Alaska News

Alaska Aviation Legends: Royce Morgan, pilot and physician

Royce Morgan, a doctor who loved flight, carved his place in Alaska aviation history by creating an airline during the pipeline building era.

Morgan had aviation in his family history and remembered hearing stories that he carried into his adulthood.

"My uncle Harvey was my inspiration for flying," said Morgan. "I enjoyed hearing his name frequently mentioned around our household as he was part of the first flight around the world and was co-pilot in the 'Seattle' -- one of the Douglas World Cruisers built for the 1924 flight."

Five Douglas World Cruisers -- dubbed the Boston, Boston II, New Orleans, Chicago and Seattle -- were built to circumnavigate the globe. The Seattle crashed into an Alaska mountain in 1924, though the crew survived. One of the Douglas World Cruisers is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, and the engine from the Seattle was recovered by the Alaska Aviation Museum and is on display at Lake Hood in Anchorage.

Morgan arrived in Alaska in 1955 when the U.S. Army brought him to Fort Richardson in Anchorage. After receiving his honorable discharge, Royce stayed in Anchorage and opened a family practice.

By the early 1960s his medical practice was beginning to flourish and after learning about the impending pipeline construction project, Morgan decided he wanted to own and operate an airline. And so he did, his way, using aircraft suitable for the industry's needs and naming his company Polar Airways.

It was through Lela D. Morgan, Royce's mother and a teacher from Shawnee, Okla., that friends and family remained in contact with Royce's adventure in Alaska. During the growth of Polar Airways, Lela Morgan served as the airline's secretary-treasurer, receptionist for the medical clinic and bookkeeper for the apartment complex they owned.

Lela was well-known for her handwritten letters she sent back home to former colleagues and friends. It was through these letters she described the cold extremes of Alaska, expanding the airline and her son's successful medical practice. Friends say it was not uncommon for acquaintances in the Lower 48 to receive newspaper articles describing Royce's successes.

"In Alaska, I began taking flying with Barton Air Service at Merrill Field flying an Aeronca, Cessna 140 and occasionally a Cessna 172," Royce Morgan said. "Later, I flew my first Cessna 180 dual with Lucky Wishbone restaurant owner George Brown." He bought his first airplane, a Piper PA-18, in 1960. Within a couple of years, he sold the PA-18 to upgrade to a Cessna 180, then added a new Piper Aztec a few years after that.

Morgan successfully expanded Polar Airways in Alaska and northwest Canada. One of the air routes that helped the airline along the way was the exclusive right for the first scheduled airline from Fairbanks to Valdez during the construction of the $8 billion Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

"Starting Polar Airlines was a way to enlarge my love of aviation and challenge of taking passengers from Anchorage and Fairbanks to the pipeline's terminus in Valdez," said Morgan. "We started slow and continued to build. First aircraft were my Cessna 180 and the Piper Aztec. It wasn't long before the Fairchild, Porter and Aero Commander were added. Before it was all over, Polar Airlines consisted of 14 aircraft and 17 pilots."

The airline was sold after the pipeline was completed in 1977 to Tim Yule, who operated Polar Airlines until 1980.

Morgan continues to practice medicine in Texas.

Royce Morgan 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.