Bill English was interviewed on March 29, 2012 by Leslie McCartney at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Bill's long-time friend Sydnor "Syd" Stealey was also present during the interview. Bill lives in Anchorage, Alaska, but due to his life-long connection with the community of Wiseman, he was visiting Fairbanks to participate in a project sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Oral History Program/Project Jukebox and the National Park Service to identify material about Wiseman for possible digitization and public access through the Gates of the Arctic Research Portal. In this first part of a two part interview, Bill talks about his family background, growing up in Wiseman, and his career as a pilot, both as a small plane bush pilot and later as a commercial jet pilot with Wien Airlines.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Pioneer Aviators
Date of Interview: Mar 29, 2012
Narrator(s): Bill English
Interviewer(s): Leslie McCartney
Videographer: Robyn Russell
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
People Present: Sydnor Stealey
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Parents' background and growing up in Alaska
Hunting and fishing with his mother
Living in Oregon and California as a teenager
Interest in aviation
Working on the Alaska Highway construction project
Learning to fly
Flying on the North Slope
Stopping at Chandler Lake and meeting the people of Anaktuvuk Pass
Bill's mother, Mary, in her later years
Joining Wien Airlines
Flight school in Los Angeles for commercial large aircraft and air transport rating
Role of captain and co-pilot during a landing
Becoming an airline captain at age twenty-five, and difference in flying small versus large aircraft
A frightening flight where nearly ran out of fuel
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LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Well, thank you very much, Bill, for coming in today to talk to us and share your memories. We really appreciate it very, very much.
So we are just going to start maybe if you could say your -- your full name and your place of birth and date of birth and maybe we will talk a little bit about growing up before we get to aviation.
BILL ENGLISH: Sure. My name is William D. English, Everyone calls me Bill. I was born January 31, 1923.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And whereabouts, Bill, were you born?
BILL ENGLISH: In Coldfoot.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And your parents had a cabin there or what?
BILL ENGLISH: No, I think my mother went down from Wiseman to be with Loody who helped her with the birth.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And was Loody a relative of hers or -- ?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I’m not sure what the exact relationship was, but she had a lot of confidence in Loody.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about your mom and your dad? BILL ENGLISH: Beg pardon?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Can you tell me a little bit about your mom and your dad? BILL ENGLISH: Well, my mother and my dad? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
BILL ENGLISH: Well, my dad comes from a California family.
They were living in Oakland, California. His father was Lieutenant Governor of California and so when he came to Alaska I imagine there was a lot of consternation about that cause, yeah,
well, I think he probably -- his father had plans .
Well, he started working for the Northern Commercial Company.
I’m not sure exactly what brought him to Alaska, but I assume that he had a job up here waiting for him.
So he had started out on the West Coast of Alaska and I have forgotten the name of the village or town that he started in before he came up the Koyukuk River to Bettles.
My mother is from the Kobuk from Selawik and, of course, she spent her early days just traveling back and forth across the tundra with her family.
She had several children by her first husband, most of them -- I think all but one died.
Well, it was a pretty harsh life and they were constantly on the move, but they traveled into the Koyukuk Valley from the Kobuk in those days.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And can you just say your dad’s name and your mom’s name just so we have them on record?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, my father’s name was William D. also and his father’s name was William D. and so -- and my son’s name is the same, so he is the fourth, I think, generation.
But I think that meant something in the old days, but it doesn’t seem to mean too much to him, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And your mother’s name? She had two names didn’t she?
BILL ENGLISH: My mother’s name? Well, it was Mary Agorak -- A-G-O-R-A-K and that is far as her names that is as much as I know.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So what did your dad do then when you were -- when you were growing up then, Bill? What did he do?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, his -- let’s see he -- I don’t know what he was doing in St. -- I think it was St. Michael, yeah.
I don’t know whether he was the manager there or not, but he -- when he was sent up to Bettles, he was the manager of the store there and also when he came to Wiseman, he was the manager there.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So did you go to school then in the local area or did you --
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I went to school in Wiseman through the sixth grade and -- yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So when you were young you were telling me yesterday about how you used to go out with your mom caribou hunting and fishing. You did a lot of that.
BILL ENGLISH: Oh, well, I -- one particular trip that I remember was we walked over to what we called Rooney Lake at the time -- Big Lake now to go caribou hunting.
My mother did all the hunting in the family. My father, I don’t believe he ever fired a gun or caught a fish.
