Pearl Laska Chamberlain was interviewed on May 24, 1991 by Margaret Van Cleve at the sound studio at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Pearl talks about learning to fly in a man’s world, the struggles with getting work as a pilot, flying to Alaska, and her love of flying.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Pioneer Aviators Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: May 24, 1991
Narrator(s): Pearl Laska Chamberlain
Interviewer(s): Margaret Van Cleve
Transcriber: Carol McCue
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Pearl's introduction to flying
The beginnings of a Civilian Aircraft Program
Pearl's experience with instruction flying classes
Coming to Alaska and the hardships women faced
Pearl's break with Rainbow Skyways
Nome and the Russian Lend-Lease pilots
An incident in Nome
Buying a new Piper J4 and flying it back to Alaska
Stopping for gas in Northway and getting dirty water instead
A long trip
Results of Barber airplane crash in Canada
Getting married and continuing to fly
Teaching flight instruction in Fairbanks
The old gravel runway at Weeks Field and only flying in daylight
Airplanes that she has owned and women pilots in the Women Airforce Service
Being a woman in a man's world
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Today is May 24th, 1991. This is Margaret Van Cleve. I will be interviewing Pearl Laska Chamberlain about her experiences as a Bush pilot in Alaska. This tape is made possible by a grant from British Petroleum. We are recording in the sound studio at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
So we have a former Alaskan here this week participating in the Elderhostel Program on campus. Welcome back to Fairbanks.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Not only are you a pioneer in terms of when you lived here, but by what you did.
How did you happen to get involved in flying?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: My first experience of flying goes way, way, way back. When I was going down the hills in West Virginia to my school, I could see airplanes going over, and I thought it would be so much easier than hiking down these hills. And all of this happened about the Lindbergh day, Amelia Earhart, and there was a great interest in flying, and I dreamed of flying.
And I, of course, saved my pennies until I got all of $125. But the school closed then. I didn't have any more money, just my 125.
But I went to Bluefield, West Virginia, and found out for $125 I could get a solo private pilot's license, providing I could pass the test and do the flying and all of that.
So I -- I borrowed a few dollars and went to Bluefield and signed for a private pilot course. Went out to fly a Kinner Fleet, that's a biplane with a tail skid. A very tricky aircraft on landing. It liked to do ground loops.
Well, after some 10 hours, the instructor asked me if I could come out early in the morning. I told him, yes. So I walked out to save the nickel that the bus fare would have been. It was street car fare understand. I was there bright and early. And this instructor went over and stopped a truck. And I didn't know what this was all about, but he asked me if I felt I could fly alone. I said, yes.
So he said -- he fixed the air -- the aircraft belt and all of that, and I took off and made a beautiful landing. I think it's one of the best landings I've ever made.
But these guys in the truck were kind of disappointed. He had had them stay there with some buckets of water just in case I crashed.
Well, hard times clipped my wings until 1940 when the -- a civilian aircraft program had started. At this time, the government -- I suppose the war clouds were already in Europe, and our country was thinking we may have that problem too, so they started what was called a Civilian Pilot Training, and CPT it was ordinarily called.
And in order to make the public accept it, they permitted one woman in each class of 10. I was attending Davidson Elkins College in 1940. It was a summer school course. And I saw an announcement on the bulletin board where it said sign up for pilot training.
Well, of course, I dashed down, got my physical right away, and was accepted as the one woman in the class of 10, And that summer I got a private license.
I already had had this solo private, but it had lapsed. However, I got a private at the end of 1940.
And then in Marshall College, which is now Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, had a course called secondary. It was a course of aerobatics where you did -- you started out with spins and stalls and loops and all of those things. Well, they were taking -- I believe it was one woman in 25 that time.
And again, I lucked out and was accepted. We flew Waco F's, Waco UPF-7s. And I managed to get by that all right. Although I had trouble reaching the controls inasmuch as they were designed for men, I guess. Click here to view film of flying a Waco biplane.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Who were 6 feet tall.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. Yeah. I suppose they still are.
