Ralph Savory was interviewed on November 8, 2007 by William Schneider at his home in Santa Rosa, California. His daughter, Diane, was also present during the interview. In this first part of a three part interview, Ralph talks about how he became interested in aviation and learned to be a pilot, coming to Alaska and being a bush pilot for Star Air Service in Alaska where he delivered people and freight all over the Kuskokwim River region of southwestern Alaska, and then getting a job with Pan American Airways. He discusses pioneering the commercial aviation route between Alaska and Seattle and how that influenced commerce and passenger travel to and from Alaska, and being the first one to land a jet at Juneau's airport. He also mentions flying in the Pacific and the Aleutian Islands during World War II, as well as charters to Asia and over the sea ice in northern Alaska.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Pioneer Aviators
Date of Interview: Nov 8, 2007
Narrator(s): Ralph Savory
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider
People Present: Diane Savory
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Ralph's family and educational background
Ralph's quitting school and getting a job
The beginning of Ralph's interest in aviation
Buying an airplane and his first flight to Alaska
Rescuing duck hunters and getting notoriety
End of story about rescuing duck hunters and learning about bush flying
Starting work with Star Air Service
Delivering loads all over the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta
Ralph's new career move to Pan American Airlines
Family life and flying
Early navigational aides for flying from Seattle to Fairbanks
Getting to know Alaska Link
Dealing with landing in ice fog
Flying for Pan American Airlines in the Aleutian Islands during World War II
Flying in the Pacific arena at the end of World War II
Flying the first oil exploration group to Barrow in 1943 and landing on the sea ice
Flying charters from San Francisco to Shanghai and spending time in Japan
Returning to flying the Alaska route for Pan American Airlines
Pioneering flights into Juneau
Delivering fresh food to Fairbanks
Development of navigational aides on the air route from Seattle to Fairbanks
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BILL SCHNEIDER: We have the pleasure today of doing an interview with Ralph Savory and his daughter Diane is here with us. I’m Bill Schneider. It’s November 8th today, I think, 2007. So I appreciate you taking the time to do this. Thanks.
Let me just check to see how we're doing. Ok, I’m going to hook you up here in a second, but let’s start with your family history. A little bit about who your folks were, and where they came from. So, let me hook you up here. This won’t be painful.
RALPH SAVORY: Oh, well that’s good. Can I talk?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Go for it
RAPH SAVORY: Ok, my family history. I was born in the Santa Rosa area, on a farm out there in Bennett Valley, and both of my parts of my family were sort of pioneers. My great grandfather come out here in 1850 on ox cart, and settled near Santa Rosa and on my mother’s side, they were from Ireland, and they settled in the Bennett Valley out here and started a grape -- vineyard.
So they, there were eight children born on my mother’s side, there was five boys and three girls, and during the turn of the century a grape disease called the grape phylloxera got into the grapes and killed all the vines and it was a big heavy mortgage on the place, so they lost the place. In the mean time my great grandfather had died, and all those kids scattered into the wind, except my mother, she stayed and she married into the Savory family who lived up in the mountains nearby.
So in 1913, I was 3 years old, we went to Nevada, and I spent my boyhood in Fallon, Nevada over there, until I got about in my early teens and I moved back to Santa Rosa and graduated from grammar school out here in the country school and went to high school here, four years of high school. And then that’s about the general idea.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay, let me just adjust this a little bit, we’re picking up a little bit here -- that'll be better.
So, then you did some junior college too, didn’t you?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, I graduated from high school in 1928, and I got a job that summer, and I come back and registered out here for the junior college. The ten class and everything.
Right about this time -- my mother had passed away when I was 13, and my father decided that he would have a bride. So he brought a bride home. A very small home and everything. So the way things worked out, there was no room for a 19 year old kid and a man with a new bride, so I had to quit school and I went down to San Francisco. And lived with an aunt down there, and got a job, and learned to fly.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we have to back up then, and ask about how you first became interested in aviation.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, well of course first I was interested in steam locomotives. I was just fascinated by those big steam locomotives they used to operate over in Nevada. over in the Sierras there.
But anyhow, when the diesels started coming along, I kind of lost interest because I didn’t want to get messed up with the stinky old diesel.
