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Urban Rahoi: A legendary mechanic, big game guide and daredevil Alaska bush pilot

  • Author: Jane Dale
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 1, 2013

He's taught formation flying in Florida, flown bomb missions over Austria and Romania, and overseen troop transports from Africa into the European theater of World War II. Yet it was a high school shop teacher whom Urban Rahoi says should get credit for a legendary career in the clouds. When Rahoi was asked to build a low-wing, wire-braced monoplane resembling a Boeing P-26 for a class project, he knew he'd found his calling.

Urban Rahoi was taking flight lessons when most of us were daydreaming about driving cars. He was well on his way to soloing by the time he was 16 years old. After high school in the lean late 1930s, Rahoi found work by day with the Michigan Highway Department, which paid for his nighttime studies in aircraft mechanics. When World War II broke out Rahoi longed to fly for the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the modern U.S. Air Force). A former flight instructor encouraged him to sign up even though he'd not yet completed college. And so Rahoi found himself soloing in an Army-issued Stearman; shortly thereafter he was instructing other pilots.

But Rahoi longed for action. By 1944 he was teaching formation flying, and by 1945 Rahoi was flying missions to North Africa via Newfoundland and the Azores and on to Italy.

"From Italy we would routinely fly bombing missions to southern Germany, Austria, Romania, and wherever they needed us. On my third mission I did a peel off, like a fighter pilot ... The key was to use the Engineer to read off the air speed directly into my ear as we turned," he recalls. "Other pilots didn't survive the attempt to make such a steep turn."

Rahoi found Alaska in 1947 and formed Interior Airways along with two business parnters, Jim Magoffin and Al Wright. But that wasn't all. Rahoi also stayed active in the military: As a member of the Air Force Reserve 449th Fighter Squadron, Rahoi commanded a C-47 and co-piloted several historic military aircraft including the North American F-82 Twin Mustang, the Lockheed F-94 STARfire and the Northrup F-89 Scorpion. Rahoi also served as both the operations and range control officers at the Blair Lake Range.

Rahoi and his wife, Vienna, homesteaded on the Tanana River near the Richardson Highway in the Alaskan interior, where he built a name for himself, not to mention quite a reputation as a pilot.

"I flew a guy up from Fairbanks and dropped him off on a lake east of Beetles and north of the South Fork" back in 1947, Rahoi recalls. "About three weeks later I couldn't find him at the lake so I left to refuel in Bettles and then returned to look along the Creek.

There I saw a gigantic SOS he had drawn in the sand bar, and he came out waving like crazy. The guy had camped and the bears had cleaned him out. I couldn't land so I turned to head back to Bettles to notify the 10th Rescue Squadron. The 10th sent a helicopter up to extract the guy, but it ran out of gas twenty miles south of Bettles. Thankfully, the helicopter had landed next to a lake where I was able to haul gas to him. Meanwhile, the 10th decided to send a DC-3 and Twin Beech to Bettles. I was tasked with showing the DC-3 pilot the camper's location and, once the DC3 pilot knew the location, I led the helicopter in. When they finally extracted the camper, the helicopter brought him back to Bettles and he quickly jumped in to fly with me to Fairbanks."

Rahoi snuck through a stormfront back to Fairbanks, but it took the helo three days to get back. By the end of the affair, Rahoi had been coined the heroic "Unknown Bush Pilot" who upstaged the search-and-rescue squadron.

The Interior years

Most of Urban's flight time has been as a single pilot. However, in 1947 Urban, Al Wright and Jim Magoffin founded "Interior Airways" and Urban flew charters in his super cruiser. A year later, he decided to open his own business, Ray's Air Service, and flew statewide in an Aeronca Sedan on floats, Piper Super Cruiser, and a Cessna UC-78 Bobcat. At the end of each day, however, Urban wanted to be at home with his family on his farm along the Tanana River and completing various projects—one was the construction of Lakeview Terrace, a trailer park.

Urban recalls strategically arranging a meeting with Elmer Rasmuson when he arrived on Urban's homestead to goose hunt. He had applied for a loan from Rasmuson's bank. He explained that to build a pioneer state, the bankers needed to understand the projects and know the people they were dealing with. His approach was effective, because Urban walked away from that meeting with approval of a million dollar loan. Alaska Airlines once urged Urban and fly the United States Geophysical Institute staff north of the Brooks Range for oil exploration work. They carried seismic equipment and two huge batteries and required the skill and competence of a seasoned pilot to land precisely on a number of predetermined locations. Since Urban was somewhat reluctant, they enticed him by paying $4,000 per month at a time when a typical pilots salary was $700 per month. Urban naturally couldn't refuse.

Urban continued to fly the Norseman not only for Alaska and Lavery Air Service but also for ERA Mining out of Barrow and Fairbanks. Flying provided a supplemental income used to support his family and farm. Today, at 94 years old, Urban continues to enjoy life on his homestead and flies about 100 hours a year.

Urban, like many pilots at the time, became a big game guide in 1950. Alaska was still a Territory and Urban had built a lodge for hunting and fishing clientele on Ptarmigan Lake, near the Canadian Border by Beaver Creek. During the development of the lodge, Urban desperately needed an airstrip for access. He found himself in heated discussions with the Territory of Alaska as they decided a 4,000 foot airstrip would adversely impact the property surrounding his lodge. The Territory quickly denied Urban the right to build a runway. Urban argued back and eventually was granted the easement needed for the airstrip, but only after convincing them of the safety importance that alternate landing areas can provide in Eastern Alaska.