Well, anyway, I finished that course at the end of the year, 19 and 40. And that left me sort of high and dry, but another course comes along. They called that the instructor course.
And since it's invested all this money in me getting me through a private and this extra 40 hours of aerobatics, I -- and I think I'm one of less than 10 women in the United States who got the aerobatics course, and I got the instructor course, finished it, and got 100 hours on my own for which I thought I'd never be able to pay the $6 an hour.
I passed the commercial test, instructor flight test, and was ready to go to work when Pearl Harbor happened.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So is that when you came to Alaska?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: No. I took a job with the -- this -- the war train -- the Civilian Pilot Training had now been changed to War Training Service, and they didn't take any more women, except those who had -- were instructors.
So I started instructing for the Navy, teaching Navy cadets to fly seaplanes in Charleston, West Virginia. And I did that for, oh, a year, over a year. And that program closed down. And I went to -- out of Pittsburgh and taught an Army -- Army cadets for the -- on the same kind of a program.
Then I started hearing about the women pilots and their training in Sweetwater, Texas, so I asked to be released to go there and spent a short time in Texas.
But while I was in Charleston a lady came through ferrying an aircraft, and she said there's demand for pilots in Alaska. So I sort of put that on the back burner and said, I'm going to Alaska when I get a chance. See, we were frozen in our -- any position we had at that time unless the program ended or there was a reason for you leaving.
So in 1944, I found myself free to come to Alaska. I came to Fairbanks. I went down to Fairbanks Air Service, and I asked Herb Hagar for a job. And he seemed willing to give me a job until he found out I wanted to fly.
I guess I better backtrack a bit here. Anyway, I got stuck in Seattle before I got to Alaska. And I bought -- went down to Alaska Airlines and asked them for a -- if I could -- for a ticket. And they said, we'll sell -- sell you a ticket providing you can get permission to go to Alaska.
And this was Alaska Airlines -- what do you call the one that comes before them? It was Alaska Star.
And so I went down to the defense command and I said, "I want permission to go to Alaska." And there was a sergeant sitting there, he looked at me and he said, "What do you want to go to Alaska for?" And I said, "I want to go to fly." He said, "Fly?" He kind of looked down his nose at me.
And he said, "Can you do anything else?" I said, "Well, I have teaching credentials, I can -- I've been teaching school in West Virginia." He said, "Don't you know that Alaska's the war zone and the women and children have been evacuated?" I said, "No, I didn't, but I still -- I want to fly, I'm not interested in teaching school." And he says, "Can you do anything else?" And I said, "Well, I've worked as a waitress in Washington, D.C. I worked for the Marriott Hot Shoppes." That was my ticket. He wrote it up, my permission to go.
And if I could be a waitress, could go to Alaska. So that's when I came to Fairbanks.
And in getting to Fairbanks, Alaska Star Airlines was not landing in Seattle at that time. I had to catch a train up to Vancouver for some crazy reason.
So I got to Whitehorse and that was where the flight terminated. Well, my gosh, there I was in Whitehorse, no means of getting on to Alaska -- they said, well, we'll send a plane over for you in a few days. There was two or three servicemen and me.
And no room at the hotel. Well, we went down to the Whitehorse Inn, and I was all set to spend the night in a chair, and finally the waitress came over and says, "I'll share my bed with you." Which she did. It was a little three-quarter bed, but I greatly appreciated it.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Better than a chair.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. A few days later they sent a plane over for the two soldiers and me. So we got in this Lockheed Vega, and the pilot who was flying that, and I've forgotten his name, was an avid wolf hunter.
He zoomed around some of the peaks, and I thought, gee, if this is Bush flying, it's for me.
But when I got to Fairbanks, I found out it wasn't for me. As I said before, I went down to Herb Hagar at the Fairbanks Air Service and asked for a job.
And he said he was happy to see me and all of that, thinking I was going to work in his office. And I told him I wanted to fly. And he says, "This is no place for a woman. I need a pilot, but I couldn't take a chance on you."