So then I become interested in airplanes, because Lindberg had made his flight in 1927 when I was in school and created a lot of interest.
And then we had the Dole Race down there which people have -- since pretty much forgotten about, but it was a big operation. Dole was a very rich man, in the Hawaiian Islands. He put up a $25,000 prize for anybody that could fly from San Francisco to Honolulu, and people come from all over the country to fly.
Most -- some of them cracked up on takeoff. A few of them got off the ground. I think three of them made it. The rest went into the ocean out here. We lost a lot of people.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you watch that race? Did you watch the start?
RALPH SAVORY: Well, I was down there just prior to the takeoff. A day or so before the takeoff while they were still getting ready.
But surely they had -- I don’t know whether we had radio then. I think it was radio to news to keep track of them. So it was pretty exciting. And --
How I really got interested in flying was that I got a job up on Van Ness Avenue in one of the big car dealers on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. And one of the mechanics there who had just got his commercial license and he needed a student, so he talked me into teaching me to fly.
So, we had an airport down south of San Mateo down on a big grassy lot. They called it the “Speedy Johnson Flying School.” And we had some World War I Jennies, so I started out my instruction in a Jennie.
And about that time, it was the CAA then that was ruling aviation. And they decided to eliminate this, so they grounded all those airplanes. And we bought some -- they bought some new airplanes, but we still had that OX5 engine in it, that was a world war engine in all those new airplanes.
But anyhow that -- through 1929, I’d go down early in the morning before work. And take the train down and learn to fly. And so I got my first license in August of 1929, that was a private license.
So then I -- then there was a little period that I didn’t do any flying, but I started hanging around Oakland airport over there. There was a lot of activity over there.
You could buy a little flying time in there and pretty soon in about two years it took me to build up 200 hours so I could go for my commercial license. So I got the commercial license and then I got to fly forest patrol and a little barnstorming.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, instructing and everything. But I wasn’t getting any place, and I wanted to work for the airlines because I -- but I didn’t have enough time to qualify. So there were some of the fellows off Oakland going to Alaska and they seemed to be eating regularly after they got up there.
So I had a half-interest in an airplane, so I bought this -- somehow I got enough money to buy this half-interest out and I overhauled it and took off for Alaska.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That must have been quite a flight.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, it was. I flew from Oakland airport to Seattle, and we took it apart up there and loaded it on the Steamer Yukon, and we offloaded in the middle of the night at Cordova.
What happened, the local airplane operator came aboard, I was -- I had the airplane destined for Valdez. And he came aboard about 3 o’clock in the morning. He said, “If you’re taking that airplane to Valdez you’re gonna be in a lot of trouble." Because he says, "They got about 40 feet of snow over there. You’re on wheels. You’ll be there until the middle of summer. So why don’t you take it off here? We’ve got a hangar out here and you can put it together and we have no snow.”
So I said, well let’s unload it. And I stayed there. So I had the use of his hangar. Lathrop. Remember the name Lathrop? Well, he owned the hangar there.
And a bunch of high school kids hanging around out there and they helped me put the airplane back together, because I had the wings off and all of them. So I got it all ready to go, and (Dean) Kirkpatrick gave me a lot of good advice on what to do and everything because I -- I had no experiences.
But anyway, I flew it to Anchorage, and it was a nice big beautiful day, and there wasn’t a soul around. It was kind of a lonesome arrival. And I was about as welcome as a skunk in church, because there were too many pilots and too many airplanes for too little business. And they didn’t like to see anybody else moving in on their operation.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How did you -- did you follow the coast up when you flew from Cordova?
RALPH SAVORY: I flew right across Prince William Sound, right down Turnagain Arm, right in just like an old timer.
But then, well, I kept getting little jobs enough to eat on, and pay my -- I had a room in the Inlet Hotel. $6.00 a week. And that helped out. And you could get breakfast for a dollar, and lunch for a dollar. Dinner cost you a little more. But anyhow I get by. But anyhow, this went on here --
So I better tell you about an incident that happened up there. My first chance to make a little notoriety, and get my name in the paper. It was in the fall of ’35. Some duck hunters. Two of them. Got in a small boat with an outboard motor and they went down to the Cook's Inlet (Cook Inlet).
