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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Al Wright

Alaska Dispatch
Courtesy Brice Banning

Aviation: The lifeline of Alaska communities. The Legends in Alaska Aviation project honors aviators who have changed the face of Alaska through flight, while they are still around to celebrate with us. On Sunday, Harold Esmailka was featured for the project. Today, we take a look at the adventurous life of Al Wright.

Early years

Al was born at Tanana Crossing, currently known as Tanacross, April 26, 1925, where he lived for two years before his family moved to Nenana. He grew in Nenana for four years, until again the family moved in 1930 to Minto.

Al speaks fondly of his parents, Arthur and Myrtle Wright.  Myrtle was a nurse (one of the few in the villages at the time) and tended to ailments as they arose. One particular event Al remembers is his mother fixing up a hunter that had been shot in the jaw.  The medicine men had given the man up for dead, but Myrtle stepped in and nursed him back to health.  Al said he figured she was a pretty good nurse, and the medicine men must have determined from the evidence that she was a pretty good medicine woman. 

Al said his father taught him how to get by in the woods, and to hunt and fish.  One trip he said he’d never forget was a fishing trip his father took him on.  They were net fishing for pike, and after they had caught some, his father told him to NOT put his finger in the pike’s mouth.  Well naturally, the first thing to go into the pike’s mouth was Al’s finger.  Once dad heard the screaming, he came down and pried the pike’s mouth open and released Al’s finger. Chances are real good that Al listened the next time his father gave him some advice.

Talking to Al about his career in aviation was like stepping back in time, to an era where one did not simply hop into their airplane and go sightseeing or fishing for the day.  This was a time when a pilot accomplished his mission by sheer willpower and a little bit of luck. 

Al said he had wanted to fly almost from the time he can remember.  He was about six years old and loved watching the aircraft land in Minto.  He literally worshipped the pilots.  His dream to fly would materialize years later after he had served in the US Army in World War II and used money from his G.I. Bill to obtain his long-coveted pilots license. 

Al served his country during the Great War as a heavy equipment operator.  He didn’t get drafted early on like so many young men because he had received a deferment from active service.  It turned out that Al was a skilled heavy equipment operator and the Territory of Alaska needed his skills building runways and putting in towers so the United States military could ferry aircraft to Russia.  When Al finally got tired of this work, he quit and was promptly drafted. 

Within three years they owned nine airplanes and had every private pilot in the area flying for them.  Al owned and operated many airlines during his career, but three will be forever etched in the memories of Alaska Aviators:  Wright Airways (If there’s air, we’ll fly you there!) in 1948, Nenana Air Service in 1950, and Wright Air Service.  Wright Air Service was started in 1966 and continues the tradition of serving the rural communities of Alaska to this day.

Flying Adventures

The US Army, in its infinite wisdom, ignored Al’s heavy equipment skills and trained him as an infantryman.  He was through boot camp and on a ship to the Pacific when they received orders to turn back.  Al finished up his Army commitment, went back to heavy equipment in the civilian sector and earned his private pilot’s license as soon as he possibly could.  He intended to just use his license for his own personal use, but it just didn’t turn out that way.

Al bought his first airplane, a Taylorcraft, while he was working at a coal mine in Healy.  He just did his own thing until one day when he was sitting at the airfield with nothing to do and a guy approached him wanting a charter.  The guy needed furs picked up near the Ladue River.

Al rented his aircraft for $20 an hour:  pilot and fuel included.  He figured this was the way a guy could make money, so he started hauling trappers around and it just kind of developed into a business.  There was no one at the time flying into Minto, so Al thought “what the heck” and started regularly flying to Minto as well. 

Al had picked up a pair of surplus floats at a military surplus auction for $600 and decided to put them on the aircraft.  He was at Fairbanks putting on the floats when a Wien employee wanted to know when he’d be done putting the floats on.  The guy from Wien’s told Al there was a man down on a lake, in pretty bad shape, and probably dying.  Al finished installing floats and put the aircraft in the water. 

Now here’s the kicker:  Al had NEVER flown floats in his life.  His maiden voyage, he takes off, flies out, picks this guy up and brought him back. After that, he flew about 200 hours on floats before he got his legal rating.  Al said the Feds finally caught up with him and although he had no formal instruction, he easily got the rating. 

A streak of bad luck struck just after Al purchased a gull-wing Stinson. He had spent all his money repairing the plane, and everything was fixed except for a leaking fuel selector valve between the pilot and co-pilot seats.  Al was hauling a load of material with a passenger from Fairbanks to Nenana, when his passenger yelled out, “Jeez, we’re on fire!”  The entire back of the aircraft was on fire and the fire extinguisher was useless.  Al was still about 500 feet over Nenana when he thought his passenger was trying to jump out of the aircraft.  Al talked him into staying in the aircraft and told him to bail out as soon as the aircraft touched the ground.  The aircraft was consumed in flames, so much so that Al’s passenger had wrapped himself in a sleeping bag and Al couldn’t see out the windows.  Al figured he was about 300 feet high, going about 130 miles per hour, when the aircraft exploded.  It hit the trees and came to a stop. 

Al jumped out of his seat and tried to shoulder his way through the door to escape the fire, only to find out his efforts were wasted, the door was long gone in the crash.  He began looking for his passenger and realized he was still inside the aircraft, tangled up in the sleeping bag.  He got the passenger out, made it about 30 feet, and then passed out from smoke inhalation.  Al was pretty messed up, his nose was cut off and he had cuts around his eyes and scalp.  Luckily for Al, there was a doctor in Nenana and he was able to patch Al up pretty good, although he felt like he had been beaten with a sledge hammer. 

