Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Jack Wilson

Jack Wilson was interviewed by David Krupa on July 28, 1993 at Jack and his wife's liquor store and office supply along the Glenn Highway outside Glennallen, Alaska. Near Jack's desk, a small model Supercub hung from the ceiling tiles, where it turned lazily in the summer breeze. On the far wall, a lifetime of flying and guiding activities were chronicled in an impressive mosaic of snapshots: Jack and his plane perched precariously on a glacier; Jack and clients with trophy sheep; Jack behind the controls of the Cessna 180. Outside, Mt. Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell were periodically appearing and disappearing from behind a wall of billowing clouds. These mountains were Jack's aerial workplace for more than three decades as he operated Wilson's Air Service out of the Gulkana airstrip. In this interview, Jack talks with great modesty about his experiences as one of Alaska's most talented glacier pilots. He discusses how he got started, learned to land safely on glaciers, and some of the special skills required for bush flying in the extreme conditions found in Alaska's mountainous areas. He also discusses some of his memorable clients, recalling that he was especially impressed with some of the mountain climbing expeditions that he flew for in the 1970s. At that time, climbing parties were larger and often carried out the climb like a military campaign. The Japanese teams, he says, were exceptionally well-organized and professional, displaying a singularity of purpose and will: much like the focus needed by a pilot trying to make high country landings in adverse conditions.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 95-71-10

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Jul 28, 1993
Narrator(s): Jack Wilson
Interviewer(s): David Krupa
Transcriber: Sue Beck
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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Sections

Jack Wilson's background

The kind of clients and aircraft services

Staying in communication with ground teams

How he learned the terrain

The airplanes he used and their advantages

High altitude landing

Checking out potential climbing sites

Memorable clients

How he got into guiding

Mountaineering expeditions

His flying experience

Description of bush pilots and the team work of mountain expeditions

Changes in aviation since the establishment of the National Park

Changes in aviation

Identifying photographs

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Transcript

DAVID KRUPA: Okay, we’re on. Today is Wednesday, July 28, 1993. We’re in Glennallen, Alaska with Jack Wilson, a renowned pilot and particularly bush pilot, who’s done a lot of flying in the Wrangells over the years based out of Gulkana.

And we’re going to talk about the history of aviation and his involvement up here flying and the changes he’s seen over the years. So, Jack, thanks for taking the time out to talk.

JACK WILSON: Okay.

DAVID KRUPA: Maybe start with a little bit of your background and where you grew up and how you wound up in Alaska.

JACK WILSON: Well, let’s see. I first came to Alaska in 1951, but that was just to ferry a aircraft up here, and I had a quick look at Alaska and then went right back to Colorado, where I’d come from.

But then it interested me so much that I decided to come back in 1952. And within two years I was pretty well established in Alaska and I’ve been here ever since.

I got started first, flying airplanes for Cordova Airlines out of Cordova and out of Chitina, which is not too far from here. And flew for them for about three years.

And then I started my own little outfit with one small airplane. It grew then after two or three years to where I had two very good airplanes and I moved out to Gulkana in 1959.

And I remained there until I finally quit the flyin’ and -- and sold out. That’s about how it went for me to get started here.

DAVID KRUPA: Who were some of the -- what kinds of clients did you have?

JACK WILSON: Well, at first I didn’t have very much of anything, but I did have hunters and some fishermen. That kinda helped keep me going, but I realized that just hunters and fishermen wouldn’t do the whole thing, not in a charter business.

So I started in on the mining companies. There was a stage of development in Alaska after World War II and for twenty years or so thereafter, and there was a lot of mining exploration going on, mostly for copper.

And these geological teams would arrive in Alaska at a predetermined date and I would take them to a wilderness location, generally in the Wrangells, sometimes in the Alaska Range.

It would usually be about a six-man crew and they’d have to be flown out there with all their equipment and gear.

And then after helicopters came along, they would have a short-range helicopter and I would have to fly their fuel out there. And I had to keep them all supplied for perhaps two months.

They would go out in May and get through -- get finished in late July as a rule. So I took a lot of flying, and if I had four or five of those expeditions at once, I was a busy man just from the mining business.

And, of course, there was casual charter all the time. People just liked to naturally go somewhere in a hurry, and they would charter an airplane to get to Anchorage to catch the airlines there or something like that, so I was kept quite busy with that kind of work.

We also sold fuel and aircraft services and made very minor repairs on aircraft and tried to have a -- what I called a fixed-base operation going to help other people that had aircraft. That’s kind of the way it went for all those years.