Well, I wandered around Fairbanks for three or four days, I went back to see Herb two or three times, finally he got tired of looking at me and he said, they need pilots in Nome.
And so I said, "How do I get to Nome?" And Wien Airlines was flying out of Fairbanks to Nome, and a couple of days later I did get a place on the aircraft to Nome, but when I got to Galena, there were a couple of servicemen who needed to go on to Nome. Well, they just dropped me off. And there I --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So you were bumped.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah, I was bumped. There I sat on the Yukon for -- oh, I must have been another two days before another Wien Airline pilot came along and took me to -- on over to Nome.
My real disappointment came when I got to Nome, they didn't need any pilots. So what the sergeant told me, work came in good stead. I went down to the Nome Grill, got myself a job as a waitress serving reindeer steaks and coffee.
And that was great because a bed went with it. And a place to sleep in Nome in the wartime, that was difficult.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: And I must have been working there, oh, 8 or 10 days until the owner of Rainbow Sky -- Skyways came in.
That was Frank Whaley. He was a Wien pilot, but he had his own operation called Rainbow Skyways. So he said, "Do you want to go for a check ride?" And, oh, I said, "Yes."
So I handed my apron to the other waitress and took off. Went out and flew with Frank for about, oh, maybe 30 minutes or something like that.
He says, "You want the airplane for another ride? You go up and get acquainted with it". So I went about over the Bering Sea and Sledge Island, I belive, if I remember correctly.
Oh, this is great. And I looked down and saw a school of white whales. Are they called belugas, I believe.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Belugas, yes.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum. I thought, gee, this is for me. If I could just get a chance to fly.
Well, it so happened this very good pilot that was flying with Whaley's Rainbow Skyways at that time had a drinking problem, and he got drunk, and I got the job.
So I spent all the summer -- I've never, never worked harder in all my life. I did -- most of it was flight instructing where I taught military people who were bored to death or construction people or Native Eskimos who had a yen to fly.
Or if there were small trips that this Piper Cruiser could make, why I did that. Like taking the nurse to the villages to inoculate the children, or taking the mail to small villages, providing it wasn't too much mail.
And one example is they needed a tire pump at Unalakleet, just an ordinary tire pump. So a little job like that I was hired to do. So I went down to Unalakleet with my -- to get -- with my tire pump, and I run into some metal on the runway. Had a flat tire. Use -- using my own cargo to --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: That came in handy.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. Just such trips as that all summer long. And during the, oh, six weeks when the sun shines all the time if you're up at 5,000 feet from ten o'clock until 3:00 in the morning, I took passengers up to look at the Midnight Sun.
At the end of the summer, I weighed 87 pounds because I had worked.
But what I had was a real dream. I wanted to have my -- a plane of my own. Just today I find that the Bureau of Land planes are all leased.
Well, if I had a plane of my own, I'd have it made. So what I was going to do was to earn enough money to have an aircraft of my own.
Well, winter came, we didn't do instructing during winter, and since Mr. Whaley wanted to keep his aircraft, he decided that we'd take some months off.
So I spent the spring of '45 here at the university. I went back to Nome for the summer again, and saved every penny I could because I was going to buy an airplane.
But the problem is I work strictly commission, $5 an hour for any -- any time I flew. And he gave me, I think, an extra dollar an hour for staying at the office or working on ivory. So we had a little operation of that. And -- let's see, where am I? Yeah.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Well, I guess when you were in Nome, you probably saw some of the Russian pilots who were taking planes through the Lend-Lease? Click here to view film of air route to Russia.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: I saw many, many, many of them. I noticed when they landed, they always -- they always went down and bought everything that was in the store. They -- I land -- flew off of -- what was it? Weeks Field? Gee, I've forgotten the name of the Nome -- MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Nome --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: No, I've forgotten the name of Nome's little airstrip. But anyway, they flew at the -- at the base, which is right across the way.
However, any time the -- they were coming through, see, they had learned through the CAA that there was a ferry group coming through, they would come over and tell me to get on the ground, stay out of the air, because the Russians were coming.