Alaska became a state in 1959 and with that came the requirement for guides to register. Urban filed his paper work and paid his fees. He was issued Alaska State Guide License No. 1. Urban remains an avid sheep hunter from his lodge on Ptarmigan Lake.

When Nixon was President, Jack O. Horton, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, made a trip to Ptarmigan Lake Lodge. The Assistant Secretary had made such timely connections going back to Washington DC that everyone in the office knew of the fantastic trip he had made. "The Assistant Secretary was able to bring the fish he had caught that weekend and eat it for lunch on Monday morning in Washington DC." Urban's Lodge became a "must visit."

Urban has had his share of close calls flying around Alaska. Once after taking off from Ptarmigan Lake, he felt there was something wrong with the Cessna 185 engine. He continued to Fairbanks, landed at Phillips Field, exchanged the engine for an overhauled engine, and tore down the removed engine. The mechanic discovered one of the counterweights from the crankshaft was at the bottom of the engine. A catastrophic incident was clearly averted.

In 1968 Urban took off from Lakeview in a turbocharged Cessna 206 with two passengers and a load of fresh eggs. Just after takeoff, the turbocharger failed which significantly degraded the performance and Urban was forced to land on the opposite shore of the river. The aircraft cart-wheeled and ended upside down in tall grass. "Everyone escaped through the rear door, but the eggs," he chuckles, "were scrambled!"

Perhaps Urban's closest call was while ferrying a Cessna 336 from Alaska to California. He was between Watson Lake and Prince George when once again; he felt something was wrong with the aircraft. "At Fort Graham I turned around and went back to Watson Lake where the rear propeller came apart and nearly severed the right tail boom. The aircraft began to descend and I fortunately saw a small 1,200-foot airstrip within reach. I headed straight for it. As I began to flair for touchdown, the tail boom failed and I no longer had pitch control. The nose dropped and I bounced three times then came to an abrupt stop in very soft sand. When I climbed out of the aircraft I had no idea where he was. I was even more surprised as tourists were everywhere snapping pictures. I was promised a copy of one photograph taken of the wreckage, but have never received it."

As it turns out, there have been eight instances where the propeller has failed on the Cessna 336. Urban is the only one to survive such an incident. He credits his survival with, "Staying calm and flying the airplane to the ground. I also had some divine guidance while flying the Cessna 336, which is why I am able to tell the story today."

On Nov. 20, 2012, the FAA presented Urban with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. The FAA stated "Urban's contribution to aviation has spanned more than 70 years. He has used his skill as an aviator to train airmen, fight a war, and maintain the safety standard in commercial aviation. He has rescued people in trouble and supplied people in the Bush with the necessities of life. He has contributed to the state of Alaska, and provided many people a chance to see the wild and beautiful Alaska we all love. A final thought for us here tonight is his recipe for a long and happy life: The only person who can make you happy, is you."

On May 20, 2013, Urban once again flew a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber while visiting the Yankee Air Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan. "The Captain asked me to take the left seat and it felt like I had never got out of it -- after all, I earned over 1500 hours in it. I never lost or gained twenty feet while flying and we did seven steep turns then I greased it right in at the end of the runway when we landed." Gene Wedekemper, a Delta Airline pilot that accompanied Urban stated, "I was quite amazed that he was as proficient and sharp as he was. In this plane, you need a lot of taxi experience, and we practiced for thirty minutes, but once airborne, he was at the controls. He seemed to do a very nice job. I was impressed that he was able to be in the air for 45 minutes."

"They invited me to come back at age 100," Urban says, "and if I am still standing, I will! I told my doctor recently, when he asked when I would stop flying, that I will keep on until I can't lift those 15-gallon oil barrels into the plane," laughs Urban.

Says Leif Wilson, of 40 Mile Air in Tok, "He's always feisty and full of energy. He's always giving us good advice, especially since we are pilots and he's been flying in this country for a long time." Urban lost his wife Vienna on Jan. 3, 2010, when she died in his arms three days before their 70th anniversary. He says she lived and fought right up to the very end. On the night that she died, she even scolded Urban when she thought he cheated her out of her job by doing the night's dishes -- and then she was gone. He says they enjoyed their life together because they both desired to achieve something. They were inseparable and raised three children together on the homestead they built together.

Urban currently owns a Cessna 206 and hauls freight to his lodge on Ptarmigan Lake, where he keeps eight horses. He used to fly from Beaver Creek into Ptarmigan Lake but now, due to TSA, he must fly freight directly out of Tok. Urban says, "I've been really lucky. I've always had enough to eat and a bed to sleep in!" Nowadays, when he's offered physical assistance he tells people if he doesn't do the work he will get soft and he won't be able to do it anymore. Urban Eugene Rahoi is one of a kind and we are fortunate to have him as one of Alaska's aviation pioneers.

Urban Rahoi is one of nine 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. 1 banquet in their honor. More information is available in the Alaska Bush Pilot blog, in the Alaska Dispatch Calendar, and at the Alaska Air Carriers Association website.