DAVID KRUPA: How did you stay in communication with -- with the people who were out -- that you’d taken out to remote locations?

JACK WILSON: Well, once in a while an expedition would have their own radio, and, of course, I had base radios. Those were long-range communications in those days.

And I bought portable sets with an antenna that could be put up easily, and I would rent these expeditions a radio at times.

And they could take one right up on the glacier, and with a ground-plane and an antenna they could communicate with me and let me know when I was needed up there.

The communications weren’t very good in those days.

DAVID KRUPA: How did a pilot like yourself -- you know, most people who came up here came from the Lower 48 -- How do you come to know the country well enough to feel comfortable out there?

JACK WILSON: Well, you have to learn. In my case, I found -- I got all the maps I could of this country, from Cordova north to at least Tok or the Alaska Range. And I studied the maps very much.

And every flight I went across the country I varied my route somewhat so I could see a little bit more of it, until eventually I knew the country very, very well.

And I no longer needed a map at all to go hardly any place in the Wrangell Mountains or the Alaska Range, or the Talkeetna Mountains for that matter. We ranged through all of them.

DAVID KRUPA: What -- what kind of equipment did you favor for the mountain flying?

JACK WILSON: What kind of equipment did I what?

DAVID KRUPA: Did you prefer for mountain flying.

JACK WILSON: Well, I started out with a Super Cub, a 150 Super Cub mounted on Federal wheel skis. That was my mainstay for several years. And then I went to a 180 Cessna, which is slightly bigger and a little more powerful.

And then a 185 and so on. And those stayed with me. Either the Super Cub or the 185, all the way through.

They were very suitable for the glaciers. Now for some of our other charter work, just on wheels and from one airstrip to another one, we used the Cessna 206.

At times, I had twin-engine airplanes, which could go to Anchorage and Fairbanks and places like that. And some of the larger airstrips in the wilderness.

But mostly, it was a Super Cub and a 180 operation. They were my mainstay of business.

DAVID KRUPA: Did you have one or the other that you felt was a better aircraft for --?

JACK WILSON: No. There’s no comparison. Each aircraft is different. It has its own function.

And you had to have a Super Cub for certain trips where there was a tight spot to get in and out of, but you couldn’t haul very much load.

The Cessna on the other hand can haul a tremendous load, but it couldn’t get in and out of these little short strips. So you had to have both airplanes, and they were both just right for their purpose. There was no favoritism.

DAVID KRUPA: Maybe tell us a little bit more about both high altitude landings and glacier landings. I know that’s a sort of a subspecialty in a way.

JACK WILSON: That’s something I don’t discuss too much, because I don’t want someone going up to high altitude that is inexperienced after they’ve heard what I say.

But all I can say is that it’s a totally different world up in the high glaciers. I’m talking about above eight or ten or twelve thousand feet. It’s a totally different world.

And it’s something that has to be learned and learned slowly and it has to be done very cautiously. It’s easy enough to do, but you have to learn how to read the snow and you have to learn how to make an approach properly, because it is necessary to land on a slope at high altitude. You cannot take off from level snow.

There just isn’t enough power in those airplanes at that altitude.

So you have to learn how to land on a slope and mostly, even before you land, you have to figure out if you’re going to be able to get off the ground or not. That’s the hard part.

So I don’t go into that very deeply, although I have taught it to quite a few other pilots. But they were fellows that had quite a bit of experience already.

DAVID KRUPA: How did you yourself learn how to do that? JACK WILSON: How did I what?

DAVID KRUPA: How did you learn?

JACK WILSON: Well, just by guess and by God, I guess you’d say. I -- I talked to old Bob Reeve, who was the original glacier pilot in Alaska, and he gave me a few pointers, but we didn’t talk about it very much.

Don Sheldon came around and he and I worked together some and, of course, I learned some from him. But mostly I just picked it up myself as time went on, working at it very cautiously and going to more remote places all the time and just learning how to read that snow and how to evaluate conditions.

It just took a long time to get pretty good at it and I was -- I was just active all the way and very attentive to what I was doing and tried to be safe.

DAVID KRUPA: Was it a common practice for you to --

say, before you were going to take a client to an area that you hadn’t landed before would you either do an overflight by yourself or even do a landing by yourself before you took people out there?

JACK WILSON: Not necessarily. But we would tell them that -- if I hadn’t actually seen the place before, I would tell them that they could go with me, or if there was only one person going to ride in the Super Cub, I’d tell them they could go along and that I would look at the place and see if it was feasible to land.

And then we would go on in. But once in a great while we made an overflight first so that the expedition members could kind of figure out if they wanted to go to that place or not.

