Chuck West was interviewed on February 4, 1985 by Ron Inouye in Seattle, Washington. In this interview, Chuck discusses how he became interested in aviation and tourism, how he got the idea to combine them, the history of his company "Westours", and his fifty year involvement in the Alaska tourism industry. He also talks about flying in China during World War II. This is an excerpt of the original longer interview. For full interview, see complete transcripts of ORAL HISTORY 85-100, Part 1 and ORAL HISTORY 85-100, Part 2.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Pioneer Aviators
Date of Interview: Feb 4, 1985
Narrator(s): Chuck West
Interviewer(s): Ronald Inouye
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Chuck's family history
Chuck's break in commercial flying
Chuck realizing he did not want to be a pilot
Flying for the Chinese government
Dangerous flying in Asia
Going home on leave
Meeting Sig Wien of Wien Airlines
The progress of airstrips in Alaska
The first package tours in Alaska
Sig Wien not being interested in tourism
Chuck breaks off from Wien Airlines and begins his tourism business
Chuck stays out of debt through ingenuity
Chuck sells "non-sched" seats on flights to Seattle for $20 a head
Getting started Arctic Alaska Travel Service
Chuck begins making money on cargo and tourists
Chuck's genius marketing campaign
Advertising for Pan American
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
RON INOUYE: Today is February 4th (1985), and I'm interviewing Chuck West, formerly with "Westours" and now with his own firm "TravAlaska." He's consented to this interview, and we're very grateful for him to talk not only about some of the personal background, but also of the role of Alaska tourism in which he's had a very significant role.
I'd like to thank you very much for allowing the interview. And I hope that we will be able to have all of the material on the tape available for public use, so that if you feel that things are a bit sensitive we can turn the tape off, but we would prefer to pretty much have the material as it’s recorded available for transcription and for researchers to use, too.
CHUCK WEST: That's fine.
RON INOUYE: First of all, I wonder if we could start out with a little bit of personal background, starting at the very beginning.
Things related to your birth and your parents, where and when that occurred.
CHUCK WEST: Well okay, it began with me on November 27th, 1914, in Des Moines, Iowa. My father was Louis LaFlore West. L-A-F-L-O-R-E West. My mother was May Bigham -B-I-G-H-A-M - before she married. My father was a southerner from Mississippi as was my mother, a southerner from Missouri. They met in St. Joseph, Missouri, and traveled to Des Moines with my dad. My mother did, where I was born, as he was a shoe salesman -- a traveling shoe salesman.
But my background on my parent's side was southern. Both of my grandfathers were Confederate soldiers and fought in the Civil War. And I can relate some of the experiences from that side. So, I’m a rebel at heart. It's characterized all through my life, I think.
But we moved to California just as the War began. I was born as I say, in 1914. And in 1917 we moved to California. My dad took a commission in the Army as a First Lieutenant. Although -- And because he had family -- my older sister and I, and his wife -- he did not leave the country. He was kept in the United States and served out the War as an officer in the Army here on the continent.
But we lived in Los Angeles with my grandmother and grandfather while my father was gone. And I started my education there and continued to live in the Los Angeles area through graduation from high school.
I graduated from Hollywood High School in 1932, and went to work at that point because of the fact it was the middle of the Depression. And Roosevelt was just coming into office. And those who remember those days know that young men had the choice then of going to the CCC camps or into the Armed Forces.
Or if they were lucky, finding a job someplace. And I was one of the fortunate ones, I was able to find a job in a bank.
RON INOUYE: What kind of work was that?
CHUCK WEST: Well , I was messenger boy in the bank to start with. Graduated through all those menial chores to finally become a teller in the bank --
And that -- during that time I went to school at night. Took night courses. I was unable to go to college because of economics. But I ended up with two and a half years of college credit altogether which proved to be useful later.
RON INOUYE: Were you aiming for a particular kind of degree?
CHUCK WEST: No. Well, just a college degree. I was hoping to get a B.A. and whatever in business. I never did achieve that.
But chronologically, I'm trying to move quickly, my life really began when I left the bank and went to work for United Airlines. I say life began, my interest in pursuing a career in travel began then. That was 1937. I started work for United Airlines as a traffic salesman.
RON INOUYE: What is a traffic salesman?
CHUCK WEST: Person who sells tickets to people who want to travel. And part of my work was to be in the office behind the counter selling tickets to people coming in to buy the tickets. And the other part of my work was to go outside and solicit air travel with business firms.