He didn’t do any of that -- those kind of things. So my mother, of course, that was her life and she was very good at it.
So she -- I can remember over at Big Lake that she -- one of the first things she did she put a wooden fishtrap into the outlet there to catch grayling.
So we had a lot of grayling to eat and I think it was the next day that she shot a caribou.
And I can remember over the camp fire that she made she roasted the ribs so we had caribou ribs, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Lovely. BILL ENGLISH: And, of course, there were fish in the lake and so, but she was very good at catching things.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: She was also an amazing seamstress. We saw some of her --
BILL ENGLISH: Well, yes. I imagine even while they were migrating that they had to do a lot of sewing, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You have -- Tishu was your half-sister. BILL ENGLISH: Half-sister. Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Did you have any other siblings, Bill? BILL ENGLISH: No.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That was it? BILL ENGLISH: No, that was it. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Just the two of you. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, so did you go out a lot with your mom when she was hunting when you were -- BILL ENGLISH: Did I what? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Did you go out a lot with your mom a lot when she was hunting?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I’d go on most short trips, but this was the one that I really remember. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah, she’d go out ptarmigan hunting and I’d tag along and rabbits, but I don’t remember anything specific about any of those, but I do remember the Big Lake trip.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. So you went to sixth grade in Wiseman and then -- and then where did you go?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, my father -- in running the store the miners would come in early in the morning.
He usually got to work about five, I think. Because once the miners started coming in, he couldn’t do any paperwork or anything like that. So he did a lot of listening for the rest of the day.
And so he heard a lot of stories about -- wanting the miners once they hit it, they’d go out and get a couple acres and settle down with a couple of cows and maybe some fruit trees and live the good life.
And I think this must have gotten to him, because he decided that that sounded what like he wanted to do. So he went out to Seattle and must have made inquiries and then he sent for my mother and me.
So we spent a little time in Seattle. I don’t know how long, but then we moved down to Portland.
I spent a year in Portland going to school there and then we moved down to Ashland and I spent a year down there.
Then after that he bought a ranch in Roseburg and the two acres became 160 acres and we had two horses and two cows and some ducks and pigs and a prune tree orchard.
And he didn’t know anything about farming or agriculture.
And it was in -- the Depression was on in US and he had to hire people to do the work, 'cause -- And the consequence of all of that was that, you know, he lost the money that he thought he was going to have and so he and my mother had to come back to Alaska.
And they sent me down to be with his family in Oakland.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That must have been quite a change of life for your mom who had grown up on the land and --
BILL ENGLISH: Oh, yeah. She had to adapt. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, BILL ENGLISH: It was a big change for her.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It must have been, yeah. She must have been so glad to come back.
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I imagine she was. She, of course, didn’t say anything to me, but I wonder about that, too.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, what a culture shock. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. So you ended up staying back in California.
BILL ENGLISH: I stayed back in California and entered high school.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right and what did you -- how did you get an interest in aviation, Bill, cause that is what we are going to talk about today? BILL ENGLISH: Well --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: When did that start? BILL ENGLISH: Well, I -- I flew in an airplane before I ever saw a boat or a train or a car.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow! BILL ENGLISH: And so I think that was planted in me early -- the thought.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So, in high school would you -- were you looking for aviation careers?
BILL ENGLISH: No, no. I was into sports in high school -- in track and football and my father left me in his sister’s hands -- Aunt Christine and she had never been married.
And she never had any experience with a young boy and I was young then I was -- let’s see, I was 12 when I entered high school.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow!
BILL ENGLISH: And the things I remember about Aunt Christine she would take me out to lunch and they had places where they had -- you could get a -- something similar to a milkshake today.
They didn’t call it that then, but it was only seven cents I think and, you know, it was a tall container.
And I would drink one and they were so good I’d want another and she’d have an argument right there with me 'cause she didn’t think that was a good thing to do.
And she argued about my wanting to play football and so my life with Aunt Christine was contentious.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Good choice of words.
BILL ENGLISH: And she finally turned me over to Aunt Clara, another sister. Well, Aunt Clara had been married and she had a son and she knew just how to handle young boys so.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So you ended up -- BILL ENGLISH: So that worked out much better. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Be good.
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah, but as far as aviation, at that point I don’t remember even thinking about it.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So how did you get interested in it and choose that for a career?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, when I graduated from high school, I came back. Flew up to Wiseman.
