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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Orin Seybert

Courtesy Rob Stapleton

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Legends of 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 several long-time aviators, including Al Wright, Rod Judy, and Bill Stedman. Today we follow the life and legacy of Orin Seybert.

Orin Seybert, the founder of Penair, has over 30,000 hours of logged time flying. He specialized in making and keeping relationships with the families and fishermen of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. But Seybert’s story is more than just starting a flying business-- his story is steeped in the culture of Western Alaska and serving the needs of the people.

In fact, Orin started in aviation by giving rides to people from one village to another for fun.

 “At first I never even considered charging sick or injured passengers for compensation.” Seybert says. “It wasn’t until a doctor at the hospital suggested that he had a budget and could pay me for the flights that the light went on ... it was time to get a commercial license and get serious about this business of flying.”

Today Penair has over 550 employees, 40 aircraft and is one of the last scheduled commercial airlines in the U.S to operate a Grumman Goose for passenger service.

Yearn for Flying

Seybert says his start in aviation grew from the desire to see more of the country around his home village of Pilot Point. He wanted to use the airplane for access to different trapping sites, to look around, and he really wanted to visit some of the other Alaska Peninsula villages to meet girls.

Living in the village where his mother was a teacher and father was the school’s handyman, he learned how to fish while growing up in his early teens.

“I was lucky in that regard,” he says. “What I lost in moving to Pilot Point, my friends and a totally different lifestyle, I gained in knowledge of fishing and the money it brought me. That’s where I really differed from other boys my age, I had my own money, and I had earned it.”

Because he was not an Alaska Native, and could not attend state schools being run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, his mother sent him to Salina, Kansas, for high school, where his grandparents lived.

”I used the money earned from fishing to learn how to fly,” Seybert remembers. “I took my instruction in a Cessna 120 near Salina, Kansas while I was attending a high school at St. John’s military academy.”

But at the academy, “It only took two years before my ‘independent spirit’ and a few shenanigans caught up with me, and the academy asked me to leave.” Seybert explains.

So back to the Northwest he went.

“My mom enrolled me in a high school in near Seattle, where she was living. I settled down a bit but had made a plan to fly my recently purchased T-Craft up the Alaska Highway and back to Pilot Point.”

Seybert soloed on his 16th birthday, got his license on his 17th birthday and got his commercial ticket at age 18.

Shortly before graduating from High School, he bought his own plane, a 1946 Taylorcraft powered with a 65 horsepower powerplant, a wooden prop, and no electrical system.

Seybert flew the Taylorcraft from the Seattle area to Montana, up the Alaska Highway and back to Alaska then over to Pilot Point. “That was a real adventure. I loved every minute of it.”

The Growth of PenAir

Based from and flying out of Pilot Point in 1955, Seybert’s business soon outgrew the Taylorcraft, so he purchased a four seat Piper Tri-Pacer, also from fishing profits. The company was then named Peninsula Airways.

Orin’s Alaska Peninsula flights took him to many villages where he eventually met and married Jennie Andre in 1955. They settled down and started a family at Pilot Point.

“We were busy raising two children when the Korean War broke out so I never had to go into the service, I was busy concentrating on the business trying to make money, flying and provide for my family.”

Eventually Jenny and Orin had eight children.

On March 1, 1965 Peninsula Airways became incorporated and purchased an FBO from Dick Jenson in King Salmon that included the Chevron Airport Dealership.

This acquisition afforded Peninsula Airways a hangar and waiting room in King Salmon as well as more aircraft to the fleet. This is when the company expanded its fleet using a Cessna 180, Tri-Pacer, and its first Grumman Widgeon.

“Another reason for the expansion was for medevac flights and local fishing transportation,” Seybert remembers. “It was much different then, things were hopping during fishing ... there was a lot of traffic, and I saw potential, opportunity for the growth of the business.”

About this time the company became a full-time subcontractor to Reeve Aleutian Airways to meet the larger airline’s obligation to Chignik, Perryville and Ivanhoff Bay.

The company then acquired all the assets of Tibbetts-Herre Airmotive, a Nakek company in operation since 1950, which allowed it to provide service between King Salmon and the Pribilof lsland communities of St. Paul and St. George using Grumman Super Widgeons.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the State of Alaska started to build and maintain airports. Due to the lack of runways and the location of various canneries, Peninsula Airways was forced to use aircraft that could land on water. Some of the areas were dangerous. To keep from risking an accident, Seybert took action.

“I have built two runways in my life,” Orin said. “There were some real nasty stretches of water near some of those canneries, so when I found the right equipment I jumped at the chance to carve out a runway.”

It took Seybert about a month to create an 1,800 foot airstrip using a D2 Caterpillar belonging to the Wards Cove cannery at Chignik Lagoon.

In 1977 the company set up a base in Cold Bay with company hangars, offices and employee housing. During that time Peninsula Airways expanded its coverage to include all of Reeve’s destinations in the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula.

