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Pilot recounts adventures when spirit, not oil money, helped build Alaska

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published January 4, 2016

The long love story of Chuck and Ann Sassara reached its final chapter on a 23-foot boat bound from Miami to Belize. He was 78 and she was a few years younger. Sailing alone through the dark on a journey of around 1,000 miles, she suffered a stroke and he cared for her on the return back to port.

She never recovered, dying two years later, in 2010. But Chuck has no regrets. His new book, "Chuck Sassara's Alaska: Propellers, Politics & People," makes clear that such adventures were the essence of an amazing life together.

Besides the nine sailboats he owned over his life, Sassara spent a long career flying in Alaska, owning three air taxi services, including one in Bethel. He logged 28,600 hours at the controls of 160 different airplanes. One of the best parts of his entertaining and quick-reading book is a list of all 160 planes, with strong, detailed opinions about many of them.

Chuck and Ann arrived in Alaska from California in 1954 in a Volkswagen van. He had just learned to fly. His mother had bought him an Aeronca Sedan, with no instruments, not even a radio. He flew it all over Alaska, navigating by dead reckoning, beginning journeys that would take him as far as the headwaters of the Amazon River.

It was a time when anything seemed possible in Alaska and aviation was king. Merrill Field housed more airplanes than it does now. Sassara got a job at the Anchorage International Airport as soon as he arrived.

He had been raised to grab opportunities by adventurous parents, growing up in Panama and working most of his life self-employed. "If I didn't have something to do, I went up and invented something to do," he said.

Ann came from a wealthy LA family and worked in the film industry as a young woman. But she was game for anything. Soon after arriving in Alaska the couple moved to a remote home at Big Lake, reached by air, where she hunted for moose on her own. She loved sailing too.

"I'm sure she was scared to death in a couple of cases, but she never complained," he said. "She would just grab the tiller and sail the boat. She liked sailing in pitch-black seas."

In the early 1960s, the family took a six-month vacation in Europe and Africa — with Chuck's parents — driving a Mercedes through the Sahara Desert. In the book, Sassara describes racing away from rebels in an Algerian revolution and rushing across the border to Morocco under gunfire.

But Sassara said he survived as a pilot because he was cautious. On one adventure, when he got boxed in by a snowstorm near Merrill Pass, he landed a Cessna 206 on Chakachamna Lake, breaking the landing gear and damaging the prop and one wing. After waiting a week for rescue in the cold with a passenger, he got home safely, despite being presumed dead in national media reports.

"It just takes time to become a pilot, you can't do it overnight," Sassara said. "Some guys have good skills pretty early on handling an airplane, but staying alive is a completely different level. You've got to be willing to make 180-degree turns when it looks like you might be able to get through. That 'might be' has bit a lot of people in the butt."

In 1964, Sassara ran for the Alaska Legislature, calling in his campaign for construction of a University of Alaska campus in Anchorage. The state was less than five years old and oil had not yet been discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Sassara didn't know the job of legislator came with a salary until after he was elected, when he received a check for $200.

Capital improvements required borrowing with general obligation bonds, approved by a vote of the public and paid back by taxes. Sassara said he flew a legislator to Nome to convince voters there to approve bonds for the Alaska Marine Highway System, and flew a legislator to Ketchikan to convince them to vote for schools in the northwest. The bonds passed.

"We were all rowing in the same direction," he said. "That's the way life was in those days."

Sassara became close friends with Ted Stevens, then a State House member, although they were from opposite parties. They would fight over issues on the floor of the House then go to dinner together.

"It was a wonderful experience, because we were building a brand new state from this rough-hewn territory that we had, and the people that I associated with in those days were wonderful people," Sassara said. "The legislators in those days liked each other. In fact, we loved each other."

These stories surely have picked up some polish with time. Alaska had a lot of things wrong with it in the old days too. But the spirit of adventure and common purpose from that time is not an illusion. I've heard about it from too many old-timers not to believe. I experienced it a little bit as a young person too.

We need that now. We need leaders with courage who care more about Alaska than their own political futures or salaries -- people who will row in the same direction. And we need them to have courage.

For Sassara, that spirit is captured in his advice for sailors. You don't cross the ocean in a little boat by preparing. You sail. The trip may end up with a 180-degree turn, or even with tragedy, but the adventure is worth it.

That was his life in Alaska. And that was his life with Ann.

I asked if that spirit is still here.

"I think it is, but I can't see it very often," he said. "Most people don't have the opportunity I had. I got to tell you, it was an opportunity, a once in a life opportunity."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. His recorded interview with Chuck Sassara will air on Outdoor Explorer on Alaska Public Media on Jan. 21.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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