The pilot put me in the seat beside him and it was a place where I think we made a couple of landings, Alatna or Allakaket then and Bettles and then Wiseman.
And that -- I think that renewed my -- my interest.
And so I spent that summer in Wiseman before going back out to junior college in California, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So when did you -- after junior college, what did you do then?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, World War II started in 1941. And a fellow schoolmate at the college -- we were both in engineering.
And the Public Highway Commission was looking for engineers or supposed to be engineers to work on the Alaska Highway.
And they hired us somewhere in there and when the term ended in 1942 we went to Seattle and they put us on a boat.
I think what it was was somebody’s luxury boat of some sort and we started up to Alaska. And one thing I remember about that was crossing the Gulf .
Everybody was getting sick. All the other people -- I don’t remember exactly how many, but there were probably about ten of us that were going to work on the highway.
And they all went down below and went to bed which -- and I stayed out in the wind up on the bow. And I didn’t go through what they went through.
But we put behind Cape St. Elias because it was really getting rough.
And the one thing I remember before we did that that being outside and I kept moving around, I walked by the galley and everything that was on the stove was on the floor upside down and the cook was sliding around in this mess.
And, yeah, well, we put in behind Cape St. Elias for a couple of days until it died down. And then we went on to Valdez.
In the meantime, we were destined to go out along the line with the survey crews, but they found out I was from Alaska.
And I think Mr. Clarkson was on board and he arranged for me to go to Fairbanks to work for him up there.
And so Burr went out on -- in the survey camps which were -- it was pretty rough living out there, because it was in tents and the mosquitoes were thick and whatnot.
And so I was in fact lucky to be sent to Fairbanks. They put me up in the Nordale Hotel and gave me a car and a whole bunch of vouchers.
And my job was to go out and locate machinery that they could use on the highway.
And so I would go out to the mining camps and ask if miners were interested in selling.
If they indicated an interest, I’d report back to Mr. Clarkson. He sent out the mechanic, and I forgot his name, but the mechanic would go out and examine. And they were mostly bulldozers with a blade on them. And go out and examine the equipment.
If he okayed it, Mr. Clarkson would go pay for it and they'd walk it into Fairbanks.
Walking is just running it in, yeah. And so I did that all -- all summer and fall there.
I think I was in there about a year or a year and a half.
And so when that job was done as far as we'd gotten all the equipment we could, they sent us down to Gakona where the headquarters of the Public Highway Administration had their main offices.
But we really didn’t have anything to do down there, you know. It was all being done.
And so Burr and I spent the winter there, and came out and he went into the Navy and I went into the what they called the US Army Air Force. And they sent me to Ladd Field, where I spent the entire war.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Really. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So that's where you learned to fly?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I -- I started -- I started to learn to fly. Someone had a small plane.
We were talking about that just the other night with Syd Stealey and now I've forgotten their name, too.
But they had a Rearwin Sportster in Fairbanks. They were mining over in the Nome area, came into Fairbanks, bought the Rearwin Sportster with the intention of starting an air service.
They had an office in the Nordale Hotel and I walked by the office one day and decided to go in and see if they would give me flying lessons and they agreed.
Well, about eight hours passed and I was ready to solo.
And they -- you could see they would be reluctant. This was their only airplane. They wanted to start a business and here was this would-be pilot ready to solo and they finally decided to let me solo, which -- but that was the end of that.
And so then it was kind of a catch ca -- as catch can. There were pilots ferrying airplanes over to Nome through Ladd Field.
They would stop in Fairbanks and some of them were willing to give instruction.
And someone else had a small airplane and so I built up my time a little bit that way.
But eventually a fellow by the name of Dave Johnson and I bought an Aeronca K, which was a two cylinder, single ignition, no brakes, tail ski, 10-gallon tank airplane.
It wasn’t -- it wasn’t much of an airplane. Didn’t fly very fast, but it was a good -- time -- it didn’t really matter whether you were in a big airplane or a little plane. It was a good airplane to build time in, which we both did.
Well, my career progressed from there. I continued to build up my time to -- I got 200 hours, passed my commercial, and I think the day after I got a commercial Wien Airlines put me to work.
They -- I think they rented a small Taylorcraft and I began flying out to the villages that I had been flying to building up my time.
They had -- they were hiring people with 1,500 hours from the South 48 and so hiring this 200 hour pilot was a risk for them.
But I had the one advantage of knowing the local area anyway, so -- And that worked out until Northern Airways had a DC-2, the forerunner of the DC-3, and the major difference there was that the DC-2, you had to pump the gear up and down.