And the weather's roughed up, and the wind was blowing, and they were gone about a week or so. And their folks began to worry about them. And the word got over town, “Wonder what happened to those duck hunters?” So there's an operator by the name of Clarence Marsh there and he propositioned me to go look for these guys with his airplane.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh huh. (Discussion about turning off furnace noise.)
BILL SCHNEIDER: Ok, were talking about the duck hunters.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah. Well, anyway, this operator had a Curtiss Robin that would pack three passengers. And it had big donut wheels on it, huge wheels. He propositioned me to go look for these guys.
I took off in his airplane, and I found a cabin about 15-20 miles down the Inlet there with smoke coming out of the chimney. So I found a place on the beach I could land about a half a mile away, and I walked down, and here these two guys are in a nice warm cabin. They were just waiting out the weather. They were smart enough.
So I told them what the situation was, that their families were worrying about them, and everybody else was worrying about them. They said, “Well, we’re not ready to go. We’ll tough it out.” So I said, “Okay. The things all paid for and everything, so don’t worry about that.”
But anyway, I closed the door and started walking back toward the airplane, and for some reason I got pretty close to the airplane, and I turned around and looked, and here they come. Had an outboard motor between them and they were running to catch me.
Then we loaded them up, and took them back into Anchorage. Well, this fellow that owned the airplane, he had started up all the news around there that I’d probably bring these guys back, so we had Bob Atwood the editor of the paper, and all their families out there. So it was a big to-do!
The only thing that I thought, well, “I haven’t done anything great here.” But that --The evening news was that almost the headline: “Pilot Savory rescues duck hunters,” you know. So, so that’s the end of the story. But anyway, I got a little bit of publicity out of that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you were learning bush flying then?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, I was learning the hard way by doing it. Well, let’s see.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we should get you on to Star -- when you started with Star, I think.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, okay. Well, I might just say that I operated my own airplane through ’35 and up into December. And then I recognized that that was a hazardous thing for one man and one airplane, so I sold the airplane.
And I got an assignment with another pilot up there to go back to Cleveland and pick up this Pilgrim and fly it out to Seattle and then ship it from Seattle with the promise of a job when I come back to Anchorage.
But, when I got back to Anchorage, I spent a few days around there, and this fellow that promised me a job, there was no activity. But anyway I was walking -- Well, I was running across the intersection right in the middle of Anchorage, and the manager for Star Air Service, Kenny Neese, come out and he said, “Hey.” He told me, he said, that he had a Bellanca out there in Merrill Field.
He says, “It’s got a rough engine on her and the other pilots around here won’t fly it.” He said, “If you’ll fly it, you got a job.” And I I says, “Lead me to it.”
So,it was just like that. So we went out and flew the airplane around a little bit. And I liked it. And he liked the way I handled the airplane. So I had a job with Star.
So they -- over the next couple of days they loaded me up with a load of a couple of passengers, mail and freight, sent me over the Kuskokwim. So that’s how I got with Star.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And you did quite a bit of flying on the Kuskokwim.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, I spent most of my time over there. That was my operational area. Kuskokwim and Lower Yukon.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I think you had described it as “trolling for business.” They gave you the airplane and the gas.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah. That’s right. You delivered your first load, and then you were on your own. Any business you can rustle. You got 15% of the gross, and the company got 85% of it. So that’s the way we were paid. We were on commission.
But, they called a halt to that later on, when they recognized that this setup that they had with the guys operated as an individual, we got to competing among ourselves. In other words, we were stealing one another’s passengers or something like that. So they decided that wasn't a good thing. So they put us on salary. But anyhow, that --
BILL SCHNEIDER: I bet you had some unusual loads then, huh?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah. The usual thing out of Anchorage is the Star Route Mail, which we got 25 cents a pound for that whether we packed it 5 miles or 500 miles.
And we usually had weekly deliveries of fresh meat for the minings, which we threw out of the airplane. Made drops at the designated areas.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Was that a tricky thing to do if you were flying?
RALPH SAVORY: Well, no. What we’d do is take the door off, and then we’d get one of the kids from McGrath there to go along with us and throw it out. We’d get lined up and say give the signal for the kid to drop the meat. Because the meat was kind of packed up into 15-20 pound burlap sacks, so he could throw it out the door when I would say “Throw it out.”