I enjoyed that, the public contact. And I moved to Assistant District Sales Manager, and then left United Airlines, and went to Western Airlines as District Sales Manager.
RON INOUYE: When was that?
CHUCK WEST: 1940. So I had a rather rapid rise for a young man. And I was there with Western when Pearl Harbor occurred, which changed, again, changed my life. I was single at that time and vulnerable to the draft because of being single and being healthy.
So I elected to leave the sales position that I had with the company and go into pilot training. And I was already a private pilot.
And went to St. George, Utah, to take a civilian pilot training course to prepare me to be an instructor in flying for the Air Force. Air Corps then. And before getting my commission, when I was about ready to sign the commission, the chief pilot of Western Airlines, for whom I'd worked, called me and said, "Don't sign up for the commission. I have a job for you as a pilot under a contract division of Western Airlines called the Air Transport Command."
And they operated -- started the operation of what they called "Sourdough Service” into Alaska for the government. Flying military airplanes and supplying the Russians through Alaska.
Flying planes and material from Edmonton, Alberta to Fairbanks and Nome. I was civilian, but under contract to the Air Corps. At that time, the government.
RON INOUYE: So had you completed your military obligation at that point?
CHUCK WEST: I did not have a military status. I was under training and just at the point of signing up for a commission with the Armed Forces after completion of my civilian training. And I did not do that, as I said.
I was held away from that because of Mr. Kelly's suggestion that I stay civilian and fly for them under contract to the military. So I was wearing a military uniform, but I was actually a civilian flying for an airline.
RON INOUYE: That's a unique situation, isn't it?
CHUCK WEST: That was unique, and providential for me.
RON INOUYE: Were there other people like that?
CHUCK WEST: Oh, yes, yes. Western had a contract. Northwest had a contract. Pan American had a contract.
Most of the civilian airlines were brought into the military under military contract operation. So the supplies going to Alaska from Canada were flown by both military planes and civilian contract planes.
Interestingly enough, the “Sourdough Division” of Western Airlines had a perfect safety record in all its years and carried literally millions of tons of material, cargo and so forth into Alaska for transfer to Russia.
And it helped Russia, really, win the war against Germany, because they had supplies coming from us across the Arctic.
But it introduced me to Alaska. That's how I first became acquainted with Alaska.
RON INOUYE: Just out of curiosity, what percentage of the transportation was done through private carriers versus military?
CHUCK WEST: I would say probably half of it was civilian.
RON INOUYE: Oh really. I had no idea it was to that extent.
CHUCK WEST: Oh yeah, very great extent. And they just simply took advantage of the personnel and the expertise which the civilian operators had and brought them into the military.
And kept their pilots and -- not their airplanes because the airplanes were military, but their expertise in flying was utilized. And seeing that was a training ground for other pilots.
RON INOUYE: So, you were training as well as --
CHUCK WEST: I was being trained, and yes -- And we had military with us, we had military personnel with us as well, being trained. And that -- if I can in chronological order explain why that was important later, I was a co-pilot. But I had all of the ratings of a captain.
I got an air transport rating, an instrument rating. And although I was in seniority, was down the line considerably to being promoted into a captain, which is a first pilot's position. I was qualified as a captain.
I could see that reaching that status was way up ahead of me. And I furthermore did not really think I wanted to be an airline pilot after the War. I'd been in sales, and I liked the sales end of the business.
RON INOUYE: When was that?
CHUCK WEST: That I'm talking about right now?
RON INOUYE: Yes. CHUCK WEST: 1943, '44.
RON INOUYE: Why did you seem to enjoy the sales versus the actual --
CHUCK WEST: Before the flying, I was in sales. I was with United Airlines, and with Western Airlines. I was District Sales Manager. And I had something like 35 people working for me, directing the sales program for Western Airlines.
And back into that, part of my work there was creating the package tours for Western Airlines in the National Park system. I set up package tours for Western in Las Vegas, which was Hoover Dam then, and Death Valley.
And Salt Lake which was the Wasatch Range out of there. And Provo, the Zion National Park. And then up into Yellowstone and up into Glacier National Park.
All those tours were a part of Western Airlines' system. And I set those up and became acquainted with what it took to package tours.
RON INOUYE: Did you enjoy that public contact, rather than flying?