And so a pilot -- the pilot of the DC-2 was Terry McDonald and they -- I was still on a part-time basis with Wien.
They hired -- Northern Airways hired me on a part-time basis to fly as co-pilot for Terry McDonald and you didn’t need any credentials.
You just needed a strong left arm because that was the arm you used to pump the gear up and down.
And so we made trips to Bethel, but we stopped at three or four places along the way. So your arm got pretty tired doing this on the way down and all back -- and back, yeah.
And so that went on for not too long and Wien decided to put me on full time. And so, and they -- I spent a little time in Fairbanks, but not much. They sent me up on the Slope to Umiat to fly what is called the gravity meter and we would land -- the Slope has thousands of lakes.
It was on floats and we spent all day long landing every three to five miles taking gravity meter readings so they could tell what the domes and slopes that might be trapping oil.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. So this was all for the oil industry? BILL ENGLISH: Oh, yeah and PET 4. We were -- there was a lot of exploration going on in PET 4.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And what year would this be about? BILL ENGLISH: It would be 1947. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Okay.
BILL ENGLISH: Uh-huh. So I spent the summer doing that and at the end of that summer they sent me up to Barrow to fly with -- or under Hugh House, who had a Bellanca and so they checked me out.
This was -- the gravity meter we were still using a small airplane. And so but the Bellanca was a larger airplane -- a larger bush airplane.
They checked me out in that and so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And with all these small planes, you were probably the mechanic, too?
BILL ENGLISH: No. I wasn’t the mechanic, but they required little -- very little maintenance.
We, you know, we put oil and gas in them, but that was about it. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. I would have thought --
BILL ENGLISH: And there was nothing complicated there. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Pretty simple.
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. As long as you didn’t break it in some way, why -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You were okay. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Now how long did you do with the North Slope then because that must have been a really -- how long did you -- were you on the North Slope? Was it just the one year?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, yeah, well, I flew on the North Slope for about a year, yeah. And then back to Fairbanks.
There is one story that in my mind which Syd reminded of me just the other day and it is one that I cherish.
When we were through flying on floats with the small airplane, I was ferrying it back to Anchorage and I had landed at Wiseman where Syd was working and --
but before I got to Wiseman I was flying over Chandler Lake from Umiat. And there's a small pass between Chandler Lake and the John River.
Well, it was -- it was kind of evening was coming on and darkness wasn’t too far away and I ran into a snowstorm before entering that pass.
And so I decided to turn around and land on Chandler.
I didn’t know what I was going to do 'cause I really didn’t know what was there.
So I landed at the north end of the lake and taxiing along the edge of the lake and it was very rocky, you know, pretty big boulders -- looking for a place to dock the airplane because I couldn’t put it on the rocks with the wind. It would probably puncture.
And I ran into a underground -- under the surface of the water there was a spit of land coming out, maybe a 100 feet from shore or something like that. It was at least a 100, maybe a little more.
I ran up on this spit that I didn’t see. It was already getting kind of dark and the water looked dark and choppy.
And I tried to do things, you know, gunning it and rocking it and whatnot. The airplane wouldn’t move and I was wondering what I was going to do.
Turned the engine off, sitting there. I couldn’t see the spit, but I was onto something.
And while I was sitting there I looked up and here were two Eskimos.
They were walking this narrow spit and you knew that they didn’t know how to swim.
If they fell off that spit that would probably be the end of them. But they had sticks and they knew where the edge -- it wasn’t that wide -- very wide.
They had sticks and they just felt their way out to the airplane. They lifted me off and told -- pointed to where I should park.
The two that came out did not talk English. They were -- what was unique about this group that was there -- they were the forerunners of Anaktuvuk.
Their life -- they were the true nomads still. They -- they traveled along the north edge of the Brooks Range and they would fish out the lakes and get sheep and whatnot and when that was done they’d move on. And they just kept doing that.
Well anyway, I went to the place where they said to park and the rest of the camp came out and helped and whatnot.
And one fellow came up to me. He introduced himself.
His name was Frank Rulland and he said he was a relative of mine.
Well, by then, since I was the only Native that was flying that was pretty well-known even in this remote place.
And so he invited me to stay with him and his wife and two children.
And they lived in a skin hut and the frame was built out of willows, you know, maybe 10 or 12 feet long laced together and over that were caribou skins.