So that’s the way we’d drop the meat. Bombing practice. I remember one place called Candle Creek there that the mining operation was right at the outlet of a canyon. Well, we had to -- instead of dropping it toward to the canyon we’d always go up in the canyon and turn around and drop it going away so we wouldn’t get boxed in.
I got a little, little mail story if you want it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure.
RALPH SAVORY: I started out of Anchorage with a whole load of Star Route Mail, and the weekly meat and everything, and I had -- and in amongst this mail I had a bag for Medfra. That's up north and out of -- And it’s kind of off the beat. And it didn’t appear to be anything in it, it just look like an empty bag. So when I got to McGrath I unloaded all that mail there and then I distributed. I went around to Ophir and so forth.
A couple of days went by while I was busy around there. I thought maybe somebody would come along and pick that mail up and take it up. So I asked the guy in the store that had the post office, I says, “Do you still have that bag of mail for Ophir?” Not Ophir, I mean Medfra. He said, “Yeah,” he says. So I said “Well, give it to me, I’ll take it up there.”
So I went up there and I landed and a young woman come out to meet the airplane. And I had this bag, and I give it to her. She was in the store. She said, “Can you wait for a little bit?” And I said, “Sure.” So I went down to the store with her, and when she opened it up, in that bag was a wedding dress. Her wedding dress. And a ring. And she says, “Will you take us down to Ophir so we can get married?”
And I said, “Yeah, why not." I said, "Sure.” I said “Where’s the other half of us?” She said, “Oh, he’s around here.” So she gets busy and ruffles up her hair or something, and puts this dress on with all the wrinkles in it. And he shows up. He has bib-overalls, and he hadn’t had a haircut for about 6 months looked like. And he had knee high rubber boots on.
So I loaded them up and took them to Ophir, because the commissioner down there could perform the marriage. You know, they appointed store keepers as commissioners, and they had a lot of legal power. They can make marriages, arrest people, or have them arrested --
But anyhow, we got down to Ophir and the word got out in town. There was probably a population of 20 in the whole place. Got word that there’s a big wedding, so everybody come for the wedding.
So I had participated in the wedding, and when it came time to go I took them on their honeymoon trip back to Medfra and dropped them off. And that’s the last I ever heard of them.
But anyhow, the moral of the story is do not neglect to deliver a mail bag, because you think there’s nothing in it. Because there might be some of the most important thing in the world to some individual.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's a good one.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah. Well, that was the things you got involved in.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh huh. Well, then at some point there you ended up at the roadhouse in McGrath, and had an opportunity come up with Pan Am.
RALPH SAVORY: Well, yeah that -- After -- In late October of 1958. Wait a minute, 1938. It was on floats, and I had been working down on the Lower Kuskokwim and evidently heading back for Anchorage but I stopped in McGrath and I was definitely going to stay overnight because I was tying the airplane down.
And the radio operator of -- Pan Am had a little radio station there. And the operator come down with a telegram for me from the boss up in Fairbanks offering me a job with PAA. Well, I had -- I hadn’t any idea that he was going to -- that this was going to happen because --
But anyhow, what had had taken place, two of the pilots that were working for Pacific Alaska Airways at Fairbanks had gone to Miami, creating two vacancies up there. So the pilot group who I become well acquainted with in the operations chose me to fill one of these vacancies.
So anyway the -- I got in the airplane and headed for Anchorage, because I knew there was a big pay cut and everything. I wanted to talk it over with my wife. Then move to Fairbanks.
So I hopped in the airplane and went to Anchorage and got all the -- Stayed over night with my wife and we talked it over, and she was all for going to Pan American. So next day or next morning rather I got up early and I called -- I could talk to Fairbanks by phone for some reason or another at that time. It was probably the only --
So I called Pan Am, and said, “Yeha, I’ll accept the offer.” And I went over and severed relations with Star. And that afternoon I got on a train for Fairbanks with my little bag. And the train stopped over in McKinley Park. And they backed the train into a big barn, and there’s a hotel there and we over-nighted.
The next day we went on to Fairbanks, and we got there just at dusk. I remember the guys, all the Pan Am guys were there o meet me. So they got me settled in the hotel and everything.