Well, I stayed in the air just along to the last minute until they threatened to ground me for staying in the air too long when the Russians were coming.
But I felt my flying was just as important as the Russians', and besides, I needed that $5 an hour if I was ever to have an airplane. Well, that was my experience with the Russians.
And I -- of course, I saw them downtown, but I never knew their -- I never knew their names. And I had taken Russian that one semester here in Fairbanks, but I didn't know it well enough to talk with them.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: -- converse with them. And I guess there were different Russians coming through all the time?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, yes, there were many of them coming through. And it was -- the field, it was City Field.
Another thing that we did was in -- instructing. We had a missionary come up from the Covenant Church in Unalakleet and he said he wanted to fly. And he thought perhaps he could be a better missionary to the Covenant Church if he could fly his own plane to the villages.
We started flying with him on Monday. And we soloed him in a week, but -- and he took Sunday off from being a good missionary.
But the day we let him go on his own, there were tricky winds in City Field in Nome. The wind sock on one end was blowing toward the mountain, the one on the other was blowing toward the sea. Those were the land and sea breezes that we had each day just about sundown.
And the sock in the middle of the field was standing limp. Well, our good missionary, with the Lord helping him, flew around until the wind settled down, came in and landed. And after that I never saw him again. I suppose he made good his career as a missionary pilot.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Yeah. Yeah. I guess a lot of them do it in those days and they still do.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. I'm sure they do, yes. And many more of them flying nowadays.
But getting airplanes was a chore in those days. See, any aircraft that was made went to the military, and a civilian just couldn't get aircraft.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Toward the end of -- of my second summer, I went down to Solomon for a -- taking a mechanic. And we did whatever had to be done to his -- the aircraft he was working on, and we started back to Nome.
And we'd gotten about halfway -- 13 miles out of Nome, to be exact, and the engine quit. So there we were. And he says, dive it, it'll start.
Well, I should have known better. I should have used my own good judgment and landed on the beach immediately, which I didn't.
So it didn't start. We landed on the beach, we hit a ditch, which wiped out the prop and the gear.
And unfortunately, I was wearing my bedroom shoes. And I had to hike those 13 miles into Nome in my bedroom shoes.
But that put us out of work, the business for, oh, it must have been six weeks before we could get repaired.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So you had to order parts from --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Order from the factory. And because everything was geared for wartime. There was -- it was just so hard to get anything. But I think it was around six weeks that we had to sit it out. And that --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: A long six weeks.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: That ended my six -- six weeks there. And I had -- I had my money, and I took a teaching job at McGrath where I could make more money that winter.
And when spring came, I took off for stateside for that airplane. When I got down to Seattle, I went to the Northern Commercial Company, and they were selling Aeronca aircraft here in Alaska at the time.
So I went breezing into the Northern Commercial office to Volney Richmond who owned the outfit and told him I wanted an Aeronca, but unfor -- and I had money to pay for it.
But unfortunately, the factory was on strike and they only had, oh, I would say less than half a dozen aircraft. And he said they were all spoken for.
So I tried to tell him that it would be good advertising for a woman to fly the aircraft to Alaska. He just hooted at me. He said, I can sell anything up there.
Well, that insulted me because I thought Alaskans are sharper than that. Well, anyway, I left. Went back east, and in Asheville, North Carolina, I found a used Piper J4, and purchased it, which cost me as much as a new Aeronca would have, which was around $1500 at the time.
And I have an airplane. I'm ready to go back to Alaska. But I stopped in West Virginia to visit my folks before I came back. And rest a bit.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Oh, now that you had the plane, did you fly back to Alaska in steps? Or --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. It took me quite awhile. I stopped in West Virginia and visited my folks. And I went to a little town called Beckett. That's where the plane was parked -- or tied down for the night.
I ran into a fine gentleman there in an Air Coupe who was afraid to fly over the mountains, so he throttled back to follow me until we got to Huntington, West Virginia, where we spent the night.