CHUCK WEST: I enjoyed that. Yes, I enjoyed the public contact. Meeting people and convincing people to follow my suggestion. And flying, I don't depreciate what it takes to be a pilot, but it's a rather monotonous position.
I mean, you're -- you're not -- you're -- you're -- it's mechanical. It takes ability, but it's coordination and mechanical ability more than anything else. And judgment, too.
But I like to express myself. I like to talk and meet people, and being a pilot was far from that. So I didn’t really have the ambition to be an airline captain.
This brings me to the point of decision because I was telling my boss, who was the Chief Pilot, about this. And he says, "Why don't you take advantage of an opportunity which is coming up right now in China." And I said, "Well, what is that?" And he said, "Well, the Flying Tiger group are being re-formed into a civilian transport division like what we're doing here.
The Chinese government is creating an air transport command division. And they want to start with a nucleus of American-trained pilots who can fly the airplanes which we are providing to them."
And, he said, "The pay is very good. And you would qualify as a captain because you could move right into a first pilot's position. Flying for China." And I said, "What's the rest of the deal?" Well, he said, "They'll pay you $2,000 a month." I said, "That sounds good."
RON INOUYE: What would have been the average wage for a U.S.-based pilot?
CHUCK WEST: Well, a $190 was a co-pilot's pay. Plus, you got -- when I was flying in Edmonton I had a cost of living add on, so I ended up getting $440. But $2,000 was quite a bit beyond that.
RON INOUYE: Now, was that part of Chennault's initial group?
CHUCK WEST: Yes, well it’s -- true. True. The Flying Tiger group were originally Chennault's group, and then when he went into the Air Force -- Air Corps -- his pilots -- he and his pilots were given the option of going -- taking commissions in the Air Corps or staying in China and flying for the Chinese government as civilians.
And of course they went over as civilians. And they could stay as civilians if they flew for China. And that was a group. They split.
And the group that went to China for the Chinese government was the group that I was asked to augment. They still called them Flying Tigers, but they were flying for China with Chinese uniforms with Chinese Chung on the airplane, and etc.
So anyway, I was married then to Marguerite Lee, who was a former Queen of Alaska, by the way. And we had one child by then. So it was her decision, as much as mine, that I do this.
And I said, “We got to build a nest egg for the future, you know.” And I said, "If I can survive this, save my money, why not? Take advantage of the opportunity.” So, she consented, and I volunteered for this, and was accepted, and went to China.
RON INOUYE: What year was that?
CHUCK WEST: '44. Yeah, spring of '44. And I put in a 153 missions over the hump and was given the rank of full Colonel in the Chinese Air Force, whatever that means. I had the uniform anyway.
RON INOUYE: What was the flying like there? The stories are --
CHUCK WEST: Rough, rough, rough! Himalayas are the tallest mountains in the world, and the crossing from India to China required crossing that terrain between -- over India to Burma to China. And we had very little weather forecasting, which did not help us at all because of the -- whether it was a deterrent, the weather would came from the west to the east, as it always does, and the west side was Russia, and China.
We weren't getting any forecasting at all, so we'd run into some extremely high winds, that would -- we never knew when we were going to hit 'em. If you don't know what your wind direction velocity is, if you get into it, it could carry you off course very quickly.
And our ground navigation equipment was only DF, direction finder stations. DF stations they called them. And they were 60 watt DF stations located 60 miles apart. And you had to hit 'em right. If you miss one, you'd better get the next one, or you're lost.
So it was navigation, primarily, that was the important thing to understand and know. And that’s why my training was good, the airline training.
So I think navigation was the most important ability that a pilot needed to survive over there. The ability to navigate. Pushing throttles, almost anybody could do that, but knowing -- having the judgement to know where you are -- checking drift, checking your weather, and estimating your progress across the hump was extremely important.
RON INOUYE: What was the survival rate, amongst people?
CHUCK WEST: Well, I'll just say this, I went over there -- when I arrived in Calcutta, we had a 100 pilots in this little company and 27 airplanes. And when I left, we had used up 100 pilots and 27 airplanes.
So the attrition rate was extremely high. Now there's some of the same airplanes still there, some of the same pilots were still there, but we'd had that much attrition. So I would say it was rather a high rate.
RON INOUYE: Were there other pilots who had been with you in Alaska who also were offered a similar kind of --
CHUCK WEST: Yeah, there were a couple, there were a couple.
