1997, Bill received the Master Mechanic award from the FAA.

The stories continue and are available in detail in his book, “The Bushed Pilot”.