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Steve Sztuk: Keeping watch from the sky

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2001

For some 60 years, Juneau resident Steve Sztuk has kept watch over Southeast Alaska from the sky.

Sztuk, 74, is an institution at the Civil Air Patrol in Juneau, dedicating thousands of hours to search-and-rescue missions. He put his aviation skills to work for the U.S. Army in World War II, flying air-sea rescue missions in the Pacific.

Sztuk remembers telling his second-grade teacher he wanted to be an aviator. He was between 12 and 14 when he learned how to fly from some of the pioneers of Alaska aviation in Petersburg, he said. After school, he helped pilots Jim Rhinehart and Tony Schawann of Schawann Brothers Flying Service.

"You used to work practically all month long for a hour of flying time at the end of the month," he said. "You were washing the plane down, helping them change the oil, packing stuff around, cleaning the hangar."

One of his first flights was off the roof of the Petersburg gym, based on an idea from 15 cent movies, he said. After watching "All Quiet on the Western Front," about World War I, Sztuk and a friend decided to build a bi-wing plane.

"We were going to glide off the roof, and we just went straight off into the muskeg, about a 30-foot drop. It's a wonder we didn't hurt ourselves," he said.

The plane wasn't so lucky.

Sztuk eventually worked his way up to a Piper J-2 with floats. "You had to wait until the wind blew before it would get off the water," he said, joking.

From Petersburg, Sztuk enlisted in the Army. His father took him by fishing boat to sign up at the subport in Juneau. He was 16.

"There were a lot of young men at that time that went in," he said.

He put skills developed in Southeast Alaska to use looking for downed aircraft and pilots from the Aleutian Islands to the South Pacific.

"The military didn't have people who could fly sea planes," he said.

Sztuk moved in 1951 to Juneau, where he became a power lineman and a foreman for Alaska Electric Light and Power.

"One nice thing in working as a power lineman here is you're never in one place too long," he said. "Before, we used to walk (to jobs). Later on, everybody up and modernized and it took us 15 minutes by chopper. You didn't have to pack everything with you."

Sztuk also started flying with the Civil Air Patrol when he moved to Juneau. The civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, the CAP trains young pilots and participates in search-and-rescue missions. In Southeast Alaska, the squadron covers an area from south of Ketchikan to Seward.

Sztuk commanded the squadron from 1977 to 1984 and has been deputy commander several times. When he started, there weren't many search-and-rescue aircraft in Southeast Alaska, he said.

Cmdr. Boyce Bingham said the Civil Air Patrol was the prime search-and-rescue operation in Southeast in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

"There are quite a few people in Southeast Alaska that owe their lives to Steve Sztuk and the Civil Air Patrol," he said.

When Sztuk flies today, he goes up in a DeHavilland Beaver. As the Civil Air Patrol's maintenance officer, he has a wealth of knowledge, CAP pilot and flight instructor Al Hazelton said.

"He's invaluable as far as maintenance of aircraft and flying tips," he said. "He's lived in Southeast all his life and has a intimate knowledge of the geography and local weather."

The number of missions Sztuk has flown are too numerous to count, Hazelton said. Sztuk said he flew on every CAP mission in Juneau until about 15 years ago. And it is rare for pilots to fly in good weather on such occasions.

Sztuk took part in the 1972 search for U.S. Rep. Nick Begich of Alaska and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, one of the longest and most intense in Alaska's history.

He also was involved in the search for the 26-foot gillnetter Andrea in the winter of 1969-70 near Juneau. The boat had eight children on board who were never found. That week's storm also stranded about 100 hunters, Sztuk said.

"It was blowing 80 miles an hour that night and the next day; the wind never died down. It was hurricane force with the swell going up to the woods. We looked clear down to Petersburg," he said.

Sztuk's wife, Jean, who is a pilot herself, said they looked for the Andrea for the next two years.

"That's the one that haunts me to this day," she said.

Sztuk said he'll keep flying until he's told he can't.

"You get it in your blood, it seems like, and you never get it out," he said.

*****

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneau-empire.com.



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