And next morning I didn't see him anymore. He had gotten out of the mountains and was no longer afraid. So I -- from there, I came to Chicago and landed in the old field, I've forgotten what the name of it was.
And went downtown and visited a lady who had been the music professor here, and spent the night with her at the Moody Bible Institute. She's the aunt, or an aunt of Mrs. Binkley here in --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Oh, Mary Binkley?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-huh. In Fairbanks. So next morning when I went out to take off, a mouse ran across my foot. I think I made one of the lousiest takeoffs I had ever taken.
But after that, everything went rather smoothly until I was in Montana. I'd made, of course, several gas stops in the meantime.
But in a little place called Jordan, Montana, I saw a thunderstorm. I was not used to dry thunderstorms. This looked like such a harmless little thunderstorm, and I attempted to go through it.
I was flying at 2,000 feet, and in the midst of that beautiful little thunderstorm, I was down to 200 feet. So I decided to land at this little place called Jordan.
And as soon as I landed, a couple came out and said, "What happened?" All my hats and baggage and everything was scattered all over the cockpit of my J4. Those kind people helped me tie down and straighten up the aircraft, get some gas, and they took me downtown to lunch.
And it was then that I met the lady who became my copilot on some air races after that. She had just learned to fly. So I got straightened up, took off, and went on to Great Falls where you clear the border to go into Canada.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: That's where the Lend-Lease planes --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes, same place with the Lend-Lease aircraft.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Did you use the same field?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Same fields at Great Falls, yes. And in fact, I used the same fields all the way up the (Alaska) highway, except I probably landed at more places than they did.
And at that time, they were -- you had to keep checking at all those little places. Nowadays you can just fly on through once you've cleared customs, immigration, and all -- immigration and all of that.
But then you had to check with them everywhere you stopped. I had stopped at -- oh, what was the name? I know I was at Calgary, and then I went on to Edmonton, and I had to get equipped for flying the highway in Edmonton. They -- they assured you, you had to have survival gear and all of those things.
So I was busy getting my survival gear together when I met a couple of other pilots bound for Alaska. And that was a real treat. They were on the other side of the field, so I moved over and we all got our gear together.
There was -- in this was a -- I'm thinking it was a Major Wayer and a man by the name of Joe Barber. They were ferrying Piper J3s for a company in Anchorage, and I was flying my J4 to -- going to Fairbanks and Nome.
We decided that we'd save money if we all took the same cab into town at night. We'd more or less stay together.
My aircraft was a little faster than theirs, but we managed to get the same place at night when we started. And we went by way of the Great Slave -- oh, wait a minute. I've forgotten what the name of the place was.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Is this on the highway?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: It's on the highway but this is -- no, this is before we got to the highway. It's in Alberta. It's the Great Slav Lake, is that the way you pronounce it? Or Slave Lake.
Anyway, they -- we had to land for gas at a -- in a ball field. I took the tops of the trees as I got down in that ball field, or got out of that ball field, but we made it and we got on to -- to Dawson Creek. And we waited there to get clearance again.
From there we went to -- landed at Fort Saint John. And at each of these places we had to clear immigration again, though I don't know why.
And each of these other fellas, Wayer, Wayer's wife was with him, and there was a woman from Seattle, I believe she was -- her name was Jean Gleboff that was riding with Barber. And she was very nervous riding with Barber, so Wayer begged me to take Jean with me.
Well, I didn't want Jean because I felt like I had enough load, and I'd rather have done it all by myself. But we got on to Fort Nelson, and Wayer came over and he says, "You've just got to take Jean. She's scared to death of riding with Barber."
And I don't know why because Barber had flown 11, I think it was, missions over Germany, was successful -- supposedly a successful pilot. I know he was worried about money because they were only giving $200 to ferry the plane up. And it was costing more than he wanted to spend.
And she just absolutely was refusing to ride with him. So I broke down and took Jean. And between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, we ran into a forest fire. And it was so smoky that you just simply couldn't see anything. And the fire was so bad that it was making its own fire by these fire balls rolling from one tree to another.