The next morning I went out to the airport, it was old Week’s Field, and they had a Pilgrim sitting up out there. And I’d been flying it for Star. And they said, “Get in it and fly it around the lot here. And you’re checked out.” Normally, joining a big airline is an involved situation, indoctrination. And ground school -- its months before you see an airplane. But here, I’m checked out in a matter of minutes.
And so they wanted me to take the mail out to Nome next day. That would be November the 1st. The communications down at Star, we used radio telephone. And Pan American used Morse code key.
Well, I hadn’t had any experience with this Morse Code, but I knew the code. So I asked if I could take this airplane out and have a little practical experience work. So they said go ahead. So I went out and I called the Fairbanks station and we exchanged little greetings or something. But I figured I could handle it alright. So next day I went down the Yukon River, stopped at Manley Hot Springs, Kokrines, Ruby, Nulato, Golovin and then on into Nome. Next day I turned around and come back. It worked out pretty good. So --
BILL SCHNEIDER: That got you started with them.
RALPH SAVORY: Hm?
BILL SCHNEIDER: So that got you started. RALPH SAVORY: Oh yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did your wife come up with you at that time?
RALPH SAVORY: Well, she yeah -- that’s another story. She -- when I first went up, she come up in the summer of 1935. She had a job here in San Francisco, and so things looked pretty bleak. And I thought, well, I didn’t want her to spend the winter here, so we decided that she’d go back to San Francisco, and I’d go over and I’d go over and work out of McGrath over there. Which I did. got myself a little cabin over there.
But then when I sold the airplane, of course we didn’t know what was going to happen. And while I was come back to get that Pilgrim, I got a chance to spend some time in San Francisco.
So we thought well, we’ll go after this for a little bit longer and see how it works out. So then when I got the job with Star, I sent the word, “Come on up.” And so she come up to Anchorage, and then we had an apartment there. So she had a good time there. (Break in recording so missing audio, but the following summary has been provided by Ralph Savory: Pan Am began its first Seattle/Alaska operation with a 4 engine flying boat. They flew up the coast to Juneau connecting with land planes to continue on to Fairbanks. This worked out well during the summer weather, but the flying boat was not capable of dealing with winter weather. So, it was decided to go inland over British Columbia and abandon the flying boat.) So they decided that wouldn’t work out, so
they got a DC-3 up there and started land operations through Prince George and British Columbia. And went to Seattle to Prince George to Juneau, if the weather was good enough to get in there. Whitehorse, and on into Fairbanks.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That’s quite a trip. It took you a while.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, yeah. It's pretty rough country.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What were the navigation aides you had at that time?
RALPH SAVORY: None. Except Pan Am had two radio stations. One at Dease Lake, and another lake close to Prince George. And we could, with a loop, we could take bearings off of that, but that wasn’t a very satisfactory deal there.
But anyhow, we had to maintain ground contact to keep track of ourselves. That was one of the rules that the FAA had put on. But anyhow, we could range from the west coast, clear east of the Rocky Mountains to get into good weather.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, was it about that time that you got acquainted with Alaska Link and her family?
RALPH SAVORY: Oh yes, naturally. Alaska Link was well known over there. She ran the whole traffic department for Pacific Alaska Airways in Fairbanks.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let’s talk about her a bit.
RALPH SAVORY: Okay. Yeah. She sold tickets, and she brought their customers out to the airport in time to go. And, well, she was the whole department by herself, really. 'Cause she had an office down in the Nordale Hotel, as I remember.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And then, isn’t there a story about how you dealt with the ice fog, and checking out the runway?
RALPH SAVORY: Well. Yeah, that’s later on, we dealt with it in the old Week’s Field. That was pretty tough, because we had no lights on the thing. It was just a big extension to the ball park there. But when we moved out to the new airport, we had the --
And dealing with the ice fog, it’s man-made. It's relatively shallow, but it’s very thick. And we had a privilege of what we call "Look See" to go down and take a look and see if we could see enough to land. And we had another deal by where we could send the Pan American pickup out in it and count the lights. If we could see eight lights, then that was legal to come on in.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, then in 1941 is it, that you were transferred to Seattle?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, that was associated with this over -- operation up through British Columbia from Seattle to -- Pan American, after they had this experiment with the DC-3, they sent up three brand new Lockheed Electras. Not Electras, but Lodestars. Bigger airplane. And we operated that Lodestar operation from up there.
