BORN: Nov. 10, 1921
SOLOED: 27 years old
MARRIED: 1947, to Lavern, and 1983, to Ann
FAVORITE AIRCRAFT: Cherokee – 4372P (still used by PenAir as a run around)
In 1949, there was no real airport in Naknek, Alaska. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was just finishing the road connecting the town to the neighboring community of King Salmon, and the dozen-or-so local canneries were helping transform the area into one of the busiest fisheries in the country.
That was the year George Tibbetts Sr. came to town. A young GI with the U.S. Armed Forces, Tibbetts built a life around the Bristol Bay Borough. He would go on to marry a local girl and start a family; a business; an airport. Flying under the call sign 97Papa, he spent tens of thousands of hours piloting dozens of airplanes across countless miles of coastal terrain. He helped build vital infrastructure throughout the region, and helped develop the transportation network connecting area communities.
By the time all was said and done, the Tibbetts name was inextricably intertwined with Alaska aviation and the history of Bristol Bay.
At first, Tibbetts worked on a tugboat at the Red Salmon cannery, according to family. He'd spent a few years stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base in King Salmon: It was there he met his future wife, Lavern, and it was there he started his Alaska aviation career after previously earning his pilot's license in California. The timing was perfect.
In the decades before Tibbetts moved to Alaska, Del Monte Foods had thrown itself into the salmon canning business, buying up Bristol Bay canneries on its way to becoming the largest seafood processor in the state. Handling all that fish required air support. Tibbetts provided it.
For years, he provided local processing plants with flight services, piloting between places within just a few miles of each other, all without runways. The rough conditions didn't stop him—he just landed on the road, or on floats, or on the mudflats, laying out boards so passengers could pick their way to shore.
The first family business, Tibbetts-Nelson Air Service, shuttled cannery workers throughout the borough in a Stinson 108 and a Piper PA-11 Cub Special. The Stinson, too heavy to fly on skis, only lasted one winter season. High-wing planes, too unstable in the face of strong Bristol Bay winds, were eventually replaced by low-wing aircraft.
Through wheeling and dealing and multiple conversations with Bristol Bay fish plant owners, Tibbetts succeeded in bringing airstrips to all the canneries nearest Naknek—places like Egegik, Pedersen Point, South Naknek and others. Sometimes the construction was carried out by the canneries themselves. Other times, Tibbetts himself would oversee construction, building simple-but-functional runways with loaned equipment, trading flight services for airstrips.
Those early airstrips were anything but fancy, but it seemed like Tibbetts could land anywhere, like the time he piloted a twin-engine Piper Apache onto a 600-foot runway at the local Columbia River Packers Association plant. Tibbetts just knew planes—he flew a lot of them.
After Tibbetts-Nelson came Tibbetts-Herre Airmotive. Julius Herre, an engineer and Tibbetts' new business partner, helped adapt the company to Alaska's unique conditions, obtaining Federal Aviation Administration permission to modify various planes for work around Bristol Bay. He received supplemental type certificates (STCs) to add larger floats to a Piper Pacer, a larger nose fork to a Cherokee and a third seat belt to a Comanche. The exterior modifications made for steadier flying; the extra seat belt allowed the planes to carry more passengers.
In those days, demand was steep but competition was fierce. When Tibbetts first started ferrying passengers, there was never enough room for everyone. But if a competing pilot spotted a plane carrying one passenger too many, you could expect a report to the FAA. The solution? Extra seat belts and, eventually, larger aircraft.
Just as Tibbetts' businesses grew, so too did Bristol Bay flight facilities. Naknek finally got its real runway. Then, when winter snow piled up too high, and Tibbetts grew tired of shoveling his way out to the airport, he decided to build another airstrip, this one in his own backyard. Hangars soon followed.
For well over a decade, Tibbetts and a small clutch of pilots kept the family business aloft, carrying everyone from seasonal cannery employees to students traveling from South Naknek to school across the river. Tibbetts himself amassed more takeoffs and landings than anyone else around, family members recall. He had a sense of humor, too: Sometimes, he would load the small plane with upwards of two dozen local folks—well over limit—then taxi, park and offload the many "passengers," to the shock of any onlookers.
By the mid-1960s, more changes were in store. Peninsula Airways, which operated flights from Pilot Point south, established a base in King Salmon in 1965, according to the company. The Bristol Bay community had served as a hub for operations such as Pacific Northern Airline and Northern Consolidated Airlines, creating an opportunity for smaller operations to branch out from there. In 1969, PenAir acquired Tibbetts-Herre Airmotive's assets, and Tibbetts became a 20-percent owner of the newly expanded PenAir operation.
While PenAir flew throughout Southwest Alaska, Tibbetts chose to stay close to home, flying the cannery routes that kept him within 50 miles of Naknek. It wasn't unusual for the dyed-in-the-wool Alaska pilot to fly for eight hours a day, carrying about 100 passengers, making up to 25 landings at the rugged cannery airstrips he'd helped pioneer.
By this time, Tibbetts was spending his winters back in California, where his children attended school as they grew older. The summers, though, were for Alaska: When the cannery workers came to town and the Naknek population swelled to thousands, Tibbetts came back to fly. He flew for PenAir until 1994, when his eyesight became too poor to do it any longer. He was 72 years old.
When all was said and done, Tibbetts' Alaska aviation career spanned more than four decades. He flew out of Naknek, King Salmon, South Naknek, Nakeen and Peterson Point. He piloted a Stinson 108; a Piper Cub, Clipper, Pacer, Apache, Aztec, Comanche, Cherokee, Cherokee Arrow, Twin Comanche, Navajo, Chieftain and Saratoga; a Grumman Widgeon and Super Widgeon; a Cessna Caravan. He'd amassed approximately 35,000 flight hours, and secured a permanent place in the annals of Alaska aviation history.
The Naknek of 2016 is a far different place than the town of Tibbetts' youth. Canneries have come and gone. Tibbetts' wife, Lavern, passed away. While he remarried, he still spends his summers in the community they called home. These days, there are about 25 planes parked in the alders at the Naknek Airstrip, a collection of two gravel runways just shy of 2,000 feet.
If you ever find yourself in Naknek, you may notice the third airstrip, and you may find yourself wondering how the tiny Tibbetts Airport got its name. Now you know.
This story first appeared in the 2016 edition of Alaska Aviation Legends Magazine, a partner publication with Alaska Air Carriers Association. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at email@example.com.