And Jean -- we stayed right down on the road almost. Jean watched out on the right, then I on the left to see that we weren't bumping the trees.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So your visibility was pretty limited at that point.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: It was prac -- practically nil. We looked straight down to see the road. And we struggled on that way until we got to Watson Lake.
And when we landed at Watson Lake, they told us that Barber hadn't reported in. Wayer came along. No, we landed at Smith River first, and that's where we got the information that Barber had -- they hadn't heard from him. He hadn't come.
Wayer -- Wayer made it through all right, and we did. So we stayed there during the night waiting to hear what happened to Barber.
The -- this place called Smith River was just a little dirt strip or a little gravel strip that, of course, they had been made as a part of the Lend-Lease deal.
And Jean saw these -- all these soldiers who hadn't seen a woman in some nine months, and they just wowed her, or at least they had more fun. But I was so exhausted I just passed out and slept all night. I didn't get any of the fun.
But next morning we wait -- the fog on -- the smog or the smoke wasn't quite so bad, and we wanted to get on, and we knew we couldn't be any help in finding Barber.
And we went on to the next stop, which was Teslin, I believe. Still no word from Barber. And we went on, then -- the people at Teslin wanted to dine us and fed us. Those were service people, too.
Then we got on to Whitehorse. And there we waited about three days while this search and rescue was out looking for Joe Barber. Still no word. And finally, we gave up.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: And when I got to Northway, Jean left me because she could get ground transportation into Anchorage. The Wayers went on to Anchorage, and I was my -- on my own at Northway.
I needed gas. I went down, and somewhere in all of this excitement, I think perhaps it happened down in Montana, but I had lost my chamois skin. That -- where you strain your gas.
So I got gas out of a drum that the military had at Northway. And I went down to the end of the field. I hadn't learned to take off at the middle of the field, which was fortunate for me.
I got down to the middle of the -- I got -- took off and was able to get down before -- the engine, of course, quit, And I was able to get down before I got to the end of the runway.
What I had gotten was dirty water instead of gas.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Oh. PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: So I got -- I got pulled back up to the headquarters. And I spent all day draining the tank.
But the tank has baffles in it and they're awfully hard to get all the water out. There's a little -- a little bit left.
But anyway, we worked until the next day, and gassed up again, and came on into Fairbanks where the FAA inspector spent another couple of days helping me get the water out of my gas tank.
Well, I made it to Fairbanks, but I still had to go on to Nome. There was a pilot by the name of Long here who told me exactly what to look for between here and --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Now, is that Edward Long?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: No. No. I think it's Bob Long. I believe his -- the first name is Bob.
Anyway, he's a Wien pilot who did lots of flying in -- in here. He told me what to look for and everything.
So I got on to as far as Unalakleet, and Wien's were going to let me use their gasoline there. And an Eskimo guy helped me gas up and went through the fabric in my wing.
So I got busy and I did find some dope, and I took my shirt and the dope and patched the plane and finally made it to Nome.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Now, how long did that take you?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: It took me exactly two weeks. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Two weeks from West Virginia? PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum, from West Virginia. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: West Virginia. And so you averaged -- let's see.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, it was about -- I think I was in the air almost 60 hours, because we had terrific headwinds and it was a slow airplane anyway.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Almost as long to drive.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah, almost. And of course, going the long way around and everything, it --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: What year was this?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: This was '46.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: '46. Just after the war? PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: And when you say you traveled the highway, you always had it pretty much in view of --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: I knew which side of me it was on. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Uh-hum.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: And that was kind of important. That way you can just swing back to the highway if you had any trouble.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Yeah. Use it as an emergency landing if need be.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: If need be, uh-hum.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: And what about communications? You mentioned not finding out about Barber. You were not in communication with one another? PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: No. No. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: It was always on the ground?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: We had no radios on those -- those aircraft. No.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: And did you ever find out what happened to Barber?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Unfortunately, yes. They found his plane, oh, a month or two later. They've never found Barber. But they found where he had found a trappers cabin. He had his emergency food with him, and he had thrown it against the wall in this trapper's cabin.