And the stove that they had was about, you know, 10 inches wide maybe, four inch stove pipe. And they burned willows.
Now willows -- they didn’t have willows at Chandler Lake.
They had to go 60 miles down the outlet that flowed into the Colville and the Colville had the willows.
So they had to bring those willows 60 miles not only for their frame of their huts, but for firewood.
So they had to be very careful probably about how much they used and whatnot, but they cooked loin -- the loins and sheep which is the best -- the best they had and some sort of fried bread and that was our supper for the night.
I had a good night’s sleep. And I covered with skins on a skin floor.
And that's the story that I really remember more than any other.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And the next day you were able to get out.
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. Well, it was such a unique experience. Little did I know at that time, of course, that they were going next to Anaktuvuk Pass.
And I don’t know if they would have stayed there, but the incentive was a fellow by the name of Pat McConnell went into Anaktuvuk Pass at the same time and he established a post office.
And even though -- I don’t know if a post office meant anything to them, but they stayed and Anaktuvuk slowly grew.
And I knew all those people at that time there and I flew into -- there was a lake that you could land not too far from where they set up the village.
And I would deliver their mail and a few supplies, but they established a permanent place there.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It's an amazing story.
BILL ENGLISH: But the other side of the story is that as I progressed into the larger equipment I lost my contact that I had in many of the villages.
And I didn’t realize that at the time, but I certainly in later years did.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. So that was the added bonus of flying a smaller plane was -- BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: -- having contact with local people? BILL ENGLISH: Yes.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, that's an amazing story. What a memory. Yeah.
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I hope if there's one story that I remember in the next few years that's the one. Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Lovely, yeah. And you only remembered -- Sydnor -- we're here also with Syd.
You remembered the story this week when you were talking about it or -- ?
SYDNOR STEALEY: Well, he flew into Wiseman. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh. SYDNOR STEALEY: The following day. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
SYDNOR STEALEY: And spent the night with his mother. And then flew on down to Fairbanks or wherever. But there were two of us there. Norm Beach and myself. And we were very jealous that here this guy had this plane and he could fly around.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Lovely.
BILL ENGLISH: I imagine that emotion happened in quite a few instances.
And there's probably a lot of -- well, is this guy any -- is this guy competent sort of thought. Because, you know, the Natives in those days -- you've heard a lot of the stories, I suppose. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Uh-huh.
BILL ENGLISH: And so there was a lot of probably feelings one way or the other.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. You just said that you flew back into Wiseman to see your mom. They stayed in Wiseman then for the rest of their lives?
BILL ENGLISH: My mother eventually came to stay with us -- Shirley and I, in Fairbanks there in the wintertime and she’d always go back to Wiseman in the summer.
And she did quite a bit of traveling around because we had passes. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
BILL ENGLISH: And so she’d go over to Kotzebue and visit and Noatak and up to Barrow. And she enjoyed doing that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. BILL ENGLISH: And so.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: She must have been very proud of you? BILL ENGLISH: I hope so.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, that must have been really amazing. So from there you, as you said, you got into flying with Noel Wien’s company. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Had they been going very long at that point, Bill? Had you -- ? BILL ENGLISH: Beg pardon?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Had Wien Airlines been going that long when you joined them?
BILL ENGLISH: Oh, Noel flew into Wiseman in 1924 and I was just a little over a year old, but I remember that -- the excitement in the town.
Some people were scared. Some, of course, were elated and so, yeah, it caused a lot of excitement.
But from then on I think maybe within two to three years the airplanes started coming in fairly regularly, 'cause it was, well, fast communication between Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Whereas in the old days -- we were talking about this the other night -- I think it was 1,700 miles by boat down the Tanana, Yukon, and up the Koyukuk to Wiseman. And that was a long, long journey.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Definitely. Air travel changed the whole face of the country.
BILL ENGLISH: So the airplanes changed that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So you were doing the small -- into the small villages. What were you -- taking in supplies and post mostly into the small villages when you were flying there?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, mail and supplies, yeah. And a few people would fly.
Not many Natives were flying though if you were going into a Native village. Some of the miners could fly, but, yeah --
Experiences there, too. I remember going into Wiseman one day and some miner over on the South Fork of the Koyukuk wanted to go and look at his property.
And I didn’t know -- I told him I didn’t know the way. He says, "Oh, I know the terrain like the back of my hand." And so okay. We got up in the air and he was lost. .
Yeah. I had a few things happening like that.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Did you eventually find it?