Generally, we just went and did it, you know. If it was a safe enough place, we went and landed. If it wasn’t, I’d tell them I wasn’t going to do it. And that’s all there was to it.

DAVID KRUPA: Who was it that needed to go make those --?

JACK WILSON: They were mostly mountain climbers. We had a lot of mountain climbers. Frst American mountain climbers, then British, and then German and finally the Japanese. They just hit us with a lot of big, high-climbing expeditions.

Generally, eight men to a group or maybe twelve men or even fifteen. And there were just a lot of mountain climbers.

But we also had scientific expeditions by -- from the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks and then the Arctic Institute of North America and the National Geographic Society.

We did a lot of flying for them. They were pretty fine outfits, too. We did a tremendous lot of flying for them, and they were scientifically minded and they’ve studied all kinds of scientific stuff to gather data on the glaciers and on the --

well, sometimes the vegetation and the birds and the flowers, everything. So we had a lot of different kinds of expeditions.

DAVID KRUPA: Were there any memorable -- particularly memorable clients that you’ve worked with over the years that you recall?

JACK WILSON: So you mean the ones that I really thought a lot of? DAVID KRUPA: Mm-hm.

JACK WILSON: Well, I really thought a lot of some of those people in the Arctic Institute of North America. They did a lot of their own flying, and Phil Upton was their chief pilot, flying a Helio Courier on wheel skis.

And they were such a fine outfit, and he was such a fine pilot. We got along very well, and I’ve always thought a lot of that whole outfit ever since then.

DAVID KRUPA: Did you work with Carl Benson some? J

ACK WILSON: Yes. Yes, a great deal. We started going to Mount Wrangell in 1960 or ’61. My memory’s rather dim here.

So I flew his expeditions, mostly Carl himself and some helpers, to Mount Wrangell a lot of times. We flew up there. In fact, I landed on Mount Wrangell sixty-five times, I remember. I flew for Carl a great deal.

We also went on other expeditions sometimes in the winter, just Carl and I, and we’d go clear to the Arctic or someplace and he would study snow conditions. We’d be gone two or three days, staying at Nome or Kotzebue or somewhere.

And we would look around and he would study the things he needed to study and then we would come back. But most of it was up right on Mount Wrangell itself for a number of years until somewhere in the -- oh, let’s see, in the 1960s -- I forget just when, though -- 'til 1969 probably is when that operation all ended.

DAVID KRUPA: How did you get into the guiding end of things?

JACK WILSON: Well, that was just a natural thing. I had been a guide in Colorado before I came up here, for deer and elk.

And the minute I saw this country and saw all these Dall sheep, I wanted to become a sheep guide. So I just worked my way into it while I was flying for Cordova Airlines and then later on, on my own I was able to guide some.

I found out I had to fly an airplane a good bit of the time, but yet I had time to do some of the guiding myself.

And I hired guides also. But we -- we had a tremendous amount of Dall sheep in those days and it was good hunting and I took a lot of sheep hunters --

And in fact, we took the world record ram in 1961. I was the guide for that, and I just kept on guiding as much as I could, although I had to fly most of the time.

We took a lot of trophy moose also and caribou while we were at it. But I never hunted bears very much, just a little bit.

DAVID KRUPA: When you did those guiding things, would you fly in -- fly them in and then be the guide, stay with them until the hunt was over and then fly out or --?

JACK WILSON: Yeah. I -- And that’s what I say. I usually had to do all the flying. It kept me busy.

Flying expeditions in with their guides and all their equipment and then checking up on ‘em from day to day sometimes and then flying them all back out again.

At times, I’d have a chance to go for a couple of days myself and I could guide a hunter for a sheep or a moose. But like I say, I usually had to get back in the airplane and go flyin’ for another expedition.

DAVID KRUPA: Did you operate out of cabins when you were doing that?

JACK WILSON: Sometimes. Sometimes we had cabins. I had a pretty fair old cabin over at -- on the slopes of Mount Drum we called Moose Camp. That was strictly for moose and caribou.

And up on the upper Chitina River there were some old cabins that I sometimes used for a big base camp.

And so that we could get in there and get dry and get warmed up once in a while. But for the most part they were tent camps.

DAVID KRUPA: I’d like to hear a little more about the -- the mountaineering expeditions. Do you have any particular stories about the mountaineers up there or any of the --

Do you have any emergency rescue operations or anything like that that you had to carry out?

JACK WILSON: Well, there was a few things like that. There are a lot of tales I probably could tell, which with our limited time I don’t think I could go into.

