Alaska Coastal Airlines pilot tells of honest times

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2006

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

The wharf at the foot of Main Street was once the home of Alaska Coastal Airlines, the premier transportation carrier for northern southeastern Alaska in the 1950s and 60s. In the Ketchikan area, Ellis Airlines performed a similar service.

If you had to get around, you flew on the Gruman Goose or the PBY to Hoonah or Skagway or to any of the other towns and camps in our neck of the woods.

Your pilot was one of a marvelous group of professionals. Many earned their wings fighting for their country in World War II. They were truly the Argonauts of the modern age.

If you made a quick trip to Petersburg or Pelican, your pilot may have been Ray Renshaw or Hunt Gruening, Dave Brown, Jim Hickey, Joe Kendler, Roland Gildersleeve, John Dawson or Stewart Adams. Forgive me if I missed some of their comrades.

During the 60s, Stewart Adams was my next door neighbor. He owned a house at the top of Main Street, and I was next door on Gold Belt.

Recently I received a letter from him telling of his early days working in the fishing industry as a deckhand, and then later as a pilot before he started with Alaska Coastal.

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"Out of high school in 1942, I worked as a deckhand on a cannery tender boat for Fidalgo Island Packing Cannery in Ketchikan brailing floating salmon traps and hauling scowloads of fish to the cannery. Then another stint of cannery tender tugboat work was as a second engineer on a boat for the Sunny Point Cannery in Ketchikan doing trap brailing, fish hauling, gear scow and floating trap towing to winter locations," said Adams.

"From 1948-1951, I spent four years as a personal pilot to A.R. Brueger, manager of Farwest Salmon Cannery in Wrangell, patrolling fish traps, counting fish in floating traps, hauling supplies to trap watchmen and fishing boats (trollers and seiners). Personal transport for cannery management, emergency medical transport, and a thousand and one other things kept the job interesting."

"In addition, flying cash to the various fish buying stations - 20 to 30 thousand dollars in a paper lunch sack. Each paper bagful at that time would be worth a quarter million dollars or more in today's money. A lot of money in those early years. I never had time to count the wad of bills handed to me nor did the buying station operator, but we never lost a dime. The honor system worked in those days."

I believe Stewart learned to fly in World War II as a P51 fighter pilot in Europe.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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