RON INOUYE: Who were some of them?
CHUCK WEST: Well, they did not stay. They did not come back to Alaska.
Oh, gosh, I'm trying to think of their names. I'll have to come back to that, I don't remember right now, but there were a couple of young guys that followed me over there and stayed.
They never came back to Alaska. I came back to Alaska after that.
RON INOUYE: So when did you finish that stint with --
CHUCK WEST: Well, I came back in February ’45. On what was called an “R and R”, rest and recuperation. And also it was timely for me because my wife was expecting when I left -- I didn’t know she was -- and I came back to find another daughter born.
And I came to Nome, Alaska. And my wife was from a gold mining family in Nome, and she'd gone to be with them while I was in China.
So I returned to her and my children. That was in February ’45. At that time, we knew the war was being won. We knew we were well on the way to winning the war, certainly in Germany, and as it proved later, Japan, as you know in the history of that.
And I was supposed to go back to China. I was supposed to go home for a leave, and then go back.
And when I arrived in Nome I met Sig Wien, the former president of Wien Airlines. He was a bush pilot then. And he said, "Are you a multi-engine instrument-rated pilot?" And said, "I certainly am." "That's just the guy I need," he said, "I’m getting two airplanes that are both engine instrument-type airplanes. I need pilots who can fly 'em."
And I said, "Well, the only problem I have is that I'm supposed to go back to China." And I said, "However." I said, "What kind of work is this?" He said, "It’s for the Navy. Opening up the Pet 4 project in Point Barrow (Naval Petroleum Reserve 4)."
I said, "Well, that's considered to be essential isn't it? I mean it's -- you know, war type?" "Yes it is." I said, "Well, if the Navy can get me released from China on this project, I think I can stay. But you’ll have to get Washington to do that."
So he got ahold of the right Navy people, and I got a release from CNAC, China National Aviation Corporation, to Wien Airlines on their military operation.
Wien had a small military operation, too. In that they were flying supplies and personnel to Point Barrow. Creating the first airports.
RON INOUYE: How large was Wien at that point?
CHUCK WEST: Oh, small. They had -- buying these two Boeing airplanes was a big step for them. And they were mostly just bush planes. They had small single engine planes. I'd say they probably had 8 or 9 pilots all together. I mean it would be a very small company by comparison to what it finally grew to be, before it expired.
Sig was a pilot himself and flew regularly all the time.
So that -- I'm doing this very quickly, but that's how I got back to Alaska in '45, and stayed because I got a job flying for Wien.
And it's from there, from the cockpit of the Wien planes that I became enamored with Alaska and the beauties and attractions that I could see from the cockpit window. And wanted to bring those experiences to the general traveling public and utilize my sales background.
And I still thought I wanted to be a salesman. I was flying to be -- it was expedient to fly. I could make more money flying. And I was qualified to be a pilot, but I always had in my mind I would like somehow to get into the business of selling and be in my own business. And so this opportunity presented itself from there.
RON INOUYE: Now, when you were flying with Wien, and initially, was it pretty much just a route?
CHUCK WEST: We flew -- well we flew everything. I flew from Fairbanks to Bettles, to Umiat to Barrow. And I flew from Fairbanks to Hughes, to Galena to Hughes to Kotzebue. And then over to Nome, and back. St. Michael and back. Unalakleet all along the way. And I flew mail planes into Eagle and Tanana and Big Delta, and Fort Yukon and Beaver, and Stevens Village. And, name 'em all.
RON INOUYE: So you got to know that area intimately.
CHUCK WEST: Oh, yes, I went everywhere.
RON INOUYE:Did you work southcentral, and southeast at all?
CHUCK WEST: No, no. Wien's operation was always Arctic. They were the line from Fort Yukon to Fairbanks, to Nome, and then north of that would be their operation.
And so that was the area that I operated in as a pilot. But that is the Arctic area, and that is the area that I began selling. I first started selling tours into the Arctic.
RON INOUYE: Now, had there been other packages for other parts of the state?
CHUCK WEST: No. RON INOUYE: No. CHUCK WEST: No.
RON INOUYE: So you started -- CHUCK WEST: There were no package tours at all. And I was aware of that.
And I also was aware of the fact that the war had created airports, military airports, all the way through Canada into Alaska. Where before the war there were just bush fields, now we had paved runways for the military.
