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.
A young boy in school heard an airplane and found an excuse to leave his seat to sharpen his pencil; next he was seen riding his bicycle to a nearby field in Colorado to watch airplanes. He may have missed some schooling, but his mind was right there in the cockpit. Thus began a lifelong adventure that would lead Oren to the Alaska frontier.
Oren began flight training and motorcycle riding in 1935, and he continues to enjoy both with a delight that reflects his inspirational spirit. His zest for life is sparked by the beauty of Alaska and fueled by other Alaskan pioneers of this great state.
A big part of my life has been spent with airplanes,” Oren says. “Before high school graduation I had a few hours in small aircraft. Each day I would ride my motorcycle over to La Junta College for my ground school training. I soloed in a J2 Taylor Cub at LaJunta, Colorado, in 1937.”
“I continued my aviation training by working for Combs Aircraft in Denver to get a commercial license and my instructor rating. Then I attended Greenmyer for my Aircraft and Engine mechanic training.”
Oren’s first aircraft was a Porta Field Ziffer, equipped with a 40 horsepower Continental engine, making it an excellent solo aircraft. “In 1941 I went to Kansas City for TWA co-pilot training and an instrument rating. I completed all those courses, and even Morris Code training. I could send and receive messages at sixteen words a minute.”
Oren flew right seat in TWA’s DC-3. Even though he was sharp and competent and earned his IFR ticket at 21 years of age, TWA believed he was too young and the older pilots got the flying. When he did get to fly it was repetitious; Kansas City – Wichita – Amarillo – Albuquerque…Kansas City – Wichita – Amarillo – Albuquerque. His spirit for adventure yearned for more. Being very young and junior in seniority Oren didn’t see much opportunity for his future as a junior co-pilot so kept his eyes open for other opportunities.
He returned to flight instructing where he could fly more and earn more money. As a Civilian Pilot Trainer (CPT Program), which was part of the War Training Service, Oren taught hundreds of pilots over the next few years.
Oren trained up to ten pilots at a time with his students flying twice daily, both morning and evening. This flight schedule allowed pilots to complete their flight training in 30 days. Student pilots could experience weather changes throughout the day from morning to night, this exposure taught invaluable lessons from experience. Many of Oren’s students returned from the war, having completed over 50 missions.
As a company pilot for Harry Combs, he flew a new Staggerwing Beechcraft. In 1948, Harry had Oren deliver a new Cessna 170 to Fairbanks, Alaska. With a chuckle Oren explains, “I liked the country I flew over, I liked the people I talked with, and I liked to fly airplanes, so I stayed!”
A Memorable Landing
“Late in the evening I landed at Big Delta for gasoline. Patches of fog were forming and I was told there might be fog in Fairbanks. When I arrived in Fairbanks it was filled with fog and only a few tall buildings could be seen. The FAA tried to help me in, but the fog was too thick. I decided to find a road high up on the hills, land and stay with the airplane until morning when the fog might lift.
“I passed a big, green hotel and alongside was a bridge with rows of airplanes parked on both sides of the snow-covered, frozen river. I circled and circled to look at it again. The final time I was low and scud running over the bridge, I landed and taxied to a tie down. All was well except several people were running from the bridge toward me. I asked one fellow who approached me out of breath, ‘What is the occasion? Why are there so many people?’ I told him that this is a new Cessna 170. He said, ‘There are already two Cessna 170s in Fairbanks, but we never saw anyone land down here on wheels.’ I looked around and all the airplanes were on skis. I could not believe what I saw and how lucky I was!
“A man placed his hand on my shoulder and asked me, ‘Are you the pilot?’ I said ‘yes.’ He said, ‘This is my airplane and after the fog lifts tomorrow, we can fly the Cessna to the airport.’ I was a little shook up and I replied that this is Fairbanks and I have made delivery of his airplane. I think he put skis on it. I realized that if I stayed to fly airplanes in Alaska that I had lots to learn!”
74 Years of Flying
In 1948 Oren purchased a new Aeronca Sedan and started a flying service at Merrill Field. Alaska was a territory hungry for aviators to help it grow. Business was good and airplanes were needed. Oren bid on a mail contract in the Iliamna area that was previously served by only boats and dog teams.
“The mail kept getting heavier and heavier, and I kept buying bigger and bigger airplanes,” recalls Oren. He soon expanded his company with a Cessna 170 and a Grumman Widgeon.