And that went along pretty good until World War II started. Then the Navy took Pan American over. At the -- In agreement with Pan American management that the whole airline would be taken over by the military.
So about that time the Japs had invaded Attu and Kiska, so well, just practically overnight we set up an operation as far as Adak. Through Anchorage, Cold Bay, Dutch Harbor and Adak. And we operated two trips a day out of Seattle.
But in the meantime, we had to gear up, fly -- gather up new pilots and everything, so it took a little doing to do that, but we finally got a pretty good operation going. And that lasted until the hostilities ceased out there, and then they folded that up, and went back to their regular schedule of the Lodestars.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That must have been something flying out into the Aleutians without equipment, huh?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, well again we lacked navigation equipment. But over the time they kept putting things in. They put a range in at Dutch Harbor. Well, I don't know if you asked that. A four-legged range. With the radios they -- it’s pretty hard to explain the dog-gone thing, but they put in one at near Adak. But in between we just had to fly by compass to get there and --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Wow. That’s a pretty hard go.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And then in 1944, I guess the flight crews -- excess flight crews were transferred?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, well, that’s right. When that Aleutian operations goes down, we had about 40 some crews. Some went to Miami, and some went to New York. And the senior guys got the choice of going to San Francisco, which is -- so I’m a senior so I got to go to San Francisco. And check out in the flying boats down there. So I got to fly the tail end of World War II in the Pacific area.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about some of that routing. That was pretty extensive.
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, we used to take off from San Francisco and go to Honolulu. And then from Honolulu go to Palmyra and Christmas Islands. And we stopped over at Funa Futi. That’s right on the equator. And Espirito Santos and New Hebrides and then in to Brisbane, Australia. And we turned around and doing everything backwards on coming home. It was a long haul down there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How long would you be gone, then?
RALPH SAVORY: Oh, well, maybe a couple of weeks sometimes. Because when you’re overnighting -- you only fly during the day time. You fly 10-12 hours and you stop for overnight.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I guess we should back up. I missed something a little bit earlier. You had mentioned flying that trip up with Sig Wien who was up on the ice out of Barrow.
RALPH SAVORY: Oh, that was in 1943, early 1943. And it involved taking the first oil exploration group in there. That was involved a trip from Fairbanks to Point Barrow, land on the sea ice out there because there was no airport at that time. And there was no -- the only guide or facility was the radio operator at Point Barrow. And he had a beacon, a radio beacon so they --
It was sort of a hush-hush operation as I remember, because very little was said about it because for military purposes, I guess. They equipped two DC4’s -- not DC4’s, but maybe R4D’s was the equivalent of a civilian DC3.
They equipped them with a special radar altimeter so we could tell how high we were off the ground by radio.
So I remember on the trip that we started out from Fairbanks, and it was 500 and some odd miles to Point Barrow. And as soon as we got over on the North Slope, it was just a big sea of fog as far as you could see. And it wasn’t very high. It was probably 1500 feet thick at the top of it, but it was lying on the ground.
So we had to fly right to Point Barrow and go over this beacon and let down out over the Arctic Ocean until we could see the sea ice. And the idea was that -- they didn’t have airport but they had to have a clearing on the ice like a landing strip. The clue was that was Sig Wien and his orange colored Bellanca would be setting on the ice where we were supposed to land about 7 miles west of Point Barrow. So we’d let down out over the Arctic Ocean, turn around until we could see the beach, and then we'd turn down and fly west.
And sure enough here was Sig Wien’s airplane sitting there on the ice. So we landed nearby and we off-loaded all these people and their equipment, and took off and went back to Seattle. It was quite a hair-raising operation there, letting down over that sea ice you didn't know. But this radar altimeter, I had it set for 150 feet. And when the red light come on, I could see ice.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What kind of aircraft was that you were in?
