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Alaska Aviation Legends: Paul Shanahan, flying frontiersman

  • Author: Joy Journeay
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 27, 2014

Paul Shanahan is one of the last remaining true Alaska Bush pilots, and has now retired to Iniakuk Lake in the Brooks Range where he and his late wife, Mabel, built their home in the Far North.

Shanahan has not only experienced all that Alaska can throw at a pilot, but is an incredible storyteller and host. The late John Gaedeke, of Iniakuk Lake Lodge wrote of Shanahan: "Through the years I have watched him not only overcome incredible obstacles, but revel in them. Paul has had it tougher, and colder, longer than anyone I know, and usually from higher altitudes as well. He has done it with less money, fewer tools and no maps. To me, Paul is 'the good old days' that everybody misses, but with him around, I don't feel like it's missing. I like that,"

During his time in the air, Shanahan clocked more than 20,000 hours and flew for Southcentral Air in Anchorage, as the only pilot with a multi-engine rating, to which he immediately added a seaplane multi-engine rating. In addition, he has flown for Air North, Wright Air out of Fairbanks, Wien Air out of Bettles and all across Alaska.

Paul completed his military service in Alaska and worked three years at Fort Richardson in a civil service job.

Shanahan and his wife Mabel homesteaded at Susitna Station, and ran a team of big Mackenzie River huskies to tend his trap line, haul firewood and handle other transportation chores around the cabin. Before Shanahan had a plane for trips to Anchorage, he and his wife used a 28-foot wooden boat with an outboard motor for transporting loads to the homestead.

Shanahan learned to fly at Merrill Field in Anchorage in a Piper J-3 Cub that he bought in 1957 for $1,600. After receiving his private pilot's license, he went on to receive his commercial license and his Air Transport Pilot certification.

In the first years of their time at Susitna Station, Shanahan would fly into Anchorage and leave his plane at Merrill Field while working as a longshoreman at the port. A new Cub was purchased after his original one was stolen and wrecked; it made it through the summer flying season and into the winter, and then threw a connecting rod. Shanahan was returning home with the plane on skis from a flight to Puntilla Lake near Rainy Pass on an extremely cold day, and he surmises that it was so cold the oil congealed in the engine.

Fortunately, a fellow aviator flew over minutes later, landed and took Shanahan to Anchorage.

Shanahan also flew pipeline patrol on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, at one time or another covering its entire length from Valdez in Southcentral Alaska to Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic.

According to Shanahan, he and his wife, Mabel, managed and ran the Wien Airlines operation at Bettles and the grocery store after Wien started there.

If both Shanahan and his wife were going to be gone from the store for any length of time, they left the door unlocked, with a clipboard for customers to record their purchases or orders. They don't remember anyone ever not paying.

Gaedeke's wife, Pat Gaedeke, shared another characteristic of Shanahan:

"He has no consequence of personal inconvenience, monetary reimbursement or what's in it for him," said Pat. "In other words, Paul is, 'Just like the old maid -- available!' One summer night in August 1991, my husband had not returned from a flight. It was almost 11 p.m. when my daughter Rachel and I agreed she should jump in the riverboat for the 20 minute ride down to Paul's and ask him to look for her dad in the morning. He said, "No, I'll take off right now," and he did.

"He flew all that night, the next day, and the day after. We had just about run out of options when Paul found the wrecked aircraft upside down, floating in a lake high in the Brooks Range north of Iniakuk. My husband and his passenger had perished, but another couple was rescued, thanks to Paul and his determination. Paul has always done whatever it takes for our family and anyone else who needed help."

Correction: A photo that originally accompanied this article erroneously identified the subject of the photo as Paul Shanahan. That photo has been replaced.

Paul Shanahan 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.