In the early 1980s, Seybert fought for and received a Part 401 Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the newly transitioned Part 135 operation. This allowed the company to be tendered U.S. Mail. In 1983 Peninsula Airways acquired a Cessna Conquest and qualified for CAB Part 419 subsidy. This allowed the airline to provide and perform Essential Air Service to Atka, St. George and Kodiak Island.

In 1985 Mark Air started flying statewide and entered the Alaska market with the purpose of competing with Wien and Alaska Airlines. Peninsula Airways suffered some of its worse financial times when Mark Air tried going into the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor with its Boeing 737s and smaller turbo props.

In the meantime Peninsula Airways picked up the assets of Air Transport Service, Inc. in Kodiak. This allowed the company to offer charter flights from Anchorage to the Pribilof Island. Scheduled service from Anchorage to King Salman and Dillingham was added in 1986.

“During this period were we fighting for our business against Mark Air who was offering ridiculous airfares to and from the regional hubs from the villages charging as low as $1 dollar fares.”

The competition from Mark Air nearly forced the company into bankruptcy.

“They nearly did it, they nearly put us out of business if it were not for the people who stood by us, knowing that if we were put out of business that Mark Air fares would skyrocket. Those people and the fishing industry are what kept us from going under.”

“I had been advised to file for bankruptcy, when the Exxon Valdez ran a shore in 1989 and then we were contracted by Exxon to support the oil spill cleanup. That and a contract by Alaska Regional Hospital to provide 24-our medevac service turned our financial circumstances around.”

Credit is also given by Seybert for the great relationship that then Peninsula Airways and Alaska Airlines had come to enjoy. In 1991 the airline entered into an agreement to become a code sharing partner with Alaska Airlines.

In 1996 Peninsula Airways moved to Anchorage International Airport, and transitioned as a Part 135 operation into a full-fledged airline by becoming the first regional airline in the US to become a part 121 operation using the 10-19 seat conversion.

Shortly after transitioning to Part 121 regulations the company changed its name to PenAir, as it is known today.

A Close Call

As most Bush pilots do, Seybert has tales of engine failures, flipping aircraft on frozen lakes and other incidents, the most serious of all accidents happened in 1968.

“I had been weathered in at Cold Bay for eight or nine days, and was anxious to get home.” Seybert recalls.

“This was to be the last leg of a series of stops … I was flying a Ranger powered Widgeon and had to pick up a doctor and two nurses in Pauloff Harbor return to Cold Bay, and then I could go home to Pilot Point.

“Upon arriving at over the community there was a 30 knot wind blowing southwest, straight across the little harbor. Well I remember thinking well landing is no issue, taking off might be a little harder with a 90 degree cross wind. So I landed picked up the doctor and the two nurses.

“As it turned out, it was the doctor’s first trip out of Anchorage as the new chief of the Alaska Native Hospital. He wanted to see what it was like out in the village, being new to the state.

“This was nothing new to me. In those days we routinely made regular trips into the villages with medical people traveling.

“We loaded up and I was trying to decide which way to take off, and I went the wrong way.

“ I wanted to go the direction to the head of the bay and take off towards the opening of the bay , even though I knew there would be a dead crosswind, I thought once I got to the mouth I would be close enough to flying that I could handle the swells.

“But I couldn’t do that. I had to take off towards the head of the bay. We were doing fine; the wind was quartering me for the first part of the run, but once I passed a little hill the wind switched direction becoming a tail wind. I couldn’t gain any more airspeed. We were doing about 60 knots when we hit the beach. The only thing that saved our lives was a flat grassy plain up above it; we hit there and turned over.

“Luckily for us some of the locals pulled us (the doctor and I) out of the aircraft seconds before it burst into flames. The nose of the aircraft had completely broken off. The two nurses in the back were okay. They drug us away from the wreckage as it burned. I understand the wreckage is still sitting there today, as far as I know.

“That’s the most serious accident of my career. I broke my leg, the instrument panel scraped the skin off my leg, and the doctor had a gash in his forehead and was bleeding. The doctor and I needed to go to the hospital. There was no plane to come and get us so Chuck Bundrand with Trident Seafoods, he heard the call about or wreck and brought a crab boat over to pick us up at 4 or 5 p.m.

“We arrived at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. at Cold Bay the next morning. Reeve put us on a DC-6 that had been damaged in the same storm that I got stuck in earlier in the month. They flew us to Anchorage to get patched up.

“That’s’ what we learn after a serious accident, that most aircraft accidents are a result of pilot error, in this case I was in a hurry to get home and as a result it took me longer to get home, a lot longer."

Happy in Retirement

In 2005 Orin proudly celebrated along with the family PenAir’s 50th Anniversary. Up until he retired, Orin personally signed the bi-weekly paychecks of the company’s 400 employees.

Today Orin boasts of having eighteen grandchildren, 15 great grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild.

“While flying and PenAir have been a huge part of my life my greatest achievement is my family, I love them all.”