Walt Audi came to Alaska in 1962 "to see what was possible," as he says, and discovered all he wanted. By 1964, he was living above the 70th parallel north, and has continued to serve the people of northern Alaska ever since.
"If I was going to write a book about my life, I'd entitle it 'Fifty Years Above 70 North,'" Audi says with a chuckle.
Audi is a quiet man of very few words, characterized by a simple, direct approach to life. He was born at home in Wesley Chapel, Penn. Audi joined the military and served his country in the 82nd Airborne Division from 1956 through 1959.
"After my military service, I returned to California," Audi says. "On a hot summer day while I was in college, I lay over a stairway welding girders with the sweat running down into my eyes. I said to myself, 'The heck with this!' and I bought an old Ford pickup and headed north."
In February of 1964, after several other trips to Alaska, Audi came back north with a pickup pulling a mobile home trailer that was supposed to become the first Alaska home of Audi and his wife, Merilyn. On the way, the trailer went into the ditch on an icy stretch and Audi had to leave it in Canada.
"Fortunately my first job was at Creamer's Dairy in Fairbanks, owned by Charlie and Anna Creamer, and they provided living quarters," Audi says. "I was hired to do maintenance at Creamer's, but it seemed like I spent a lot of my time milking cows!"
In June of 1964, he was offered a job doing maintenance on the Distance Early Warning line out of Barter Island. It was a 30-day temporary job, doing repairs and work on the fiberglass of the big domes. The DEW line consisted of 63 radar stations extending over 6,200 miles across the Arctic, from Western Alaska to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada.
Audi quickly realized that the only way to travel in the Far North was by aircraft.
On the trips across the North, Audi enjoyed the stories of the pilots. The reality of being isolated in the Arctic was that only pilots could come and go as they pleased. Everyone else couldn't do anything or go anywhere. That reality made him hungry to fly.
In 1968, he started taking lessons in Troutdale, Ore., and got a private license. Each year after, he returned and got other aviation certifications.
"That winter I bought my first plane, a Taylorcraft, for $4,000 and it came with floats, wheels and skis," Audi says. "Cy Ethrington from Manley Hot Springs sold it to me. It had no instruments except that I could tell my airspeed and rate of climb. There was a compass, but that far north it was virtually useless. And the plane had no radio."
In 1974 Walt formed Audi Air and moved the center of operations to Fairbanks at North Pole. The company provided the first scheduled service to Barrow, according to Audi. Audi Air soon had bases at Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, Galena, Prudhoe Bay and Fairbanks, where it operated from facilities at Metro Field.
The company eventually supported more than 100 employees and operated 29 aircraft. It routinely made three trips to Barrow in a day, according to Audi.
In 1989, Audi Air was sold off. But flying was in Audi's blood, and he started another aviation company.
"We did a lot of remote North Slope flying from Kaktovik with our small company, Alaska Flyers," says Audi. Alaska Flyers became nationally known for its flights into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and getting climbers into the backcountry of the Brooks Range.
But now, the Audis have settled down.
"Merylin and I have been agents for Cape Smythe for years in Kaktovik, then for Era Aviation, as Cape Smythe was sold, and now we continue to be agents for Ravn Alaska when Era evolved to a new name," says Audi.
Walt Audi 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.