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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Holger Jorgensen

Rob Stapleton

EDITOR'S NOTE: Legends in Alaska Aviation project celebrates the amazing lives of Alaska's long-time aviators who are still with us today. We've already taken a look at the lives of Al WrightRod Judy, and Bill Stedman, among others. Today we go along for a ride with Holger "Jorgy" Jorgensen.

Holger Jorgensen saw his first airplane at the tender age of 6. “It was a sight to behold,” he said. “Noel Wien (Richard Wien's father) arrived and the whole place came to see the plane land. At the time, I didn’t know what was more exciting -- the airplane or the way old Noel was dressed: leather helmet, coat, pants and gloves and the goggles too. But I’ll tell you this, I wanted to dress just like him. I will never forget that as long as I live."

Growing up in an era of open cockpit aircraft, Jorgensen's yearn for learning eventually earned him the respect of many Alaskan pilots, flight crews and even Alaska governors.

Despite his glowing reputation Jorgensen, who goes by the nickname "Jorgy," is a humble man who has seen and flown the Arctic from one end to the other during the golden era of aviation. He is well known for his exacting navigation with the use of instruments and intuition that made him a natural for Bush flying in Alaska -- and even took him all over the world.

Growing up in Alaska's Far North

Jorgensen was born Jan. 26, 1927, to a Norwegian father and an Alaskan mother. At the time, Jorgensen's father, Ole, and his mother, Jessie Nagaruk of Buckland, Alaska were living in the small town of Haycock (sometimes known as Dime Creek), about 120 miles east of Nome, on Alaska's Seward Peninsula.

Guided by his mother’s skills and level-headed approach to life, Jorgensen grew up harnessing his ambition and using it to accomplish anything he set his mind to. Whether it was driving dogs, fishing, building skis, boats, mining, welding, or driving a bulldozer, Jorgensen mastered them all.

Jorgensen’s life was not always easy or glamorous. Growing up in Haycock, a small mining community, there were times when living required planning ahead for the what-ifs.

Jorgensen said, “After my father was killed when I was 7 years old, I had to help my mother, who had the six of us to raise and feed.”

To support the family Jorgensen helped his mother through subsistence -- gathering, hunting and fishing for food -- until he was old enough to work in the mines.

When Jorgensen turned 15 he joined the Territorial Guard. “Perhaps it was the right thing to do, everyone else was doing it,” said Jorgensen. “There was this Col. Kastner who was set on invading the Aleutian Islands to try and kill the remaining Japanese. During World War II, the Army lost 526 troops on Kiska and Attu. And military officials were set on paying the enemy back for that, so they were actively getting us trained.”

By the time the war ended it was too hard to fly in the Far North due to the GI Bill and the sheer popularity of flying. But Jorgensen never forgot his desire to fly and continued to search for ways into the cockpit. Finally his moment came:

"We (the Johnson Brothers and I) got our first taste of flying with Sig Wien in in 1939. It cost $5 for a ride in a Cessna Airmaster, and that’s what got me started. When my mother found out that I spent $5 on flying, she was furious. That was my ice money from hauling ice all winter. (But) we were so excited that it didn’t matter we were going to go flying, and nothing would have stopped us. George sat up front and David and I sat in back on gas cans because the back was filled up with mail. I later told my mother that’s the best $5 bucks I ever spent.”

After that first trip, Jorgensen could hardly wait to start taking flying lessons. “That’s what got me started; I thought this is what I want to do.”

Soaring above and beyond

“I first started flying in Nome with a guy by the name of Frank Whaley in 1943,” Jorgensen reflects. “It was in a 40-horse Taylorcraft. Well, it got wrecked and Beltz ended up hiring a woman to instruct in a Piper J5. Her name was Pearl Laska."

At 17, Jorgensen soloed in a J5, "It was hard to build up flight experience in Nome, there were just too many people who wanted to fly because of the GI Bill. (But) I first flew an Aeronica, then a T-craft and then the J5. I remember paying $2.50 for 15 minutes just to get in the air. I later went to Fairbanks to get my ratings, flew some later in Anchorage and eventually came back to Nome to go to work."