We did have some emergency operations, and naturally with such a dangerous sport we did lose a few men.

In 1967, we lost a Japanese who fell off a cliff up on the Mount Blackburn area, and luckily by then there were a few helicopters around and I was able to get a helicopter to go in and get the body out and then I could fly the remainder of the expedition out.

Later on, we lost some men on Mount Sanford that just plain froze to death. And the bodies are still up there. They never could get the bodies.

But for the most part, expeditions went pretty good and there were no disasters or any emergencies with them.

But the only spectacular things I can think of was that some of these mountain climbing expeditions, the very strong expeditions, got to the top of their mountain on whatever ridge they were trying to climb and were very successful at it.

And that, of course, always made everybody feel pretty darn good.

DAVID KRUPA: As a pilot did you ever find yourself sort of looking over your clients and -- and getting concerned about whether or not they were -- they were able to handle the places that you were gonna be taking them to?

JACK WILSON: Yes, occasionally I would have quite a talk with them if I didn’t think they were quite strong enough an expedition to handle what they wanted to tackle.

I would talk to them quite a bit, but of course it was up to them. They had to -- they went ahead and did whatever they wanted to do -- were just -- were lucky that it generally worked fairly good, although some of them just weren’t successful.

Or they didn’t have the -- what it takes to actually scale a tough ridge or get to a tough peak.

DAVID KRUPA: Have you seen an increase in the number of mountaineers that have come through?

JACK WILSON: No, there’s a decrease. Nowadays we don’t get those major expeditions that we used to.

There’ll generally be two or three persons who want to go somewhere and scale a ridge, but there are very few large expeditions at this date compared to what there was before.

I don’t think all the mountains have been climbed as much as are gonna be climbed, but it just seems to be in the last few years there hasn’t been any very large expedition, not that I have seen.

I’m not active with it anymore, however, so maybe I’m missin’ something.

DAVID KRUPA: Did you have any particular kind of flying or flying for -- for certain types of clients that you -- you found the most enjoyable?

JACK WILSON: Well, I don’t know about that. It was -- most people are kind of enjoyable, but some of them, of course, are not.

But, I don’t know, there wasn’t any -- I don’t think I had any that were -- Except for that Arctic Institute or for the Geophysical Institute.

Why, I did like to enjoy flying for them because they were so fair about everything. That’s about all about that, I think.

DAVID KRUPA: Did you do any so-called salvage flying, where you went and tried to recover aircraft or --?

JACK WILSON: Oh, yes. I think we were all involved in that at times. I had to rescue pilots that banged up their airplanes out on some place and they had to be rescued.

And then we did salvage aircraft by going in and in case of Piper aircraft, Super Cubs or Super Cruisers, we would actually put them together and repair them in the field, and one of us would fly the wreck back out again.

In the case of Cessnas, that could be done, too, but it was a heckuva lot more work getting a Cessna going again.

So we did learn quite a bit about salvaging damaged aircraft and stuff like that.

DAVID KRUPA: I got kind of a -- a tough question about -- There probably weren’t that many good bush pilots, so you probably knew most of them who were flying during the years that you were flying. Is that accurate, would you say?

JACK WILSON: Yes, I knew most of them. It was easy to get acquainted with them because they always had to stop at my place for some fuel. I knew a lot of 'em.

DAVID KRUPA: What I was curious about is -- is flying, like mountain climbing, is inherently dangerous, particularly mountain flying like you were involved in.

How did pilots talk amongst each other about the hazards of flying and -- and about when -- when you lost somebody? How did -- how did you deal with that?

JACK WILSON: Well, they talked a lot. But some of ‘em, I’ll have to admit, just didn’t know what they were talkin’ about.

But we -- I don’t know if I’m answering this correctly or not. We just -- we did talk about it and talk about rescues and stuff like that, and whoever was the most qualified went and helped with the operation.

It was pretty easy to weed the people out and see who was the most qualified for anything. Is that some way would answer your question?

DAVID KRUPA: Yeah. I guess I was also thinking of the -- the -- I know a lot of mountain climbers who really stay away from talking about the dangers of it. There’s kind of a bravado mentality that you don’t talk about the downside, and --

JACK WILSON: Well, that’s true. No, they don’t talk about the downside very much. It’s always the good part of “Let’s go and let’s go do it.”

Mountain expeditions have a lot of team work with each other. They work just like a small combat unit, very much in teamwork, and they do a good job of it once they’re up on the ice.

When they’re down around the highway they used to play around and be pretty silly and have a lot of fun, but once they got up on the ice they were serious people because they really meant to get something accomplished.