BILL ENGLISH: I think we did, yeah. Well, I knew the general direction, so we got into that area and finally found it.
But that was enlightening to me that, you know, a person could be on the ground and really know -- know it very well, but yet up in the air you lose all your perspective.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Very interesting. So when you started with Wien Airlines, where were you flying then? What was your --
BILL ENGLISH: Well, I was with Wien at that time up on the Slope. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
BILL ENGLISH: And whatnot. And once I moved into Fairbanks, they started me in the twin engine aircraft as co-pilot.
And as soon as I got enough time, a fellow and I by the name of Burt Galbraith, Galbraith Lake is named after him, went down to the town below LA or by -- right next to LA where there was a flight school.
We were going to get our instrument ratings and so I think by the time we took -- studied for the writtens and did the aircraft training, it probably took three or four weeks, I suppose.
And by the time I finished the instrument rating they approached me to go for my airline transport pilot rating. And I never had any idea I’d go for that, but I guess I did.
And so when I came back to Fairbanks, then, I had an airline transport rating.
And so I flew co-pilot and then the next year I went down to the University of Southern California and got a rating in the DC-3.
And so that propelled me into the left seat, so I was made a captain at my very young age. Yeah.
Which probably raised the same old questions that arose back when I first started flying, but so I was fortunate that --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And the benefit of the DC-3 was that you didn’t have the --
BILL ENGLISH: Well, no, Wien briefly had a 240 -- Boeing 247D and the co-pilot on the right had the handle that lowered and raised the gear.
And Bob Rice, who was chief pilot of Wien out of Fairbanks, were flying mail and supplies out to the West Coast.
And Chuck West, you may have heard of him, was the co-pilot and they went out to the coast at Unalakleet. The weather was bad. Bob made an approach and missed -- missed because of the weather and so they climbed back up to altitude.
And Bob says, "Well, we'll take another shot at it." And Chuck says, "Well, if we don’t land, we haven’t got the gas to go back to Galena."
That 247D didn’t have a long range. And so Chuck was worried about running out of fuel and not making it back to where they could land safely.
And Bob says, "Well, we'll go ahead and give it a shot." And Chuck says, "No, we can’t do that." And co-pilots don’t do that to the captain.
You just don’t do that if you expect to get anywhere.
In the argument Bob said, "Well, I say we're going to land and I'm the captain."
And Chuck West says, "I’m the co-pilot and I have the landing gear." And so -- I thought that was a neat story.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And they landed safely?
BILL ENGLISH: Well, no. They went back to -- they -- they -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That’s funny.
BILL ENGLISH: The captain there couldn’t argue with -- yeah. But -- but Chuck, I think he -- I don’t know if he made another trip. He started Chuck West Tours.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Okay.
BILL ENGLISH: And, of course, that grew into a big enterprise.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You were saying you were quite young when you became captain. Exactly what age were you, Bill, do you remember?
BILL ENGLISH: I was probably 25. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow! BILL ENGLISH: Or something like that.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That is young, yeah. So from then on what happened? You were flying with Wien.
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. Well, I just progressed from one airplane to another. I can’t name them all, but --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Just kept getting larger and larger.
BILL ENGLISH: So -- But what it did was, I became more and more remote from the people that I knew, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Did you have a favorite flight path at all that you used to -- did you enjoy flying certain places more than others?
BILL ENGLISH: You mean with the larger airplanes? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, with the larger airplanes. BILL ENGLISH: Well --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And also with the smaller ones, too, yes.
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. With the larger ones, especially when you got up to altitude -- high altitudes you really saw less and there was more automation, auto pilots and such and so --
Yeah, it was so different from say flying a small Cub on floats where you could fly 10 feet off the ground.
And even the DC-3, I can remember flying the DC-3 from Barrow south to -- going back to Fairbanks.
And in good weather we could just fly a few hundred feet off the ground very low. And there were a hundred thousand caribou in that area at the time. And you could see the wolves running with them.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow!
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah, and the wolv -- they're just trotting along and I guess wolves when they got hungry they'd spot a dinner and so, yeah, it was far more interesting.
Yeah. Flying low and slower like with the Cub on floats we used to fly in off a lot of the lakes up north and whatnot.
I used to at one point there in 1947 fly some people coming up surveying or just people -- geologists. One -- I can remember carrying rocks across the tundra for him.
He was a young man and that was really interesting and landing in places that -- well, challenging.
