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Alaska Aviation Legends: For Warren Thompson, safety, service came first

  • Author: Joy Journeay
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 10, 2014

Aviation has been Warren Thompson's primary interest since he was a teenager. He started working at the local airport in Libby, Mont. part-time after school and obtained his private pilot's license in 1947, when he was 17 years old. Thompson began his private flying in 1954, and worked to receive all the ratings available in small aircraft -- private, commercial and Airline Transport Pilot.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served around aircraft, as an air crewman operating radios aboard B-24 high-altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft and maintaining the Navy's version of the Twin Beech.

"The aircraft were basically World War II airframes, but they had turbo chargers and could operate at high altitude," Thompson recalled. "We were supporting the (U.S. Geological Survey) mapping of the Aleutian Chain and the Brooks Range, so we flew over at 24,000 feet with the aircraft bomb bays open and large Fairchild cameras shooting images of the ground."

After his military service, Thompson worked briefly at Boeing in Seattle, but the big city did not appeal to him. He took a job with the Federal Aviation Administration, and after training asked to be sent to Alaska.

Thompson began working for the FAA in July 1952 at Umiat, and after a few months was stationed at Kotzebue, where he excelled at the Flight Service Station there. He is particularly pleased at how many of Alaska's aviators became friends and acquaintances because of his time on the radio with them. He stresses that he always approached his work with safety of utmost importance.

Thompson says two aspects of aviation remain the highest points for him -- safety and teaching.

"I taught a lot of young Alaska Native men to fly, and it was an honor and a great source of enjoyment for me," he said.

Thompson excelled at search and rescue work, and received numerous commendations and awards over the 60 years he has served. He and John Cross started the Kotzebue Civil Air Patrol in the early 1960s and worked closely with what is now the Rescue Coordination Center. In 1979, the president of NANA Regional Corp. asked Thompson to help them form a region-wide search and rescue plan that included cooperation between NANA, Alaska State Troopers, CAP, RCC, and the National Guard. It was a widely acclaimed success.

Thompson flew many Northwest Alaska rescue missions himself. For his work, he earned not only mention in the U.S. Congressional Record, he twice won the Civil Air Patrol's Medal of Valor for Heroic Action and is a two-time recipient of the Air Command Rescue Trophy. Thompson located or helped find 17 people lost in the Alaska Bush.

Thompson has flown more than 38,000 hours -- equivalent to five-and-a-half years in the air. Thompson lost his flight medical and can no longer fly missions, but if you talk to anyone in Kotzebue, they will tell you what a daily inspiration he is.

Warren Thompson 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.