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Legends in Alaska Aviation: John Hajdukovich

Rob Stapleton
Courtesy Rob Stapleton

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. 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 John Hajdukovich.

A pilot is born

John Hajdukovich didn’t care much for flying until his riverboat broke down and he got a ride back to Fairbanks with a bold pilot. On the flight, the pilot, trying to keep John busy because of his nervousness, suggested taking the stick and flying the airplane.

“I remember asking, ‘If I push the stick will the airplane crash?’ The pilot said ‘No -- it won’t unless you hold it there,’” John recalls.

“I tried the stick in several different directions and, all be darned, the airplane seemed really stable! I thought, ‘Well, hell, I could do this. I could fly the plane and guide it towards where it needed to go.’  That’s when I decided, this is great. I’d like to learn how to fly. Right then and there I started thinking about how to get an airplane.

“That’s all it took! After that I was hooked,” John says. “There was nothing else that I could think about except flying.”

John’s wife Marcia concurred. “He came home after that first flight and said, ‘We are going to learn how to fly.’ Well, keep in mind this is after he had scared me with stories about flying and how he didn’t like it!”

A transformation was underway that reshaped the future for both of them. “Yes, he was bitten by the flying bug,” Marcia says. “I remember writing the checks for those airplanes and then thinking how much they cost. He later realized that these new toys had to pay for themselves.”

Building a business

Born in Fairbanks on May 26, 1938, John married Marcia, his high school sweetheart, in 1958, and they raised seven children who eventually all worked at Frontier Flying Service.

John had started Florcraft Inc. in 1958 to provide needed services to the community, and it was proving to be a good investment for the Hajdukovich family. Later John sold his share of the business to Richard Wien, another living legend of Alaska Aviation, who went on sell his share of Era Aviation to John.

”I sold off my part of the business and started Alaska AirCo, a flight school and a Cessna aircraft dealership,” said John.

John started out flying a Piper Cherokee 180 and later went on to pilot 12 different types of aircraft. Determining which aircraft was his favorite took no effort, “the Grumman Widgeon,” he says.

John first started Alaska AirCo to support his newly found passion for flying by creating a flight business in Fairbanks. He then bought Frontier Flying Service from Retired Air Force Col. Richard McIntyre in 1974 to provide scheduled service to Interior and northern Alaska.

“It was during this era when I learned to fly on skis, and took charters to Mt. McKinley and miners into the Kantishna area,” he recalls. “I had no experience with ski flying, but the Cessna 185 had lots of power so I just poured the power to it and learned how to take off and land on skis.”

“When I bought Frontier, it had Cessna 207, 206, 172, Beechcraft Debonair, and Cessna 185 aircraft on floats and skis.”  

Later they purchased Piper Navajos to create scheduled service to the Interior and northern villages.

John also owned and operated the Bettles Lodge, located in the Brooks Range, in the 1970s, but decided that flying within the Brooks Range was too dangerous for their operation.

At one point, Frontier flew for BLM, providing lift for fire jumpers with a Dornier, three Turbo Otters, and a DC-3.

Memorable flights

John started out his flying career with a long distance cross country.

“My first cross country was from Florida to Fairbanks and back along with a Cub with John Clark and Dick Jensen. We experienced everything along that trip. We were stranded in Whitehorse, went on to Edmonton, from there to Minot, South Dakota, and to the Piper factory in Florida. The trip took two weeks and I think I logged between 40 and 50 hours.

The first aircraft John owned was a Piper Cherokee 180 (PA-28-180) and he enjoyed flying it so much that he put it on floats.

“Well, I got myself into trouble a couple of times filling up the plane with four people. It has a small engine, you know. One flight off Ptarmigan Lake I will never forget. I got it up on the step and it wouldn’t climb. Ptarmigan is a long lake with a bank at the end. I eased it over and flew through a valley to the right and barely made it over the trees. One of the passengers said, ‘Kid, I don’t know how you did that but you made it OK!’ I was young and didn’t even know how to lean the engines at altitude. But I did learn about that later."

The passion for flying soon became a reality for John, with all its ups and downs.

“This is how badly I got bitten by the bug:  I went down to get a Widgeon from a lawyer in Detroit when Marcia was about to deliver our seventh child,” says John. “I should have been here taking care of my wife, but all I could think about was getting that airplane. While I was gone she delivered the baby.”

Flying the family on outings to Healy Lake or the Brooks Range, John would pile the seven children, three dogs and Marcia into the Grumman Widgeon and head out.