He tirelessly operated his business for over fifty years from Iliamna and then Merrill Field. He flew customers throughout the territory of Alaska. Oren spent sixteen years flying mail with his wife, Ruth, dispatching aircraft. She was a Registered Nurse: a valuable and very appreciated profession. Ruth and Oren combined their skills to provide needed emergency care whenever they were called. Their unique combination of skills – piloting and nursing – combined with an amphibious aircraft meant they were an invaluable asset to Alaskans because he could operate to and from both land and water on the same flight.
“Alaska was good to me, and I have been good for Alaska,” smiles Oren. “In sixty-three years of flying in Alaska, I flew for people’s needs: daytime, night time, and in all kinds of weather.”
“I have been flying airplanes for 74 years,” reminisces Oren. “I enjoyed the people of Alaska and gave each flight my best. People liked it. My last flight physical was recorded at 36,764 flight hours.” At 92 years of age Oren still has three airplanes, a Widgeon, V-tail Bonanza, and a Cessna 170.
When he was 84 years old, Oren and his Widgeon were featured in The History Channel’s show, Alaska—Big America.
The Grumman G-44 Widgeon is a flying boat that Oren flew 11,200 hours. It was built in 1943 for the U.S. Navy that Oren purchased in 1956. Through the years Oren modified the Widgeon to become a Super Widgeon with meticulous upgrades; such as, bigger windows, a large cabin door, seating for seven passengers, full wrap-around wind shield, full-feather propellers, two O-470 Continental 240 HP engines, one battery under the right seat keeping the empty-weight at 3,300 pounds. The interior and flight controls are fabric to keep the plane as light as possible. The instrument panel was carefully designed to improve efficiency, helping the pilot maintain situational awareness during Alaska’s demanding flight operations.
Oren flew his 1966 Beechcraft 35V Bonanza over 15,766 hours since he purchased it in 1967. Oren configured it with small Supercub seats to keep it light. This plane is typically considered an executive commuter, however, other pilots have been impressed when they spotted the Bonanza on Alaska’s rough terrain, such as beaches, roads and backcountry strips.
Out of all the aircraft that Oren flew, one of his favorites is the Cessna 170-B, of which he flew over 7,700 hours. Great visibility, some good modifications, and keeping it lighter than manufactured, Oren still enjoys the simple fun of flying it today.
Another favorite plane of his is the Stinson. “In the Alaska Aviation Museum is my old SR-JR Stinson. I estimate that I flew that plane for 600 hours. It had one engine overhaul during that time. I wish I had that airplane today,” Oren reflects.
Every modification Oren made to an aircraft is well planned and executed. He keeps all the planes meticulously polished and light. This encompasses the propeller and engine to the instrument panel, includes the seats, baggage compartment, and tail -- every ounce counts! Oren’s motto when it comes to planes is ‘keep it simple and keep it light!’
Oren made countless contributions to the general aviation light plane community, and some of these involve his methodical and knowledgeable development of modifications to improve aviation safety and performance. “I got the first NC license conversion for the PT-17 Stearman biplane with a Pratt & Whitney 450 horsepower engine with a 2B-30 propeller. I did all the layout, drafting, planning, flight and dive testing for the CAA,” stated Oren. It made a fine tow airplane for gliders for high altitude Colorado.”
Oren set a speed record in the Staggerwing Beechcraft from Salt Lake City to Denver. Weather, high terrain and no oxygen made another great story he gets to relive in the middle of the night now and then.
“On the Widgeon, I designed and built a balance tube system for the 200 horsepower Ranger engine. This made a smoother-running engine and increased the running time between overhauls.”
In 2006, Oren celebrated his 50-year ownership of the Widgeon and his accumulation of over 36,000 flight hours.
Oren served as the national president of the OX5 Aviation Pioneer Club of America, an organization committed to education about and preservation of early American aviation history and memorabilia. It works to perpetuate the memory of pioneer airmen and their great sacrifices and accomplishments for the development of civil aviation. “As I get older, I continue to enjoy this association as president of the local chapter. The OX5 Aviation Pioneer Club allowed me the opportunity to enjoy many people living the same life style.”
Oren states, “In 74 years of flying airplanes, I wrecked only one: A Cessna 195. In all my years, I hurt no one; I am proud of that. Now I am left with many memorable flights to relive. At 92 years of age, I plan to slow down this year or next year…maybe.” Oren laughingly remembers an old saying, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots—but I think I’m different than that because I’m old and I’m bold; I’m also hairless and fearless, and I’m mean and ugly! Maybe all that constitutes a bush pilot, I don’t know. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would …do the same thing.”