Soon Jorgensen was ready: "I kept flying until I got my private license. In December of 1947 I came back to Nome and went to work flying for Willy Foster Aviation, flying a Stinson 108. They later came out with a 165-horse Franklin engine with a heavier case. The original cooled off too fast and the crankcases would crack. It was good airplane, but the doors were too small for hauling any big cargo. In those days they were able to fly cargo with a private license and get paid, but not passengers.”

Jorgensen picked up his commercial license in 1948: “I got checked out and started flying the line in 1956. It was a surprise to me they made me a captain right away, I only flew co-pilot for years at Wien, but I flew with so many good pilots with superior skills that I learned from."

“I liked flying around in those days with no maps, no charts just flying by the seat of your pants," Jorgensen said. "But later it became apparent that it would be better to get into flying the bigger aircraft with more sophisticated navigation equipment.”

Another ascent

Jorgensen married Rosalie Gibler in 1949 and started a family. He decided then it was time to deal with the more "sophisticated navigation equipment."

“I started to notice that those pilots around me were disappearing, getting killed skud running in bad weather," he said. "They were either too lazy to use their instruments or they didn’t the know how. That’s when it struck home with me that every pilot in Alaska should have instrument training or get their instrument rating.”

Jorgensen’s experience with instruments can be traced back to his teenage days driving skiffs in Norton Bay fog with a compass. “We would be in fog or rain or snow and had to get to shore, so I would check my course using a compass when I would hit flat water, and sure enough I would usually come out right on the money.”

In his career, much like other Alaska pilots of his era, Jorgensen started flying two-place, 40-horse T-Craft, transitioned to larger aircraft with round engines, and eventually to fly some of the biggest cargo and passenger round-engine aircraft ever built. To get his airline transport pilot rating, Jorgensen locked himself in the bedroom in his house and studied until he was convinced that he could take and pass the written test.  And he did.

“I only had to fly co-pilot a year before getting a spot flying in the captain’s seat. The other pilots that I had flown with knew that I was ready and told the chief pilot I was ready. I passed up three other pilots because I had my written test out of the way. That’s the reason, I suppose, that would make me more useful to the company.”

Doing his part to open up the North Slope

In the late 1950s Jorgensen flew support for the Distant Early Warning systems and later for the development of oil exploration on the North Slope. Remembering those days flying cargo and construction materials, Jorgensen shared one of his stories:

We were flying a load of dynamite and fuel in a C-46 up to the slope and the weather was going down. We were looking around for a lake that I was told would be the landing spot that would have an X in the snow. It was really foggy and sort of a whiteout, when I spotted the lake with some crisscrosses on it. So we set down on that lake and unloaded. After we took off I spotted another lake with a camp and some equipment and landed there. Oh darn I thought, we really screwed up. I got out and apologized for dropping the load at the wrong lake and not being able to bring the load to them. The camp boss asked me where we dropped off the dynamite and fuel. As it turned out they were very pleased because that’s where they were going to have to take the load to do some oil drilling exploration. Unknowingly, I had saved them having to make a cat trail and then haul all the freight and drums over there.

A Legend is as a Legend does

Those who have flown with Jorgensen quickly notice that this man from a small village in Northwest Alaska had a gift for finding his way around the Arctic and in other faraway places.

Pilot Al Wright, who Jorgensen credits for teaching him how to be a Bush pilot early on in his career, said, “Jorgy could find his way around in the worse of conditions and he did with instrumentation and a skill that no other pilot I’ve seen ever had.  He had, like, a sixth sense for direction and finding airports, maybe he just has a good memory, but it sure is amazing.”

Despite the loss of his eyesight toward the end of his career, Jorgensen continued his flying until he retired in 1994. At the time he was working for Warren Woods.

“We had some good runs flying all over the state hauling medical and pharmacy supplies from Anchorage to Shishmaref and back to Anchorage, or go to Gambell and Savoonga -- those were long-legged trips, some of them eight hours in a DC-3. We also went to Barter Island and Nuiqsut. Those were long trips, too," Jorgensen said. "We flew to all those villages around Bethel and Dillingham. I went back to Bush flying. There were no navigational aids at most the airports then."