So they -- they assumed that -- that mosquitos had driven him mad. And he -- anybody in his right mind would certainly not throw away survival gear, or survival food.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Hmm. So he did get down?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: So he got down. They found the wrecked plane, but he was able to walk away from it. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Walk away from it.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum. So to this day, he's never been found.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So that's still a mystery? PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. Still is. Still is. So far as I know, they hadn't been found, the last I knew.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: And about where did this happen?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Between Fort Nelson. It's where you cross the Rockies. Between Fort Nelson and between -- and Watson Lake. And that's the roughest part.
And we think what might have happened, in those days the charts were not complete. And it looked like sort of a blank place on the chart because it wasn't charted.
And we thought maybe that the mountains frustrated him to the point that he probably turned right into the mountains, thinking he was -- according to the chart, that there wouldn't be anything there. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Yeah. Hmm.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: So I came on to Nome, flew that summer.
And in the meantime, I was about to get married. And Bill Munds, who I considered the pilot's pilot, offered me a job.
Well, I was almost sorry I said I'd get married. And then the territory comes along, and they offered me a job taking the education supervisors to the schools. They thought I'd be the logical person to do that with just --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Being a teacher and also being a pilot.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Being a teacher and not too much to do. And that was another thing I had to turn down. So --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: All those choices.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: All those choices. I got married. And I married Lou Laska, who had a trading post in McGrath.
And I was -- had my own airplane. I did some flight instructing, just locally, not going anywhere much. But he soon became ill. And I didn't regret it that I had to do less flying for -- until he died.
And in the meantime, I had a son. And I was left with the trading post and a son and an airplane.
I had -- my poor airplane had to sit on the ground an awful lot of the time.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: But you did do a little flying there?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, yes. I kept -- I never quit flying.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: And did you stay in McGrath? Or --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: I stayed in McGrath until '53. And then I bought another airplane when I came to Fairbanks and did free-lance instructing and flew Powder Puff Derby races in the summers.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Hm mm. So you've always had your flying?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: I've always. I don't have an airplane now. I'd still like to have one, but I guess I'll have to do it again. But I'll never get one for $1500 again. So that's about it.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So you mentioned that you started teaching flight instruction in Fairbanks. PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Who were some of your students that you remember?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: As -- the most of the names I've more or less sort of slipped. Paul Toby was one of them that I taught to fly. He, unfortunately, killed himself when he was out, oh, wolf hunting a little bit later.
And after that, I became very, very fussy about who I would -- that he was a brilliant man, but he was a little bit of a wild one and can't make the size of it.
And then just various people would come in for -- they'd want -- military who wanted to fly a light airplane. And I didn't -- I don't have my log book with me, so I don't know -- remember the names.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So you had many, many students -- PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: -- over the years?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Say military, they wanted to fly a little puddle jumper. And I'd fly with them.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Say, at that time, I guess Weeks Field was the place where most people landed?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: That's where I landed when I first came here, in Weeks Field. And, of course, toward the end I was flying out of International (Airport).
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: International. Yeah, Weeks Field is where the present library is now. PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. Uh-hum.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: What was it like landing there? Was it just a wide spot in the road?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. It was just a gravel strip. And the nice thing about it, you didn't have to get a cab to town. All you had to do was walk down to Nordale Hotel.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Did you do any night flying? Or did --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Never have. No. I never.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So your flying was pretty much in the summertime, or --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: I'm strictly a fair weather pilot. And I think that's maybe why I have lived this long.
No, I've learned not to buck the weather. It's a very foolish thing to do.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Yeah. Gets you down. PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Eventually. PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: I suppose, like cars, you have your first plane. And then did you eventually buy another one?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. I've had what, four all together. The last one I had was a Cessna 150.