RON INOUYE: Do you know anything about the construction of those runways and airports? I heard an interview with R.J. Sommers, who at one point was the Territorial Commissioner of Highways.
And as an engineer, he had responsibility for putting in some fields there, Nome and in Galena.
CHUCK WEST: Well, I was flying into them while they were being built during the war. And I don't know how the -- I don't know anything about the mechanical side of that, but I know that they were being built. And that brought a lot of employment to Alaska.
And I mean after the war they built -- 26 Mile, Eielson Air Force was built after the war. So there's a -- you know, and they expanded Elmendorf in Anchorage. And the Nome airport was built for the Army. The original airport. Right.
I flew into Barrow before they had an airport there. I flew and landed on the lagoon. And it was to bring the people in to do the survey work for the airport.
RON INOUYE: You were nice and early.
CHUCK WEST: Yeah, really early.
RON INOUYE: Well, how long were you with Sig Wien?
CHUCK WEST: Okay, I started flying, as I say, in spring of '45. And I flew all that year of '46. I flew until November of '46.
And it was at that point that I elected to leave Wien and go on my own into the tour business. And I just decided to -- and my wife -- to take the step because I was convinced that there was an opportunity.
And Alaska was waiting for something like this. A company, or an individual, or an organization that could package tours for the people coming to Alaska. It was a right idea.
RON INOUYE: There always has been a -- I guess, a trickle of people who have been coming through.
CHUCK WEST: Yeah, not organized. Not organized. Not promoted, shall I say. Promoted with travel agents outside. And there’s the key to it. The marketing of the product was the key to it. They trickle in and they find their way to the places, but they weren't -- it wasn't advertised and sold to them as a pre-conditioned type thing.
RON INOUYE: It was more catch as catch can.
CHUCK WEST: Catch as -- They happened to be there so they would visit these places, but it wasn't organized where there were advertising brochures and packages with all the ingredients put together in a package tour.
So that was the opportunity. I mean to lead these people in and pre-condition them to come. Not just wait until they got there. But sell ‘em at home.
RON INOUYE: Well, wasn’t that sort of a risky thing to be doing at that point in time?
CHUCK WEST: Yes, it was, yes it was.
RON INOUYE: I would think the economy of the outside areas would have been relatively --
CHUCK WEST: Well, it didn't start off with any -- you know, any great big crashing success. It was gradual, but it did start. And everything starts from something.
And it happened to be that the Arctic was the area I wanted to present first, because I knew the Arctic from being a pilot.
And the story of that is that I asked Mr. Wien to let me go on the (radio) program, I mentioned it before, "Wings Over the North" and talk about the Arctic, and Wien Airlines and a tour which I would fly.
I would take the people myself on a tour to the Arctic. And Sig Wien said, "Well, we are flying there. If people want to go with us, we have a ticket price. They can get on the airplane and go." I said, "No, Sig, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about having a tour that goes as a tour. They don't just get on the airplane and fly where we're going. They are taken to these places, and they're deposited at these places and then they're shown the sights when they get there.
And they're fed a meal, and they're given a dog team ride, and they're given an umiat ride, and so forth. They’re shown -- they're escorted around and brought back with a narration all the way of what they're seeing. It's a tour! Not just sit in an airplane and take a ride. It's a tour!" And he had a hard time understanding that.
I said, "Let me try it. Just let me try it. And if it’s no good, we’ll find out in a hurry. If it’s good then we’ll find out." So he said "All right."
So I set up a Saturday departure, Saturday morning. Announced this tour. $75.00. A tour from Fairbanks to Galena to Kotzebue to Nome back by the midnight sun, view of Mount McKinley to Fairbanks. One-day trip, 75 bucks.
I filled it up like that. I had ten people in a hurry. Local people. Local people. They were there. They had never been there. Never been to the Arctic. Lived right there and never been there. And I put 'em in the airplane, and I flew them myself.
RON INOUYE: And did you present the narrative and everything as well?
CHUCK WEST: Yes, I did. I did. I did the whole thing. And personally escorted them up the beach in Kotzebue. Showed them the fish drying on the racks, and showed them -- seeing the carcasses of the seal and the whale on the beach, and so forth. Bought 'em a dinner in Archie Ferguson's restaurant.