RALPH SAVORY: The Navy designation is R4D. It's a DC3 in civilian.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, I guess we got to get back to San Francisco. You finished with the flying boats there, and then at that point they -- you did some work for the United Nations, huh?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, they said United Nations, and that involved a bunch of charters with a brand new Lockheed Constellation. Land plane. From San Francisco to Shanghai. So we would fly from San Francisco via Honolulu, Wake Island and Tokyo. However, we didn’t land in Tokyo. We landed at a Navy Air Station. They called it Atsugi. It was about seven miles west of Yokahoma. It was a former Kamikaze training base. They had a runway there.
So we had a crew station there. And then that crew station there we would take it to Shanghai overnight and back. And then another crew would take it up over the Aleutians back into San Francisco.
So it was real pioneering. But anyhow, there was enough time, space between these charters that we had a lot of layover time in Japan. And that was just very short after the hostilities had ceased over there.
And so I remember, I don't -- we promoted a jeep, somehow, and three or four of us went down and we drove into the Emperor’s arsenal in Tokyo. I picked up three Samurai swords and a couple of Japanese rifles with all the chrysanthemum emblems ground off, because that would have been an insult to the Emperor if they'd left that on.
But I took that back and put that under my cot in this dormitory out at this Navy base that we were staying. And when I made my trip down to Shanghai and come back, I had one Samurai sword and one rifle left. Somebody had snitched it. But anyhow, that’s the trouble you get into. And, oh yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, then things changed. In October of ’46, you came back to the Alaskan run, huh?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, I had a nice home in -- south of San Mateo. And Diane was living there. She -- And so I was willing to stay in San Francisco. So they offered me the job chief pilot back in Seattle. And I thought, well, I’d better have a go at it, so I --
So we uprooted ourselves and moved back to Seattle. And I got back into the Alaska operation. So really, I've spent about 98% of my time in Pan America associated with Alaska. So that was a good experience. I was 23 years as a chief pilot there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, well we’ve got to talk about some of the details there. That was really the time in which you pioneered the flights into Juneau wasn’t it? RALPH SAVORY: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about that.
RALPH SAVORY: Well, actually we’d been flying in there with a DC3, and so I’d had so much experience with a four-engine -- flying into airports with both the DC4 and the Constellation. I told the company, I said that we could do a better job with a four-engine airplane, because for one thing it would eliminate the fuel stop at the Port Hardy out of Seattle. And we could fly non-stop with the --
But anyhow, they finally agreed that -- the company agreed that let’s give it a go. So I promoted an airplane to do what we called a survey flight. So I took it up to Juneau, and we --
I remember we had a CAA man with us on that one and we flew around there and it worked out great.
But then we had to make another flight, what they call a proving flight with the equipment. So we set it up, and by golly Anchorage, CAA at that time, sent a whole load of CAA people down to Anchorage to block this because they said, “You people can’t operate that big airplane in there.”
So we finally beat them down and proved to them in every way that that was a safe operation, which it finally did. I remember they had us load that airplane up to maximum take-off weight to make a departure. To go up to Fairbanks. But anyhow, the outcome was that we got approval of DC4 then.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What were they concerned about?
RALPH SAVORY: The turn around, due to the close proximity of terrain in there. And the radius of turn was governed by the speed of the airplane. In other words, you take up a lot more real estate doing it at 200 mph than you do at 150 mph.
So the secret was is to on the departure south, which is -- when the prevailing wind was always from the south, we had to take off in sort of this box canyon area and we had to turn around. So we had to turn around in there. And if we did that at 140 knots instead of land miles, we could go around very nicely. You could turn that big airplane around.
So that started that. And so that went along fine until we got -- the next airplane was the DC6’s. We took those. And that was a better airplane. And then we took the Boeing Stratocruiser. That was a big airplane. No word was said. No fuss about it. And then of course there was the question of taking the jets in there.
So, I was ready for them. I knew that they would probably look pretty close at that operation. So I had a trip southbound from Fairbanks, and I had a light load. So I said. And it It was good weather in Juneau, and I told the passengers, I said, "We're -- Unless someone objects, we’re going down in a simulated departure in Juneau here. We’re not going to do anything dangerous or anything."
So I took the airplane down. And working with the tower we went right down over the runway. And we poured the coal on this thing. Had it all set up from the departure configuration. Went over there, and went around. It was just as beautiful as ever. So I said “It will work.”
