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Howard 'Mike' Hunt: Life of a bush pilot, in his own words

Howard "Mike" Hunt
He's lived here since the territorial days and has forgotten more about flying than most will ever know. Meet Mike Hunt, a WWII veteran, old school Alaska bush pilot and donor of a special aircraft to commemorate Alaska's 100th anniversary of flight, on July 4. Dashelle Goff photo

Alaska Aviation Legend Howard "Mike" Hunt has dedicated much of his life to flying in the Last Frontier. 

At 20 years old, Hunt flew B-17s to support U.S. efforts in the Second World War, eventually flying the Memphis Belle from Spokane to Florida after she returned from 25 missions in Europe. As a Lend-Lease pilot, Hunt flew hundreds of planes to and from Alaska. 

After the war, Hunt connected Alaskans to the mainland with a fleet of C-46 aircraft, and later worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, overseeing aviation infrastructure buildout in the newly-minted U.S. state of Alaska.

Hunt helped launch the Alaska Wing of the Commemorative Air Force with the donation of his T-6 Texan and BT-13. He annually displays them with his L-2 Grasshopper. Hunt volunteers tirelessly at the Alaska Aviation Museum and is committed to inspiring new zeal for aviation.

Hunt’s story is best told in his own words.

Big dreams and close calls

I grew up as just an Iowa farm boy, plowing fields in the hot sun behind flatulent horses, and dreaming of an airplane’s freedom. As a kid I worked long, hard hours on the farm but found time to build model airplanes … at a time when they were built from a picture or memory. After building solid models, I began constructing models that could fly. It took determination and ingenuity to hand-make each component.

In July 1943, I began delivering aircraft to Alaska. They showed us how to start the P-39 engines and told us to join as a flight of five with a B-25 leading us to Fairbanks. “No need to waste fuel shooting landings around Great Falls. Just follow the B-25 and by the time you get to Fairbanks you’ll be all checked out in the aircraft,” they said.

About 20 minutes north at 12,000 feet my engine sputtered and quit. I fell like a flat rock. I was remembering that they’d said if the engine quits, pull the side door and bail out: “We can get a new door but it takes a while to train a pilot,” they said.

 I reached for the door and looked down on snow covered peaks that didn’t look too friendly. I immediately concentrated on the malfunction, changing fuel sources, putting on a boost pump, and bringing the engine back to life. I rejoined my bewildered formation.

The P-39 has a tendency to overheat, so you needed to get airborne quickly. In my haste to take off before overheat I took off on a small reserve tank with a standpipe in it which lets the pilot know he has burned half his fuel. This was to alert combat pilots to return to base. For me, it was a close call, but the standpipe proved it was doing its job.

We pilots enjoyed the Alaska flights, as it gave us a chance to fire some of the armament aboard. Of course, that didn’t last long. The authorities simply pugged our barrels and took all our ammunition away. We could still do a little dog fighting and buzzing along the Alcan Highway. Many a truck convoy was driven into the ditch to avoid a diving P-39. I’ll have to say I was no angel and enjoyed every minute.

The ground crews that worked up and down the Alcan Highway were always asking flight crews to bring up some booze. I invested in a dozen cases of good whiskey and made stops en route to Ladd (Ft. St. John and Ft. Nelson) dispensing my merchandise. By the time I got to Ladd Field we had a bunch of Canadian money. When I returned to Great Falls, the CIA, Army MPs, and Commanding Officer all wanted to see me. My defense was that I was being a Good Samaritan, bringing the ground mechanics some of the pleasures of life. I lost money on the whole affair because I purchased the booze in American money and was paid in Canadian money—worth 15% less! Another lesson learned.

Anchorage homesteading

In 1947 Ruth and the family, now three girls, joined me in Alaska. We bought a little house in Woodland Park in Spenard, then located a homestead on the east side of Anchorage, about five miles from town. The only access was with an old four-wheel weapons carrier or walking a trail off Oil Well Road on Fort Richardson. There was no electricity, water, telephone, or convenience. Groceries and all supplies were carried on our backs on a pack board.