And flew them across between the Diomede Islands. We could do that then. And they could see the homes up on the stilts there, you know. You had Russia over here, Arctic Ocean over here. Over to Nome. Took 'em down the gold beach in Nome, showed 'em where the pioneers mined the sand.
Put 'em back in an airplane and flew them -- literally by the midnight sun, via McKinley. You could see Mount McKinley out there it was splendid in all it's glory. Back to Fairbanks. And they were ecstatic! And they talked about it! And it took off.
RON INOUYE: Now, when was that first tour?
CHUCK WEST: ' 46. July of ' 46.
RON INOUYE: July of ' 46. Uh huh.
CHUCK WEST: I was still a pilot for Wien. And I said, "Boy, that's got it. That's got to be it." And I said, "I want to do that more." And Sig says, "We're too busy. We got our regular business."
Sig, I , you know -- He said, "We can’t handle all that business." I said, "Well, Sig, it's -- We can buy more airplanes, you know. I mean, and bigger airplanes."
RON INOUYE: Well, what it's -- what was the price break between carrying freight and carrying passengers on tours like that?
CHUCK WEST: Well, on this day, we took in $750. That's a good day for that airplane. That was a profitable day. If you could do that every day -- it'd be a good, that'd be great, that would be all the airplane would have to do.
But Sig felt he wasn't ready for it. Sig wasn't ready for it. He didn't -- he was concerned he would not be able to take care of his regular business, and that he had an obligation to the trappers and the miners, and the school teachers, and the government people and so forth, who were his bread and butter, and he couldn't put them out and devote his airplanes to tourism.
And I said, "Boy, oh boy." So, I just felt that it was an opportunity. I just could sense it. I could feel it, you know. I know it's there. And I just cannot be defeated by this attitude. Sig’s attitude.
And I say this, and I'll say it publicly, Sig didn’t understand. He does now. He did later.
RON INOUYE: Well, did you do more of those kinds of tours then when you were with Wien?
CHUCK WEST: Well, okay -- So, I said to Sig, "Alright, I want to do this for you, Sig. I want to do it -- set it up this winter. I want to set up a program for next year." And I said, "I can pre-sell this business, so you'll know how much business you'll have coming. You can set aside the aircraft for it if necessary. At least buy other airplanes.
The tourist business is going to be here. Let’s be in on it. I want to do that for you."
He said "No." He said, "Chuck," he said, "we need you back in the cockpit of the airplane. We have a lot of contracts this winter for the Arctic and so forth. We need you in the cockpit, but we can’t spare you to do this. What do you want to do?"
I said, "Then you have my resignation. I'm going to do it anyway." So, I said, "I'm sorry. I cannot accept your lack of interest. I mean, I know it's an opportunity. If you don't want to go along with it, I'll do it myself. So, goodbye." And I quit in November right in the beginning of winter.
But -- the but but is -- I knew I had to pre-sell it. I couldn’t wait until next spring to sell it. I had to do it ahead of time. Still true, you promote ahead of time.
I happened to be solvent. I wasn't wealthy, but I had a couple thousand dollars in the bank, and I owned a little log cabin where we had our family. I was young and I was go-go, and so was my wife. "Do it. If you don't do it now, you're never gonna do it. And if you don’t make it, you can always go back to flying, you know."
And okay, we’re gonna do it. So I quit. And I opened a little office down on First Avenue, a warehouse --
And, but luck was with me. God was smiling on me because Alaska Steam had a strike. And what happened, all the goods that would come in by ship into Seward were not coming in. And then by rail to Fairbanks. And the merchants needed certain priority type items: food, fresh food, all kinds of things they needed.
And so they started a flow of non-sched (non-regularly scheduled) cargo planes coming into Alaska. First one coming in was American Airlines. The DC-4’s.
And bringing in produce. Primarily produce. Items that would demand a higher freight price than canned goods. Produce type things, ice cream, produce, milk. And I thought, "Boy, these guys are coming in here with those airplanes, they need help."
So I phoned the president of American Airlines in the Cargo Division in St. Louis, Missouri, a guy named Jim Wooten who later became president of Alaska Airlines. I said, "Jim," I said, "I'm Chuck West. I'm a pilot." I gave him some of my background. I said, "You need someone like me up here to service those airplanes when they come in. To chock the wheels, and get the gas trucks out, and arrange for the pilots to have a lunch, get a briefing for the pilots, get the flight plans for ‘em, see that the cargo's unloaded, get the trucks in -- I'm your guy. I'm the ground man."