Hurting for money, Al figured he needed to get to work as quickly as possible.  One eye was bandaged completely, but he could see out of the other.  When a fur buyer needed a ride to Tolovana, Al took the trip just to earn something.  It was a fifteen dollar trip at 50 degrees below zero.  Al loaded his Taylorcraft and took off.  The engine quit on takeoff and he crashed within 200 feet of where he had crashed the Stinson. 

Al was out of airplanes and out of money.  He couldn’t get credit for another airplane because he was a poor risk.  Soon after, Al ran into a buddy of his, Hans Ratzebeck, who had a similar streak of bad luck.  They got together, started a business called Nenana Air Service and it took off! 

Another memorable story Al tells includes flying to McCall Glacier when he was working for Wien’s.  He had flown glaciologists out and set up a base camp near 6,000 feet.  They wanted their actual camp at 8,000 feet, so Al went up to see if he could land his aircraft.  He decided he could, so they began sitting up camp.  After a few weeks, the Air Force brought in C-119’s to drop generators and fuel.  The next winter, Al flew in to haul one the glaciologists out because he had been having family problems.  Sadly, the man had passed away before Al arrived. 

On the way out, at the base of the glacier, Al flew by an emergency camp they had set up the previous year.  He saw a bear at the camp and tried to scare it away with the airplane.  The bear wouldn’t leave, so he decided to shoot it before it totally destroyed the camp.  He landed on the lake ice at the bottom of the glacier, and before he had come to a stop, his buddy was yelling at him that the bear was chasing the airplane!

Al took off with that bear right on his tail trying to grab the airplane.  At this point, they decided to shoot it from the air.  Al was coming in about 10-15 feet off the ground and the bear was standing on its hind legs trying to grab the plane out of the air.  His partner put one shot into its chest and it turned and ran toward the emergency camp.  Al came back around to shoot it again, and once again, it tried to rip his airplane from the air.  They shot the bear in the chest again, and it wandered out on the ice and lay down.  Al said they circled it for a while and then landed about 100 yards away.  Al obviously didn’t want to give that bear another chance at his airplane!

Free flights for bank robbers

One of the funnier stories Al shares is a time he flew to Eagle where a pilot had wrecked a Cherokee 6 and knocked the nose wheel off.  He flew the replacement parts to Eagle and returned to Fairbanks.  When Al pulled up to the gas shack in Fairbanks there was a guy standing there who wanted to charter a flight to Yakutat.  When Al said, “No,” the guy said, “How about Anchorage?”  Al agreed, and wanted to hurry and get the flight going because of a weather front approaching.  The guy used a company check to pay Al, which was $50 more than the charter cost.  He gave the guy his $50 in change and they headed for Anchorage. 

Al dropped the guy off and flew back to Fairbanks.  It was getting dark and the weather was “going South” pretty quick.  Al was getting into trouble and knew it.  When he finally picked up some lights, he was pretty sure he had Healy in sight.  He was flying around 8,000 feet and started to descend.  Around 5,000 feet Al lost sight of Healy and had to climb back up and try to find Fairbanks.  To make an already bad situation worse, now the artificial horizon was the only instrument working.  Al figured he’d fly for twenty minutes, then drop elevation.  After his radio died, he managed to hook up another radio while he was flying and received the Nenana weather information.  They said the weather in Fairbanks was about zero visibility. 

By now, Al had flown over Nenana and was headed for Fairbanks.  The weather was so bad that by the time the Fairbanks tower got him on radar he was almost to Eielson!  He was talking to the tower and they were trying to get him to Fairbanks, and the last transmission he got said he was at one mile.  The tower had given him a heading, so he held it.  All at once, he heard a funny noise.  It was spruce trees hitting the fuselage of the aircraft.  He saw the Chena River when he passed over it, but was so disoriented from the storm that he thought it was Salchaket Slough.  Al saw a tree line and followed it—lucky, because if he hadn’t seen the tree line, he would have flown straight into Chena Ridge in Fairbanks.  All at once he saw a runway light and quickly lowered the wheels (he had retracted them earlier anticipating bellying the aircraft in on the river).  Al got the aircraft down on the ground with no damage at all.  The tower believed he had crashed. 

The next day, Al’s wife deposited the payment check the man had given him for the charter. The saga continued as the FBI showed up at Al’s door.  As it turned out, the charter passenger Al had flown to Anchorage was a wanted bank robber who had also broken into a fish cannery, stealing checks in the process.  The check he had given Al was worthless.  Al said after that, he became known as the “go-to-guy” if, “You want a free trip to Anchorage and fifty dollars spending money!”

Celebrating a life in aviation

Al has owned and operated aircraft most people can only dream about; a Howard DGA, Stinsons, Pacers, Widgeons, A skyrocket 500, Aeronca Sedans, Helios, Twin Beech 18, Cherokee 6, CE-206, 207 and 172, a Navion and many, many others. All total, Al figures he has owned 63 different aircraft and has flown over 28,000 hours, 80 percent of which was bush flying.

Al Wright has spent a lifetime meeting the unique challenges that surround us here in Alaska: flying into places few others have been or would even dare to go.  He has trained succeeding generations how to fly safely, passing on the richness that can only be experienced when we “slip the surly bonds of earth” and soar heavenward. His exploits, breadth of knowledge and willingness to pass these skills to others leave a legacy for those who will follow and have helped build the aviation foundation upon which we stand today.