At the time Steve Thompson was hired by Piedmont Airlines in 1955, at age 19, he was believed to be the youngest pilot working for a major airline. Four passengers once walked out of a plane after they saw the pilot was so young.
As it turns out, Thompson, now 69, deserved their trust. A pilot for 52 years, he has maintained a safe flying record. He currently works for the Chelton Flight Systems, which equips airplanes with an on-board terrain database on a global positioning system-based map so pilots can identify their aircrafts' position and locate hazardous terrain.
On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration recognized Thompson and three other Southeast Alaska pilots with the Wright Brothers' Master Pilot Award for their 50 or more consecutive years of safe flight operations.
The other three recipients were Layton Bennett of Haines, Ken Eichner of Ketchikan and Ken Loken of Douglas.
The award ceremony kicked off a series of events that celebrate August as Alaska aviation safety month.
"Alaska is a complex aviation environment due to unusual weather conditions, mountainous terrain and distant weather reporting points," said Gov. Frank Murkowski in an executive proclamation. "Through education, research, training, audits, and use of simulators and aviation training devices, as well as other safety equipment, aviation accidents and fatalities can be reduced."
Eichner, who has been stuck in snowstorms many times and engaged in numerous rescue missions during his six decades of flight career, knows well the challenges of flying in Alaska.
"Looking back over the years, I count myself lucky. I should have been killed many times," said Eichner in the introduction to his memoir, "Nine Lives of an Alaska Bush Pilot."
Eichner learned to fly in 1944, hoping to fly for the military in World War II. But by the time he got his pilot's license, the war was over. Between 1960 and 1990, he worked for TEMSCO Helicopters Inc. He became president of the company in 1965 and retired from the industry in 1990.
To attend the award ceremony in Juneau, Eichner, 86, flew his helicopter with his son from Ketchikan. "Modern helicopters are easier to operate than the old ones," he said. "To operate old helicopters, you need both your feet and hands. You don't have time to scratch your nose."
Bennett, like Eichner, spent most of his life flying. He came to Alaska in 1939 to build the state's first commercial radio station. He began flying in 1942. Between 1958 and 1972, he patrolled a U.S Army fuel pipeline from Haines to Fairbanks, which supplied Cold War military bases, he said.
"Flying was hazardous, involving low-level surveillance over the most rugged territory in the north," according to Bennett's biography. "Weather reports were few and unreliable. Operational problems were monumental - forced landings due to weather, ice crystals in the fuel tank and other mechanical failures."
Unlike other pilots, Loken, 80, doesn't think Alaska's unstable weather conditions, mountainous terrain and distant weather reporting points are the biggest challenges.
"Working with people is more challenging," Loken said. "But people make life interesting."
Throughout his career, Loken has flown all kinds of people, including movie stars such as John Wayne and even bank robbers.
On June 10, 1966, two men chartered his plane to fly from Juneau to Sitka. The duo robbed the Pioneer Bar in Sitka and threatened Loken at gunpoint to fly them to Canada. Loken deliberately didn't fill the tank and landed on a beach near Ketchikan. The police arrested the men the same day.
The Alaska Empire ran a front-page story with a picture of young Loken. The cutline was "Pilot Ken Loken, kidnapped but safe."
"After being a pilot for more than 50 years, I have encountered any situation you can imagine," Loken said. "But that's what makes life fun."
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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