And he says, "Well," he said, "Sounds alright. What do you want to charge?" I said, "$20 a trip." "Twenty dollars a trip?" He says, "That’s a buy. You got it. Twenty bucks a trip."
And I had to go out and meet the planes. They would radio it in, and the tower -- the tower would call me. I did the whole thing. I went out there and energized those engines under the -- and the prop blast, and those engines. You know, energizing, you gotta help them start.
Standing in my parka and the wind blowing. Those props, boy, colder than a son of a bitch. But I got $20 a trip. And so I was in beans. I wasn't going into my savings, you see. That helped. I mean, I was doing it.
RON INOUYE: Now, this was all out at Week's Field?
CHUCK WEST: No, it was Ladd Air Force Base. RON INOUYE: Ladd, Ok.
CHUCK WEST: Then Ladd Air Force Base, now Ft. Wainwright. And no --
RON INOUYE: How many planes would be coming in?
CHUCK WEST: Oh, hell, a couple a day, at least. That wasn't too bad. And then they started -- more started coming, other airplanes started coming.
And I thinks to myself, thinks I, hmmm. "These airplanes are unloading their cargo, turning around and flying back empty." They all had what they call "bucket seats." They'd fold down along side in the military type airplanes. And they fold up for seats. They're raw metal seats.
Pan American was charging a $149.50. I remember the price very well. For a one-way ticket on a DC-3 to Seattle -- Seattle from Fairbanks. I said, "I'm going to see if I can sell bucket seats for 100 bucks." So I went to one airline, Golden North Airlines, the first one. I went to a guy named Walt Calhoun was the president. I said, "Hey Walt, I'll put people on your airplane south. I'll charge 'em a 100 bucks, and I'll give you $80. I'll take $20. I'll put some people on your airplanes south."
He says, "Sounds good." There were no regulations then. So I said, "Fly to Seattle, $100.”
RON INOUYE: I bet you had a booming business.
CHUCK WEST: Right away, bang! I mean I was the agent for the nonscheds. And, heck that was better than $20 a trip, you know. I was making $20 a head.
RON INOUYE: Now, is this the point at which you opened your agency?
CHUCK WEST: That’s right, that’s when I --
RON INOUYE: You were next to the Coop (Drug Store), or --
CHUCK WEST: No, that was -- that's true later. Later. But, frst, I was down on First Avenue. In a warehouse down there. I took the name “Arctic Alaska Travel Service."
There's a picture on the wall out there of me in the first office. 1940. Well, it was the winter of 1946, so '47 spring was when I was really talking about now.
And that went well. It went very well. Matter of fact, I was selling one hell of a lot of tickets. I was not an authorized -- I was not authorized by Pan American. I got an authorization from Northwest, who was offline. They were operating out of Anchorage. And they made me ticket agent. They appointed me as an agent in Fairbanks.
But Pan American and Alaska were the big carriers out of Fairbanks, Pan American being the dominant one. And they did not want to appoint me as an agent. Course I was a competitor at that point. I was selling on the non-scheds against them.
Well, I made $23,000 in 1947. And you know, that's a lot of damn money in those days. That was a lot of money. I mean, I was really rolling --
I even went out and bought a suit. I didn't -- I didn't have anything but my military clothes when I got back. So I can remember that, that was just, just really wonderful! And I knew that I liked it, because I was selling, I was doing something.
So -- back to this -- I had the idea of the Arctic, anyway, in that summer of ‘47. I'd charter these airplanes when they came in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chuck? CHUCK WEST: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You have a call on line one. (short pause in recording)
CHUCK WEST: Okay. I was talking about -- you asked if the airlines had put those -- I was talking -- At that time, there were a number of what they called non-sched cargo carriers including some Alaskan carriers as well as outside carriers. And there was General Air Cargo out of Portland. There was Northern Airlines our of Boeing Field, Seattle. There was Golden North Airlines out of Fairbanks. There was Lavery Airways out of Fairbanks. There was Pollock Airlines out of Fairbanks. There was McKinley Airlines out of Portland again. Gosh, there was just a whole mess of them. Not counting American who were -- the skies were filled with these cargo planes coming in.
The strike kept on in -- the Alaska Steam strike kept on. And the consolidation of freight in these planes became more important. That -- I must digress a minute and say I started another business called "Alaska Air Cargo Consolidators." And I was helping consolidate the freight for the merchants and bring it in on these planes.
