Station agent witnesses final flight

Pegues ends career after 59 years as Wings pulls out of Tenakee Springs

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2006

TENAKEE SPRINGS - Don Pegues spent 59 years waiting for airplanes to land, and predictably, the final flight was almost 2 1/2 hours late.

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Just after 11 a.m. Saturday, the 79-year-old Wings of Alaska station agent turned to his left and saw his last airplane, a Haviland Beaver, turn the corner and head for his float. The sun came out in spots, perhaps to make up for the delay.

"The only thing that's missing is the fog and the pouring-down rain," Pegues said.

Ron Flinn was to blame for the wait. The Tenakee Springs resident shipped a chair to town and it took a while for the Juneau crew to remove a passenger seat from the Beaver and make room for the oversized box.

But Pegues didn't seem to mind. After 32 years with Pan American Airlines, eight with Channel Flying and 21 more with Wings of Alaska, the final flight was gravy.

"I'll miss it, but I don't regret it, that's for sure," Pegues said. "It's time to rest and relax and do some work around the house that I haven't been able to do. The more I think about it, the more I look forward to it. It's been a long stretch, and it's time for somebody else to take it and run with it."

With the rising cost of floatplane operations, Wings has decided to pull out of Angoon and Tenakee Springs. It will continue to fly to Hoonah, Gustavus, Haines and Skagway.

Alaska Seaplanes has taken over complete service to Angoon and Tenakee Springs. The company was already flying to both towns. Tenakee Springs and Angoon will not see a reduction in flights.

"We have a good relationship with everybody out there, and it fits with what we're already doing," said Aral Loken, general partner with Alaska Seaplanes. "If it looks like we need to add some planes in the future, we'll do that."

Pegues has no plans to travel. He hasn't even been to Seattle in 20 years.

"In all the years I spent with Pan Am, I traveled enough," he said. "I remember all the nice places of 30, 40 years ago, and I'd like to keep it that way."

The Wings/Alaska Seaplanes office, 131 steps up the ramp from the float, has no computer. Gustavus is the only other seaplane base in Southeast Alaska still run with pencil and paper.

Pegues' duties included checking in the passengers, issuing tickets, preparing outbound freight, handling the mail and meeting the plane. In the summer, Wings flew in three times a day. In the winter, twice.

"It was special," said Wings of Alaska chief pilot Wayne Love, who brought in the last plane. "It was the ending of an era for Don, and it was good to be part of that. He had the ability to pass along valuable information along to pilots, regarding the weather, what loading configurations. He's real good at knowing what a plane can take and what it can't take, and relaying that information to a pilot."

"I've never enjoyed a job more," said Shelly Wilson, Pegues' assistant for the last two years. "Working with Don has been an absolute incredible experience. He's taught me so much, and he's hysterical. He tells the best stories in the entire world, but boy, he knows his stuff. About airplanes. About the business. He's sharp, and I think Wings was incredibly lucky to have him."

During the fall, winter and early spring, Pegues kept dispatch appraised of the changing weather conditions. The weather and water shifts often, sometimes as a plane taxis into the float.

"You look at the passes through the hills. You take a guess at the ceilings and the water conditions," Pegues said. "Experience will tell you what kind of water the airplanes can land in. A Cessna will not be able to land in water that a Beaver can land in."

"He can tell by looking, without hesitation, whether it's going to be safe to land," Wilson said. "You get a much more precise weather report with a wind-sock and eyeballs, looking out the window, then by punching it into a computer."

Tenakee Springs's ferry service is erratic. The state ferry LeConte is delayed until at least the end of October. The town is served by an Allen Marine catamaran on Fridays and Sundays.

Wings flew two to three planes a day to Tenakee Springs, occasionally more depending in the amount of passengers, freight and mail. On some winter days, no passengers arrive in Tenakee Springs. Planes carry mail and freight, paid for per pound.

It's not uncommon to have a three- or four-day stretch in which the weather is too poor for a landing. Five years ago, the town went through a 13-day stretch without planes. It's the kind of place where people can tell the time by the sound of floatplanes.

"If the plane doesn't arrive on time, the phone starts ringing or people are coming down saying, 'Where's my mail?'" Pegues said. "That's par for the course."

Pegues has flown privately in Fairbanks on a rental plane, but never commercially. He grew up in Juneau in the late 1920s and 1930s and used to hang downtown at the old Alaska Coastal Airlines. He knew most of the pilots. Other times, he'd watch the old Pan Am clippers come and go in Auke Bay.

Pegues helped build the Alaska, Richardson and Glenallen highways during summers in the early 1940s. He began broadcasting for KINY in 1943. A year later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent a year in the military police and a year managing Armed Forces Radio at Fort Richardson.

Pegues got out of the Army in December 1946 and moved to Fairbanks, where he planned to find work driving a truck. He saw a help-wanted sign on Pan Am's freight shed and walked into the office, thinking he'd "tough it out" for six months or so.

So began his 32-year career with Pan Am. He started with the freight office and moved to traffic and sales, behind the ticket counter and at the airport. He transferred to Juneau, down to Ketchikan and back to Fairbanks.

Pam Am started in 1932 in Alaska, and moved into Southeast Alaska in 1934. At one time, it even flew floatplanes to Tenakee Springs.

Early pilots in Juneau used a dirt strip. Pan Am built Juneau's first real airport, on the Mendenhall Flats. For years, flying boats came to town from Seattle and Ketchikan. The company would transfer the passengers to the airport, if they wished to continue north on land-based planes.

Pan Am left Juneau in 1965, and Pegues transferred to Pango Pango, American Samoa, for a few years before returning to Alaska. When he first started with Pan Am, the airline was running twin engines DC-3s and one four-engine DC-4. When he retired, they were operating 747s.

Pan Am pulled out of Alaska in 1978 and offered Pegues a desk job in New York City. He opted for semi-retirement. He and his brothers bought Tenakee Springs's Snyder Mercantile, then owned by the O'Toole family, and about 30 other buildings in the town's central core. Pegues' wife, Elsie, and two daughters helped run the show. The family sold most of its holdings to Trucano Investments in 2003.

"It was just a choice we made to come out here," Pegues said, "and it was a great run for 25 years."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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