And I knew this --Well, finally we set up an operation. We were going to start the 707 in Juneau. And the FAA at Oklahoma City -- I know this is a big operation, but they got into the act. And one of their pilots in a simulator ran aground in this. Theoretically. In the simulator. And they put a stopper on it, and said “You guys can’t take that airplane in there.”
And the operation manager in New York called me up and said “Well, you might as well forget Juneau." He said, "The FAA's not going to let us take it.” I said, "That's it. I know it's safe." But anyway, we hung up and I thought, well, this thing is all over. About a half an hour later he called me up again and said, “How do you know you can operate that airplane in there safely?” Well, then I had to tell him what I had done.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What did he say?
RALPH SAVORY: Well, he says, "If that’s the way it is, let’s do it." So he called back, and said, “By God, were going to get that in.”
BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you think that would happen today?
RALPH SAVORY: I don’t think so. But anyhow, we set this thing up, and we took that 707 in there. Of course, you saw the picture of the first landing. They had had a big snow the night before and it was this nice fluffy white stuff. And I really floored the reverse on her, because I wanted to demonstrate that we could stop that airplane in a hurry. And I kicked up a big beautiful cloud of snow for about 2,500 feet, I guess.
But then we put on a real good demonstration for the FAA. The guy says, “No problem.” They call it a variant. They will issue a variant. We had to vary the rules a little bit to make that turn around in there.
But anyhow, we had proven it before the other big airplanes who had done the same thing. But anyhow, they’ve been operating jets in and out of Juneau for 40, 50 years now. And they’ve never had any problems in the area. Like close in.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Yeah. Let’s back up a little bit. When you were working those first flights up through Juneau, was that when you brought the fresh food up, the fresh vegetables and milk?
RALPH SAVORY: Well, the first -- with the DC4’s we set this freighter trip that would leave Seattle in order to arrive in Fairbanks at 6 o’clock in the morning. And that was an all freight. They done pretty well on that. They brought fresh milk, and fresh food and everything in.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So that was as early as 1947? RALPH SAVORY: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER And what was that aircraft? RALPH SAVORY: DC4. Freighter.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That must have had an impact on the Fairbanks economy, huh?
RALPH SAVORY: Oh sure. Yeah. Yeah, I remember somebody's got -- some of the crews got involved in the ice cream business up there. They hauled in the necessary ingredients for making ice cream, and froze it up there and they had a big ice cream out of it. I think they got in trouble over that. They finally folded up.
BILL SCHNEIDER So the thing about the DC4 was that it could fly non-stop?
RALPH SAVORY: Non-stop and pack a big load. That was capable of going from San Francisco to Honolulu with a normal load, and that’s over 2,000 miles. And Fairbanks is only 1,500, so we could really take a load of produce.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When did you see the development of the navigational aides on that route?
RALPH SAVORY: Well, that happened right -- while World War II was going on, they built the strip on Annette Island. They put a range station in there. And they put a range station over on Queen Charlotte Island. And we got guidance facilities through there, and then we'd --
At Juneau, that was always what I called a “steamboat operation.” We had to let down if we were -- if we were above the clouds or in the clouds, we let down at Gustavus. And then we flew contact in from there. And that was quite a little distance. About 40 miles down Canyon Creek or whatever.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When you say you flew contact --
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, well that's -- we had to fly contact from Gustavus over to --
BILL SCHNEIDER: But do you mean you had to fly looking at the land and -- ?
RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, but we got an instrument authorization to fly through the area, but we couldn’t -- they didn’t have an approach. So, that’s another thing Pan Am did. We got the first instrument approach in there. I had asked the station manager at Seattle to write to the CAA and suggest a localizer approach to the gap area.
You know how in Juneau you come through a gap? They called it -- had a fancy name for it, but it was a localizer off of an instrument landing system. And then with the cross-bearings off of Gustavus, we had an intersection out there that provided us with a fix to start in.
We could let down, I think we had very high minimums. A couple thousand feet on instruments. And that was the beginning. They probably got a lot better facilities in there now after all these years.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I don't know. Yeah. Well, I think what we'll do is -- I'm almost at the end of my tape here, so I think we'll take a break now so you can get a glass of water and relax a minute.