DAVID KRUPA: Were there any particularly memorable flights or -- or near misses that you’d like to share with people?

JACK WILSON: Oh, I don’t think so, not necessarily. Everything came out all right.

So there’s -- there were naturally a lot of memorable flights, but, again, if I got into that I’d be talkin’ all day. So, I’d just as soon skip that.

DAVID KRUPA: Well, what kinds of changes have you seen in -- in -- in the aviation for Alaska and particularly for the Wrangells?

JACK WILSON: Well, the changes have come about by the change in time and the modern way we have of living.

Of course, helicopters can do a lot more today than they used to be able to do, so they take over a lot of it. And I’m not in the helicopter world anymore.

But the -- mostly the changes are from the changes in land ownership. A lot of the land is owned by the Natives, and a good bit of the Wrangells is in the national park and there are certain restrictions.

So there’s not as much flying, although they still do allow expeditions to fly in there. But there just aren’t as many expeditions anymore. That’s the way it goes.

DAVID KRUPA: How has -- What’s been the direct impact of the -- of the park itself in terms of flying itself? Have they restricted flying per se or --?

JACK WILSON: No, they haven’t restricted flying a great deal. They still allow that pretty well. There just aren’t as many expeditions that go in anymore.

Now as far as mineral exploration, that’s done for. You can’t do that anymore. But for recreation you can still get in and out of the park and go just about where you want to.

For certain kinds of flying, you need a permit from the Park Service.

DAVID KRUPA: Are you -- I know you’re not involved in -- in actively involved in flying for hire or anything like that, but do you -- do you get out much these days and do much flying?

JACK WILSON: No, I’ve retired from it completely. I don’t fly at all anymore except to go along as a passenger or something like that.

No, I’m not involved in the aviation business at all, and I -- I have no aircraft anymore.

DAVID KRUPA: I know that you -- you still follow the activities of people like Lynn Ellis, who, as I understand it, he -- did he buy you -- buy you out eventually?

JACK WILSON: Well, his family did, yes.

DAVID KRUPA: It seems that it’s a -- it's a tougher world for people like him, just because of restrictions and fewer clients. What do you see as the future for flying up here?

JACK WILSON: Well, there is a different kind of flying now. There’s a great deal of sightseeing and recreational flying, and Lynn and others are working in that profession. That’s gettin’ to be pretty big, the sightseeing business. And so they seem to be doing all right.

And then they have mail runs and stuff like that, which Lynn is involved in. I can see a future for him.

They also do maintenance on airplanes. They’re all pretty good mechanics, these older pilots.

And they do a lot of maintenance on aircraft during the slow months, like in the wintertime and fall and so on.

So I can see a future for the small operator in aviation. Definitely it’s just vastly different, and there’s not the big demand for charter anymore.

Highways are improved a great deal and there are scheduled runs into a lot of the villages and places in Alaska.

They no longer need charter airplanes to go into places like that, because they can go on a scheduled service to get there. But there is a definite future for the smaller operator if they’ll work hard at it.

DAVID KRUPA: Okay, we’re back on. We’re just going to talk about a couple of photographs that Jack brought in from -- looks like all from one expedition.

Maybe-- maybe just tell us about a couple of those.

JACK WILSON: Oh, well, this first one is just a picture of a rear-seat passenger while I’m flying a Super Cub in the front seat. Looks like I was in a turn on a pretty nice day and we’re just flying, that’s all.

And then next is a picture of my hangar and a building we used to have out there on the ramp at the end of Gulkana airfield. And a lot of Japanese mountain climbers that were piled up there waiting to be flown out to their various mountains.

As I recall, there was about three different expeditions in there and I had to hire two additional pilots to get ‘em all flown out. There was quite a bunch of ‘em.

DAVID KRUPA: About what year would that have been?

JACK WILSON: That was sometime in the 1970s, but I can’t remember just what year it was. But it was in the month of May. I do remember that. While the glaciers were still in pretty good shape. (Interruption)

JACK WILSON: Yeah, I suppose I better get busy. DAVID KRUPA: Okay.

JACK WILSON: She’s gettin’ pretty mad.

DAVID KRUPA: Okay, Jack. Well, thanks a lot for -- I know you’re pretty busy. Thank you for your time. JACK WILSON: I don't know, maybe you wanted some more stuff?

DAVID KRUPA: Before we go completely off here, for anyone who’s interested in -- in hearing more about Jack’s flying experiences up here, they should look for his book, "Glacier Wings and Tales," which is published by Great Northwest Publishers out of Anchorage.

And still available in bookstores. So thanks a lot.