Like I think the Sagavanirktok River that runs out of the Brooks Range not too far from Prudhoe Bay. Fast running river.
You land in the river like that and you have to figure out how you're going to get out and secure the airplane and then get back in it. As soon as you run out you're going downstream about thirty miles an hour before you even get things started. So, yeah, are we running short of time?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No, not at all. Not at all. We have as much time as you're willing to give.
ROBYN RUSSELL: We've got about thirteen minutes left on the --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Thirteen minutes left on the tape, yeah. So we can take a break. We can take a break now or we can take a break.
BILL ENGLISH: I'll take a drink of water. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You’ll take -- BILL ENGLISH: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So any really hairy moments that you can remember that you were landing and -- other than the ones you've mentioned?
BILL ENGLISH: I suppose one of the hairiest ones was Wien was doing some flying out to the ice island. You've heard of those?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No, I haven’t. Where's ice island?
BILL ENGLISH: Oh, there're some -- a couple of ice islands where people were out there surveying and plotting the drift and whatnot. And Wien had been flying out there first with a DC-4 and then with the Lockheed --
SYDNOR STEALEY: Constellation.
BILL ENGLISH: Constellation, yeah. And dropping supplies. You couldn’t land, but dropping supplies.
And I kind of got in late to that because I was more into the F-27 program. And -- but they decided to check me out on the Constellation.
Well, I'd been flying the Constellation, but they decided to check me out on that route. So Merrill Wien took me up to Barrow and we loaded up on fuel -- 15 hours of fuel in the plane.
And Merrill Wien took off. Took off -- flew the airplane taking off the ice island. And before -- some time before we got to the ice island he turned it over to me.
And so we had a navigator on board to guide us most of the way to the ice island. And then the ice island had a small beacon that we could hone in on.
So we found the island fine, the weather was nice out there. And we made several passes.
And we had a crew in back with all the supplies to throw out as we passed over. But we couldn’t do it all at once, so we had to make several passes. Low level, and maybe we dropped a pass. That went fine.
We started back to Barrow. On the way back to Barrow we got a radio message that the fog had moved in and the weather was not good.
So we changed our destination to Barter Island.
As we approached Barter Island, the fog moved in. And then we really had a dilemma.
Because I don’t know how many, exactly how many hours we'd been in the air. But we had 15 hours of fuel. And I think we -- at that time we'd been in the air a good 13 hours.
So we had to look around for a suitable landing place.
And I told Bob -- as soon as we got the word that Barter Island -- this was I don’t know how far out from Barter we were, but I told Bob Roberts that we better go into maximum range. Which is cutting down on the fuel consumption, flying at a slower speed. And which Bob did.
Bob was a -- actually Bob saved our necks. And as we continued on toward -- of course, wanted to know what the weath -- the Bettles weather. We wanted to know what Fort Yukon weather was.
Fort Yukon was overcast, but operational.
And I thought, well, if we got -- once we went down we would never be able to come back up because we didn’t have the fuel.
And when we got to the Yukon River, we had used up our 15 -- we had been in the air 15 hours and Bob had drained -- I forgot how many tanks we had, but it must have been six or eight of them.
He drained all the tanks and it was -- the remaining fuel was in one tank.
And, of course, Fairbanks knew our dilemma. And as we approached Fairbanks, he told them that we wanted to make a straight in to International and that we didn’t have enough fuel to go around.
Well, we didn’t know we were going to have enough fuel to actually land it. And we wanted to fly -- keep -- stay at altitude where what fuel we had would get us farther.
And at the last minute go down to land.
And that’s exactly -- they had everything -- all the aircraft cleared and so we landed. And I think we had about ten minutes of fuel left.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Gives a new meaning to riding on fumes, doesn’t it? BILL ENGLISH: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow!
BILL ENGLISH: Yeah, but that was about the closest call, I think.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Good heavens. With that I think we should pause, yeah. That's unbelievable. Gosh. Must've been some real -- some knuckle people on that flight.
BILL ENGLISH: Well, at least in the flight crew, we -- especially Bob Roberts, he really --he really managed the fuel so skillfully. And he saved our necks on that one.
But in the cockpit we had something to do. Those people in the back, including Merrill Wien, must've been --
Must've had some thoughts. In fact, Merrill came up for Holger Jorgensen’s birthday, and we talked about that a little bit. He hadn’t forgotten it either.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It's one of those stories I don’t think anybody would forget about. Well, that’s great. Thanks.