'Legend' makes local skies safer

Alaska Airlines pilot honored at multiday retirement celebration; helped develop warning system

Posted: Monday, July 03, 2006

Hauling people safely in and out of Alaska at jet speed isn't what inspires the most pride Douglas Wahto feels looking back on his career as a pilot.

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"That was a small part of it. I went well beyond that years ago," he said Saturday night at the days-long party at his home on the beach at Lena Point, leading up to his 60th birthday Tuesday.

"He's a legend in this town," said Don Kubley, one of the guests at the bash that begin at last week at Ward Air, with people coming and going - many from other parts of the country. "Can you imagine that this guy that's this mellow with this group here can fly at jet speed for 36 years and not hit anything? He's Carlos Boozer."

Kubley corrected himself, noting that Boozer doesn't carry the lives of 200 people on his back on the basketball court. He pointed to the Chilkat Mountains across the Lynn Canal, where he said an Alaska Airlines jet slammed into a peak in 1971.

"It's a different job now," Wahto said of flying for Alaska Airlines. The aircraft are more sophisticated and, for most of the pilots, Alaska is a destination and not where they learned to fly.

Wahto said he is proudest that he left flying in Alaska safer than when he was halibut fishing with his father in Glacier Bay and thought he would rather be at the controls of the Grumman Goose soaring overhead. He worked on a system in Juneau that tells pilots what they can't see.

"You can't fly into these narrow canyons and not know what you're flying into," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has towers around Juneau that warn of wind sheer, as they do around other airports, but the violent weather phenomenon is usually associated with thunderstorms, Wahto said. The system doesn't address turbulence pilots regularly face in Juneau.

Using his experience flying in and out of the airport, he said he worked with computer hardware and software people and scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research to develop JAWS - the Juneau Airport Wind System, based on a system developed for Hong Kong's airport.

"We basically developed it in-house without the FAA's participation," he said, although the FAA eventually sponsored it. "We built a system that looks down 6,000 feet to the surface. ... It tells you before taking off and landing when there are winds you shouldn't fly into."

Wahto said he started flying at 17 and began flying floatplanes commercially at 19. "I lost a good number of friends," he said.

"I actually gave (flying) up. I thought there was no way I could live through that career." A heavy blow was losing his good friend Bruce Burlingame on the south end of Baranof Island.

But his interview for a pilot's job at Alaska Airlines when he was 23, set up by contacts his father made in the Legislature, consisted of little more than showing interest in the job, Wahto said. No one knew in 1970 what the company would become. There was a time when he knew the Alaska Airlines directors on a first-name basis, he said.

"What's cool is I've been able to experience the whole spectrum of aviation here," he said, "from a 65-horsepower Taylorcraft to $60 million airplanes."

In recent years he has been instructing pilots for the airline and checking them out, while his focus has been on safety in Juneau.

"I'm so happy he's retired," said Patricia deLaBruere, business manager for the airport who lives with Wahto at Lena Point. "He's worked hard. He's quite the legend."

Wahto said retirement is "bittersweet." He still flies a small plane, but there came a point with the airline that he would look at the people fishing in Glacier Bay and think about home. The airline bases its pilots in Seattle, so he hasn't been home much in the last 20 years. "The two times a year that it snowed I could walk through Lincoln Park and pretend I was in Alaska."

He is content to work on the ground as a contractor, building houses, he said. And when he is in Glacier Bay and sees a plane overhead in Glacier Bay, he will know its chances are better than they used to be.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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