Flight attendant recalls dicey days of early flight in Alaska

The passenger was terrified.

On board a winter flight to Kodiak, heavy turbulence relentlessly bounced the DC3 as it made its way through the pitch-black sky, and a young stewardess was out of options. Ellen Wilson had tried everything she could to calm one passenger's nerves -- to no avail. It was the 1950s, and although commercial aviation was opening transportation options like never before across Alaska, being airborne still frightened some people.

Seeking help, Wilson went to the cabin and asked the pilot for ideas. Pointing to the wingtips, he said, "Go back and show her the lights on either side of the airplane and tell her so long as we are between those two lights, everything's going to be OK."

Decades later, Wilson recalls how, despite her skepticism, she followed his suggestion. The passenger immediately settled down and spent the rest of the flight gazing contentedly at the lights. "She kept us right between those two," Wilson -- now Ellen Sassara -- says with a laugh.

Adventurous spirit

Ellen Wilson grew up in Opportunity, Washington, near Spokane. The youngest of six, she was born with an adventurous spirit and a desire to travel. Since her widowed mother couldn't afford to send her to college, she entered the workforce shortly after high school. When her brother called from his new home in Anchorage to tell her that Pacific Northern Airlines (PNA) was hiring stewardesses in Seattle for flights to Alaska, she jumped at the chance.

The airline was established in 1932 as Woodley Airways and was soon hauling mail and passengers around Alaska. The name was changed to Pacific Northern in 1945, and by the 1950s, it was one of several airlines competing in the Alaska market --– while also operating flights to Washington and Oregon.

Wilson was hired and, after a few weeks of training, was working flights between Seattle and Anchorage. It was 1954 and Alaska was still a territory. Wilson quickly learned that things were different in the North. On one of her first flights out of Seattle, she remembers, "Sitting in the back, all by himself, was this nice little old man. So I went back and I was talking to him and he was telling me how he lived in this big house in Juneau, all by himself. I was feeling so sorry for him and went up and talked to my senior stewardess, and she said, 'Ellen, that's Gov. (Frank) Heintzleman.' "


Wilson liked Alaska's informal and egalitarian nature. So she agreed to temporarily relocate to Anchorage when extra help was needed there. She arrived during breakup, when the unpaved streets were pools of mud, the trees were barren, and everything was dirty. However, spring soon arrived and she quickly made new friends in what was then a frontier city and where, she says, "the average age was 26 and single."

"After the second month you couldn't have pried me out of Alaska," she declares. "I had fallen in love with it."

Flying out of Anchorage meant traveling all over the territory. Her first flight was to Iliamna, where the plane was met by a dog team. Soon she was flying to King Salmon, Unalakleet, Nome, Kotzebue, Kodiak and other stops.

Wherever she touched down, the locals would welcome her as one of their own. The baker at Big Mountain Air Force Station always brought fresh goodies. In Aniak, she was taken sheefishing. When a mechanical issue forced an overnight stay in Gustavus, a friend of the captain's took the crew out on his boat. "Everything was an adventure for me," she says. "You were always meeting new people."

Some of those new people were more colorful than others. Once, a drunken prostitute en route to Yakutat told the naive and horrified Wilson her life story. Rowdy and sometimes intoxicated crews of fishermen were often passengers as well, "but always there would be two or three on board who would take over and make sure that they behaved themselves," she says.

Tipsy fishermen and ladies of the night weren't her only cause for concern. Because Pacific Northern lacked a liquor license, both the airline and the stewardesses could be fined $1,000 if someone was caught drinking on board. One time a legislative candidate was particularly troublesome for Wilson. Armed with a bottle of vodka and trying to impress an Air Force colonel sitting nearby, the aspiring politician requested two glasses of orange juice. "I'll bring you the orange juice if you'll let me take the bottle until you get off the airplane," she recalls telling him.

The man angrily refused, threatening to report her. She offered him stationery and the name and address of the Pacific Northern official he should contact. The man got even more furious, prompting her to chide, "You want to go to Juneau to make laws for me to abide by, and you do not want to abide by one of the laws on our airline."

He lost that election but later gained a legislative seat. He never forgave her.

Most of the politicians she met were better behaved. At the time, with the push for statehood in full swing and partisanship far less bitter than it is today, leaders saw themselves as Alaskans first and officials second. They treated fellow residents -- including stewardesses -- as equals. She enjoyed meeting territorial Gov. Mike Stepovich; his predecessor, Ernest Gruening, the soon-to-be U.S. senator; statehood champion and eventual senator Bob Bartlett; and Bill Egan, who would become the first state governor as well as a close friend of Wilson and her soon-to-be husband, Dick Sassara. "Gov. Egan was just a prince," she says. "A wonderful man."

Along with politicians, she met some legends of Alaska aviation. Once, she remembers, "We picked up these people in Yakutat and they looked like they had just spent their last dollar on their flight."

The two were obviously quite hungry. She had already fed the passengers out of Anchorage, but concerned about the couple that had just boarded, she prepared trays using leftovers. "I didn't think they had two nickels to rub together, but it turned out they owned an airline."

"That was the Wiens," she adds. "They were really nice people."

Another airline owner

On another occasion, she sat down to talk with a passenger who started telling her flying tales.

"Oh, do you own an airplane?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied.

After a few minutes, she asked, "Do you own more than one airplane?"

Growing exasperated, he sternly answered yes again.


Finally he growled, "Don't you know who I am?" Wilson replied that she didn't, and he told her, "I'm Bob Reeve."

Still unsure who he was, Wilson simply said, "Oh?"

"Reeve Aleutian Airlines," he exclaimed.

"Ever after that, I'd be walking downtown and he'd be on the other side of the street and he'd go 'Wilson!' " Despite their rough introduction, the famously gruff Reeve quickly became a friend to both her and Sassara.

No married stewardesses

Airline flight was far less regulated back then, which sometimes led to unexpected mishaps. Once, Wilson was the lone stewardess during a winter flight on a DC3 with leaky cargo doors. After serving the passengers and wrapping them in blankets to ward off frigid air blasting through the cabin, she took coffee to the crew. The only source of heat was at the pilot's feet, and since she was freezing in her uniform skirt and skimpy shoes, he suggested she climb in front of him to thaw out.

"I went up, and I sat on the pilot's lap, and I put my feet right at where the heat was coming out to get my feet warm, and just about that time we hit some turbulence, and the door flew open and all the passengers ..." Even now, she laughs at the memory. "Here I was sitting on the pilot's lap. I don't think I ever lived that one down. And I was only trying to get warm."

Wilson loved her job, and the opportunity to fulfill her travel dreams. Sassara was an avid traveler, too, and after a long courtship, he proposed in 1963. It meant the end of her career because married women weren't allowed to be stewardesses at that time. But she was ready for something new.

At the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, an aide to their good friend, then-Gov. Bill Egan, rushed in, unrolled a formal sealed government proclamation, and read, "Hear ye! Hear ye! For the good of the morals of Alaska, Dick and Ellen are to be married by 8 p.m. April 20."


And so they were.

In the 1970s the Sassaras left Alaska and moved to Washington state, where Ellen still lives near her son and his family. Her love of Alaska remains strong. Thinking back on her 20s, she says, "It was a magical time ... I wouldn't trade my life, my years as a stewardess for anything."

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.