We erected a 16 x 16 cabin and started living there in 1950, with a summer water well that froze up in the winter. I spent most of my time in town managing the company. To prove up on the homestead, the wife had to live there if you were married. Ruth was there alone with the three little girls. The next year Debarr Road was pushed out and Dick Turpin used heavy equipment to connect with Turpin Road. We added on and our homestead grew into a three-bedroom home. The land became the Huntwood Subdivision.

I next tried to prove up on a homestead in Kenai, but Ruth rebelled. She’d made enough sacrifices! In later years, oil was discovered in the Swanson River Field and we would have been unitized under that discovery and received royalties!

We thought we’d dig clams and fly loads south to make money. Thirty days and $10,000 in losses later we determined we didn’t know how to successfully do that! Not counted in those losses were my jeep that was stuck on the beach with the tide rolling in. Or the friend’s Stinson in which I was a passenger when it crashed on the clam beach.

'Too much service'

When I first came to Alaska to manage the Air Transport Associates (ATA) operation, I was the pilot, the delivery man, the mechanic, the ticket salesman, and anything else that came along. I was the check pilot and dispatcher and directed our ten Alaskan employees. I was spread so thin I wasn’t visible or effective anymore.

We were making money, grossing over a million annually, and had something worth saving. We preferred passenger traffic: a passenger was three times the revenue and it walked on and off the plane! We developed into a business making $2.5 million annually.

To attract business in the winter we slashed passenger fares to $60. We were inventive and aggressive in marketing, but it all came to a halt as the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) gave attention to non-scheduled airlines providing “too much service.” The scheduled airlines had a mail subsidy that was harmed by the ‘air coach” market that non-scheduled airlines created. By definition, non-scheduled airlines could not fly two Mondays in a row, two Tuesdays in a row, and every third week must give no service at all.

We could not operate an airline with that restriction, as our customers still needed service during that third week.

Simultaneously, I was managing Airline Services, Inc. whose purpose was to supply aircraft maintenance and repairs to transient air carriers at Anchorage, Seattle, Oakland and Baltimore. We then organized and promoted ATA Sales Company to promote and develop air travel to Alaska, focusing strictly on the marketing aspect of aviation.

I was engrossed in making the airline succeed. I only came home occasionally to change clothes and I was off again. Today, they call them workaholics. Ruth did a good job of raising the family, making decisions, and never complaining.

Looking back

I feel sorry for people that go through life not being able to do what they want. I got to do just what I wanted and got paid while I did it! The cockpit of an airplane was my office. My work for the CAA/FAA was like a paid vacation!

My wish for the Alaska Wing of the Commemorative Air Force is to see it grow and keep the legacy of World War II and the War Birds alive, so that other pilots can enjoy them. Originally, a proposal to start the Wing included a C-46, but that aircraft would be far too expensive to fly and was not a good fit. I have been a member of the Confederate Air Force for 35 years, and am impressed by the young kids who cherish memories of the tours they have taken in the aircraft.

In 2013 Alaska celebrated 100 years of flight, commemorating the first flight that occurred at Fairbanks in 1913. I was pleased to be included in that celebration, flying the State of Alaska in my World War II aircraft, along with other historic aircraft and pilots passionate about aviation and our rich history.

I look back and wonder how I survived the many times my life was on the line. I used to say, “We never got lost, but sometimes we didn’t know where we were!” It is not all skill and daring in survival, but mother luck plays an important part.

Each of the 2014 Living Legends of Alaska Aviation will be recognized by Alaska Dispatch over the coming weeks. Stories of the nine men and women honored in this year's project are provided by the Medallion Foundation and the Alaska Air Carriers Association.

Send your stories, videos and multimedia of flying wild to bushpilot(at)alaskadispatch.com