And then -- and then I had more control of the plane, because I was actually chartering it. And I did this business with a fellow by the name of Herb Pickering who had a grocery store in Fairbanks, and we started to form a little partnership under that name.
And that gave me the entree to having close, intimate relations with these companies.
So, I bring an airplane in on charter with freight, right? Instead of turning it around and sending it back empty, I first of all would charter the airplane to the Arctic in the summer. And I took the first planes, myself. I mean, I went along as crew member to show them where it was and to help fly the airplanes. And filled those airplanes with tourists on Arctic tour. Arctic tour, ok?
Then when they came back to Fairbanks, I loaded 'em up with passengers for Seattle. So, I was making money on the cargo coming in, on the tour to the Arctic, and on the trip back. I got a three times hit on those planes, ok? That was an idea, man. It just really hit.
RON INOUYE: Didn't you have a lot of imitators then trying to --
CHUCK WEST: I had a lot of imitators who were trying to imitate selling tickets, but no one who imitated the tour. The tour was mine.
Lot of 'em trying to sell tickets, but when I controlled the airplane, I controlled it all. Yeah, that's true. I mean they --
Never an idea that someone doesn't try to imitate. But I -- they were only trying to sell the tickets on the southbound trips. I had the tour portion. Well --
RON INOUYE: Did you find a lot of interest just among the local people for those tours, too?
CHUCK WEST: Yes, Yes. Yes, there was -- matter of fact, the majority -- almost all of the business at that time. What's your first name? RON INOUYE: Ron.
CHUCK WEST: Ron. I'm sorry, Ron. First this year were local people. Made up of local residents, or more predominantly the people who were working at the Air Force Bases on these cost-plus contracts.They were building Eielson Air Force Base, and they were rebuilding Ft. Wainwright. And there were thousands, literally, of people working up there. And on employment on these contracts, who also brought their wives and families in to visit them.
So we had a nucleus of people right there who wanted to do something while they were in Alaska.
And one of my ploys in promoting which I'm kind of amused to tell you about, I thought "Where are these people?" I said, "They're out at the Air Force Bases." So I got a bunch of little folders, like this size, one panel folders, and I had a hole punched up in here. And it just simply said, "Fly to Seattle -- $100. See Chuck West at Arctic Alaska Travel, Empress Theatre Building then Second Avenue, Fairbanks.”
And I took these things, and I got a hammer and some nails, and I went out and nailed these things up over the urinals. RON INOUYE: Oh my gosh.
CHUCK WEST: I said, “Well, a guy has one hand free and time to read." And literally, they'd come in with these things in their hand! "You Chuck West?" Yeah. What a marketing idea!
RON INOUYE: That's a very good one.
CHUCK WEST: It worked. It worked. And that got their attention. So, anyway that was the heyday. I was just really making it.
RON INOUYE: Well, at that point, you probably had to add quite a few people, to help --
CHUCK WEST: Oh, yeah I had to add staff. Sure, I kept adding staff. And at the same time, I recognized this was a flash in a pan. This could not go on. I mean it -- First of all the strike would end. Secondly, Pan American's gonna have enough of this at some point.
As it's proven today, the big carriers will knock the little guys out. They'll beat their fares and eliminate them. I said, Pan American's gonna get wind of this, and I don't want to be known as the non-sched king of Alaska, cause it's gonna end.
I said, my future lies with the dependability and reputation of established companies. And as a tour operator, I have to change my M.O. I want to bring in tours on airlines I know are dependable that will operate year after year. I want to develop a tour program that has a little higher class image.
RON INOUYE: By M.O., you mean mode of operation?
CHUCK WEST: Yes. Yeah. So, I almost voluntarily -- it was the beginning -- I was going to get these snipers coming in anyway, I voluntarily said, "Okay, time has come for me to go upstairs, or go uptown," should I say. Uptown. So I went to Pan American, and I said, "Look, I am controlling one large amount of business.
I’m willing to turn as much of that as I can control over to you, if you make me be your agent. I'm willing to stop selling the non-scheds, and go first class, go uptown and sell your product."
And they said, "Okay." So they appointed me as an agent. And I stopped selling a non-scheds, and started advertising Pan American service.
RON INOUYE: When was this then? CHUCK WEST: '48. RON INOUYE: '48.