Air Transport World

The Pioneer Airline at.(Alaska Airlines 75th Anniversary Special)(Company overview)

75 Years of Pioneering

The founding fathers of Alaska Airlines, marking its 75th birthday this year, were both adventurers and entrepreneurs

Alaska long has been called America's last frontier--the final refuge for the restless, the risk-takers and the adventurers. But it also has been an entrepreneurial frontier, providing a chance to build business success from its vast expanses of undeveloped wilderness. The founding fathers of Alaska Airlines, marking its 75th birthday this year, were both adventurers and entrepreneurs. And certainly they were risk-takers, bush pilots par excellence who often literally flew on a wing and a prayer.

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In the 1930s, Alaskan aviation was just getting started. It was a tough place to fly--the infrastructure was primitive and navigational aids almost nonexistent. And it was so far from the continental US that the airplanes of the day with their limited range had to be taken apart and transported to the territory by ship. Once reassembled, they operated under extreme weather conditions; skis replaced wheels for much of the year and some were pontoon-equipped for operations on lakes and rivers. To find their way through notoriously thick cloud cover and fog, pilots sometimes had to skim the treetops, following dogsled tracks through the snow. They often drained the engine oil in winter and kept it on a stove until they were ready to take off. Crashes were not unusual events, they were almost routine.

It was in this foreboding environment that two fledgling companies got started in 1932. One was McGee Airways, formed by Linious "Mac" McGee and his partner, a legendary, hard-drinking bush pilot named "Barney" Barnhill. McGee, who came to Alaska in 1929, worked as an oil truck driver and fur trader before he and Barnhill went to San Francisco in 1931 to buy a used three-seat Stinson SM8A. They shipped it back to Anchorage and initially used it for trips to buy furs, but in 1932 they started taking charter business, cargo shipments, whatever would pay. A bank loan enabled them to acquire a second plane and business started to take off. McGee learned to fly but preferred managing, so he hired other pilots and paid them a commission of the gross sales generated by the planes they flew.

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The first aircraft had no radios and pilots could be gone from their home base for weeks at a time, picking up passengers and cargo here and dropping them there--at hunting or trapping camps, mining outposts and so on--then repeating the process, all on a cash (or even barter) basis.

A Star is Born The other fledgling company was Star Air Service, started by three Seattle pilots who moved to Anchorage in 1932 with a single-engine, two-seat Fleet biplane to open a flight school. Business was slow so they branched out into charters, then added a three-seat Curtiss Robin that allowed them to keep flying during the winter--it had an enclosed cabin.

These nascent operators soon found a new revenue source common to all early airlines: Airmail. The mail contracts enabled the little carriers to start operating some flights on regular schedules, the only dependable transportation network in a region that had almost no intercity roads or communications. …

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