“I can remember stepping over all the children and dogs on occasions when I had to get out of the plane or to check something out, but they never seemed alarmed about flying,” said John. “I must have flown that Widgeon 2,500 hours or more. Today my son Bob flies the Widgeon and takes his family in it.”

Ted Stevens, Ronald Reagan and the Pope

John had always had an interest in flight safety and improving aviation safety. Working with the FAA and through the Alaska Air Carriers Association, he was able to connect Washington DC with the concerns of Alaskan air carriers.

Serving three terms as president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, John represented the carriers on many issues during a critical period of Alaskan aviation history. Alaska was under the spotlight over a lack of safety methodology among some commercial carriers.

During his tenure as AACA president, Frontier attained the status of a Part 121 airline -- thus a big change in company culture and organization. As such, the airline added Beechcraft 1900 aircraft into their fleet and started to offer service to regional hubs such as Kotzebue, Nome, and Bethel, with regular daily flights between Fairbanks and Anchorage.

“I never liked the term ‘bush pilot,’” John says. “Hell, there are no more real bush pilots like those of times past.  Today is far different than the days of open cockpit, no airports and little in the way of maps or navigational equipment.”

“I had a very close relationship with Sen. Ted Stevens and with Frank Murkowski,” John says. “I, along with attorney Jack Birmingham, who knew Washington, D.C., well, used to meet with all the bigwig politicians in DC. Stevens helped us get into the FAA Administrator’s office to explain our condition up here.”

Stevens was both admired by the FAA and feared, and well known as a champion for aviation in Alaska.

“Whenever we had an issue, the senator’s staff would contact us, or we them, to iron out agreements on how to proceed with a safety agenda or a mail issue,” John says. “I spent my fair share of time on the cocktail-party circuit making sure we made progress educating legislators on issues like improving safety, bypass mail, navaids and airport improvements.”

One of the most memorable events of John’s life in Fairbanks was the visit by Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Both John and Marcia were part of a Fairbanks committee to organize and entertain the Pope.

“It was truly a humbling experience. I was stunned and impressed to meet the Pope,” John says.

“He was so stunned that I had to elbow him to shake President Reagan’s hand when he passed in the receiving line!” says Marcia.

A change of business

But as the business grew up, so did the Hajdukovich family. “At one point we had the whole family working at Frontier -- some on the air-side and others just helping out,” says John.

As part of a consolidation effort, Frontier merged in 2005 with Grant Thompson’s Cape Smyth Air Service in Barrow.

“We knew Grant and had great respect for him, but things just worked better for us both if we merged and covered some of the North Slope village traffic,” John explains. Frontier started flights from Fairbanks to Kaktovik, Deadhorse, Nuiqsut and on to Barrow and back to Fairbanks. After the merger, Frontier expanded further west to cover the same routes flown by Cape Smythe.

As John’s health started to become an issue, he took more of a backseat in the day-to-day matters, and became the company’s advisor and strategist, putting son Bob in charge of daily operations.

Frontier began a merger with Hageland Air and Arctic Circle Air in 2008. Frontier was then given code sharing status with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. Forming a holding company called Frontier Alaska, John worked with son Bob to acquire Era Aviation, now known along with Frontier as part of the Era Alaska family of companies. The operating agreement included Frontier dropping its Part 121 status, thus allowing Era Alaska to operate the larger DeHavilland Dash 8, and Beechcraft 1900s on statewide routes, and Hageland operating in the bush with smaller aircraft utilizing its Part 135 certificate. The purchase of interests in Era meant both Hageland and John invested in Era Alaska on a 50-50 basis, sharing profits and losses.

“We turned in Frontier’s Part 121 certificate and now John Jr. is in charge of operating Frontier with a Sherpa and Navajos for special oil company charters,” he adds.

John’s passion for flying became a solid business and enabled the family to support the Catholic Church in Alaska. In turn, he had interesting support from the church.

“There was a Jesuit priest by the name of James Sebesta who loved flying in Alaska. We really lucked out because he loved to fly so much that he volunteered to ferry aircraft for us!” John says.

“Here is the beauty of the deal: Even though I would give him traveling money, he would stay in church rectories or with other Jesuits along his flight path. The only expense to us was for fuel.  That was a real blessing for Alaska AirCo and Frontier businesses over the years.”

After five years of renal dialysis John just received a donor kidney from his son-in-law, Jake.

“This overwhelming gift of life is hard to describe,” John says. “It is truly hard for me to tell Jake just how much this means to me. It is not only the biggest gift for me to ever receive, it is truly the most memorable event in my life."