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Alaska Aviation Legends: Gene Zerkel, aviation entrepreneur

Kenneth Gene Zerkel was born in 1926 at his aunt and uncle's farmhouse west of Berne in Wells County, Ind. Zerkel is the oldest of six children born to Oliver Kenneth "OK" Zerkel and Sarah Marie Burdge Zerkel.

When World War II broke out, Zerkel enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a pre-aviation cadet in December 1942, but because of his age he had to wait until February 1945 to be called to active duty.

"During the months I waited, I took flying lessons at Smith Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., where I soloed a Piper Cub," Zerkel said.

To make a living after soloing, Zerkel worked as a time keeper, line boy at an airport, railroad firefighter, and a hostler for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

After a short stint with the McComb Air Show in the Midwest where Zerkel was wing-walking and ferrying aircraft from city to city, he was called to active duty in the Army Air Corps in February of 1945. While there, he took flight training twice as a cadet, but when the end of WWII approached he was sent to teletype mechanics school.

Zerkel finished his commercial and flight instructor ratings in 1946 while working at Airgo as a pilot. He was then hired as a commercial pilot and flight instructor.

"Later I re-enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet in 1949, and was sent through primary pilot training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas," Zerkel said. "I wanted to go to the Military Airlift Command at Hickam Field in Hawaii, but was retained as a B-25 instructor at Reese Air Force Base."

Zerkel then left the Air Force in August 1953 and went to work as a first officer with the Flying Tiger Line in Burbank, Calif. A short time later Flying Tiger and Slick Airways started a merger and Zerkel was furloughed, once again returning to Indiana.

"A week after making an offer to purchase Interior-based Fairbanks Air Service, George Patterson and I met with Mr. Usibelli and offered to take over management of the Fairbanks Air Service company for $3,000 each in compensation. Mr.Usibelli said, 'Absolutely not,' but would let us take over management for a period of 90 days," said Zerkel.

"At the end of 90 days, by June 1974, we had made $300,000 so Usibelli decided he wanted us to stay as part owners," said Zerkel. "The stock was divided between me, Usibelli, George Patterson and Hawley Evans who had partnered with Usibelli.

"Eventually, George and I bought all the stock and were sole owners. We moved the operation from Fairbanks to Anchorage in 1978 and changed the name to Great Northern Airlines," Zerkel said.

Neil Bergt, chairman and owner of Alaska International Air, approached Zerkel to see if they would sell Great Northern.

"This was the right time, and we sold in 1980," Zerkel said.

Zerkel then went to work for Bergt as vice president of operations, and MarkAir was chosen as the company name. After years in a fare war and fierce competition, Alaska Airlines forced MarkAir into filing Chapter 11 proceedings.

In 1991, Zerkel obtained an airline operating certificate and restarted Great Northern Airlines, providing passenger and freight service between Anchorage and Seldovia.

"I continued to expand the air charter business, founding Great Northern Air Guides, to offer fly-in fishing, hunting, and flightseeing trips in Southcentral Alaska as well as a flight school, Alaska Air Academy," Zerkel said.

On May 4, 2007, Zerkel was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration in recognition of more than 50 years of promoting aviation safety within the aviation industry.

Today, Zerkel is far more relaxed and defers to his son Keenan, who is general manager at Alaska Aircraft Sales -- owned by the Zerkel family -- at Anchorage's Lake Hood.

Gene Zerkel is one of 13 men and women selected to represent the next class of Alaska Aviation Legends, an annual project that recognizes the pioneers who made Alaska's aviation industry and culture what it is today. For more on the legends, consider attending the Nov. 7 banquet in their honor. More information is available at the Alaska Air Carriers Association website.