And I flew it on what, three Powder Puff Derbies across the United States. And I flew the 140 in two of them.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Who were some of the other women pilots? Were there some that you met here during the war, or were there some that were --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: They -- there were very few women pilots here. And --
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Some flew the Lend-Lease planes -- Celia Hunter and --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: No. They were with the WASPs. That was the Women's Air Force Service Pilots.
I was with them a very, very short time, but I didn't do any ferrying. I'd dropped out and had come up here.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So you knew some, but --
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum. I knew them. And the fact I'm up here now, trying to see what it will be like for the group of us. My class that learned to fly at Sweetwater of the WASPs, they want to come up next year for the -- the highway fiftieth or whatever.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Oh. And how many people were in your class in Sweetwater?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, there were about 150 or something like that. But about 40 of us go on trips every two years.
We've been to the South Pacific and we've been to Norway. And we went to the Battle of Britain celebration last year. See, that was in '40, which means that '90 was their -- MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Their anniversary.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: And I got to sit at their table and I was terribly flattered. I don't know why.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: I notice you have a lovely pin that's fashioned into an airplane.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. That was a fundraising deal for the Ninety-Nines, a women pilots organization. They were making money, is how I happen to have this. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: I see. Yeah.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, back to my aircraft. My Cessna 150 that I had flown on those three Powder Puff Derbies and had learned to love, but I just wasn't flying enough to keep it, so I sold it to a fixed-base operator with the stipulation I could rent it back at a nominal fee anytime I wanted to.
But they had to make money, so they rented it to the sheriff in the little town where I live. And he went out looking for marijuana growers and landed it in a tree. And now I'm out of an airplane.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Oh, dear.
Certainly sounds like you've proved otherwise that a woman can fly in Alaska after all, and that you've had certainly an interesting career.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, I loved every minute of it. The only thing that bad was the fact that it's still a man's world, and you really have to be determined in order to make -- to break in.
And the girls -- I was here in '84 as a speaker for the Ninety-Nine convention. That's an organization of women, international organization of women pilots. And several Alaskan girls tell me that it's not much easier nowadays.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: It still is really tough to get in.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Still a man's world. And the things that they'll let the women do is instructing.
And instructing can be nerve-racking. You see, you have to have -- to know that you've done enough for your student that he's going to -- or she -- he or she's going to take off and get back safely.
In fact, at one time when I was working with the Navy cadets in Charleston, West Virginia, I had the son of a very prominent official in Washington as a student. This father and the son wanted that student to fly more than anything else in the world.
He just had no ability or no -- flying just wasn't -- wasn't his forte. Anyway, I worked with him and worked with him, and the Navy has a limit on how long you can fly with them. You've got to either wash them out or solo them.
Well, I broke down and soloed the boy. And we were flying on the Kanawha River on float planes. And one of the last things before you solo them, you teach them to go under a bridge.
Well, I had been so busy trying to get him to make a decent landing and takeoff that I hadn't taught him to go under the bridge. But anyway, I soloed this boy. He went -- flew down to the -- he got off the ground, I mean, got off of the water by the latest minute you could possibly get off.
And then he got over that bridge and I was sure he was going to stall out. But he finally made it. He finally got around. And I think that was the answer to one of my prayers.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: So you're always up there with your students wherever they are flying?
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, yes, yes. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: And you feel a real responsibility beyond the instruction.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Right. And that's what makes flight instructing very, very difficult.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: It's a pretty stressful job.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes, it is. And the men are just, for the most part, willing to let women do that, rather than the cargo flying and passenger flying and all of that other.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: You'd rather be up in the air -- PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum. MARGARET VAN CLEVE: -- by yourself.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. It would be far easier and less nerve-racking.
So nowadays, I fly when I can afford it, when I can rent an airplane.
And I still manage to keep my license by 10 hours or so each year, maybe better.
And I have dropped back to a third class physical from my second class because I had a detached retina. But I still managed to fly. And probably will as long as I can get by that physical.
MARGARET VAN CLEVE: Good for you. Well, thank you very much. I certainly enjoyed talking to you and hearing about your career flying.
PEARL LASKA CHAMBERLAIN: Uh-hum. And I thank you.