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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Glen Alsworth

Jane Dale
courtesy of Alsworths

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Legends in Alaska Aviation project celebrates pioneers in the field of Alaska aviation who are still with us today. We've already taken a look at the lives of a few amazing men: Al WrightHarold Esmailka, Bill Stedman and Rod Judy. Today, we go along for the ride with Glen Alsworth.

Glen Alsworth's Aleut grandmother, Tootsie, was born at the mouth of the Nushagak River in the village of Igushik. Glen's father, Leon "Babe" Alsworth, flew his own plane north from Minnesota with his brother, Lloyd, in 1938. The brothers arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, on New Year’s Day 1939. Glen's mother, Mary, was born in Pilot Point, Alaska.

Glen was born in 1954 at the old Providence Hospital in Anchorage, but grew up in Port Alsworth where his parents settled in 1942, back when Alaska was still a territory.

"Life was different back then," Glen recalls:

I grew up trapping fox, weasel and lynx, while my father taught me to fly an airplane. My mother taught us kids using the Calvert system. Once Alaska became a state, we used Alaska's education system. Because I was educated before the Molly Hooch decision of 1976 … I was required to attend boarding schools. In 1969 I finished elementary school in Newhalen ... I went on to attend Victory High School and was fortunate to earn my driver's license while I was in Palmer (because) my older brother didn't get his driver's license until he was 30 years old. Often after flying a plane commercially from Anchorage he would have to ask one of his passengers to drive him to the grocery store.

Early days of flying in Port Alsworth

Travel back and forth to Port Alsworth, a remote community of 159 in Southwest Alaska's Lake and Peninsula Borough, was (and remains) greatly affected by weather. On occasions, Glen's father had to wait up as long as 13 days just to travel to Anchorage. Today Glen rarely has to wait 13 hours. 

Glen learned to fly in the late 1960s and had his solo endorsement on floats in the family Taylorcraft by the time he was 16. Glen's father wanted him to hone-in on his own instincts and develop his natural talent, rather than adopt or learn his father's style, so Glen did not go to ground school. Instead he was put in the Taylorcraft and expected to learn.

The Taylorcraft was not equipped with flight instruments to reference, nor did it have dual controls; Babe Alsworth only had access to rudder pedals. The craft was difficult, to say the least, but Babe believed it was the best way for Glen to learn.

Once, while attempting a landing on Twin Lake's glassy water, Glen failed to maneuver properly and headed straight into the water. At the very last second, as the Taylorcraft hit the water in an 80-knot descent, Babe reached across the aircraft, grabbed the yoke, and saved them both from perhaps their very last flight.

"If I hadn't been here, you would have just killed yourself," Babe barked. "Now, fly over to the shoreline, and land like I told you to."

Babe was adamant that Glen benefit from the experience and that's why he'd let the situation completely unfold. It made an indelible impression that remains with Glen today. 

Babe also required Glen to master spins before his solo flight, and successfully complete power-off landings. 

"Flying power-off landings in the Taylorcraft was serious business," Glen said. "The aircraft didn't have an electric starter and when my father shut off the prop, there was no way to restart it. You simply had to land … successfully.

"Of course, the excitement didn't stop there," Glen said with a laugh. "The airplane also had no brakes, so once we landed on the ground, we had to open both doors simultaneously to produce equal drag to help stop the plane."

Glen earned his commercial pilot's license and gained experience as a commercial pilot starting with PenAir in 1975. Glen flew the Alaska Peninsula mail routes from King Salmon and Port Heiden to Chignik, Chignik Lagoon, Perryville and Ivanof. He originally flew PenAir's Cessna 180, Cessna 206, and Cherokee Six aircraft but was fortunate to gain flight time in their Piper Arrow, flying with George Tibbets, Sr.

Striking out on his own

With experience as a commercial pilot, Glen decided it was time to establish his own Part 135 operation using his father's Cessna 180. Glen still owns this aircraft and it is a cherished part of the Lake Clark Air fleet.

At that time, the state of Alaska's Transportation Commission had the responsibility of assessing and issuing a Public Convenience and Necessity permit before a Part 135 business could begin. Glen had to convince the commission that such an operation was needed in the Lake Clark area in order to obtain the permit. 

Two other air taxi operators opposed Glen’s application and he was denied his permit. 

Glen's response? He recalled that he was "just too busy to get my Part 135 certificate, and I have decided to fly passengers for free." Glen charged only a landing fee. "And, well, a Part 135 ticket wasn't required if you were flying people for free, and coming and going from your own private runway!"

There were people that opposed his procedures but Glen benefited from legal opinions in support of his decision. Later that summer he reapplied for his Part 135 permit again.

In 1979 Lake Clark Air Service was born.

Lake Clark Air Service

"Like most Alaska air taxis at the time, there wasn't a corporate safety or maintenance program," Glen said. "Rather, the air taxis evolved processes as the industry developed and aircraft were repaired when needed." Things are much different these days. Lake Clark Air has aircraft equipped with synthetic vision and traffic collision avoidance systems using the Garmin 600.  Every aircraft in the fleet has a routine maintenance schedule that is methodically followed.   

After more than 40 years of hard flying, Glen now enjoys checking daily weather reports during breakfast and using an iPad. If conditions are IFR, he can file his instrument flight plan with the press of a button.  In addition, the multi-engine aircraft in the fleet are equipped with auto pilots. 

"Navigation through Lake Clark Pass is a breeze now with GPS equipment!" he says with a smile.

Over the decades Glen has accumulated more than 30,400 flight hours. (Some of those hours are estimated because the Taylorcraft didn't have a tachometer.)  Of course, with that much flying in Alaska's challenging terrain and ever-changing weather, Glen has had a few interesting experiences.

From its Port Alsworth facility, Lake Clark Air continues to serve the region, flying locals and outdoor enthusiasts -- including fishermen, backpackers, hikers, photographers, bear viewers, journalists and more -- sometimes moving as many as 100 people on eight to 10 flights, per day, from Merrill Field in Anchorage, one of the nation's busiest General Aviation airports.

Ninety-five percent of the Lake Clark Air business serves the Lake and Pen Borough, but Glen has flown all over the world. 

A rich life

In the mid-1990s Glen joined an Alaska Airlines crew on a humanitarian food relief effort. The Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-200 was loaded with food upon arrival at the Provideniya Bay Airport in Chukotka, Russia. Every aircraft door was opened and the plane was unloaded manually; there just wasn't room for any equipment to help off load the jet. 

Glen was the first American to fly, land and overnight an American airplane in Pevek, Russia. While there, news broke that the last Chukchi woman living on Wrangell Island had been eaten by a polar bear. The locals accepted the news without comment, as though it was a routine event, Glen was quite surprised.

Beyond Russia, Glen has traveled to 23 other countries on six continents. He's been a weather observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for more than 35 years and holds a U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine license. He is a licensed, registered Alaskan Big Game Guide. Glen is a former member of Alaska's Big Game Commercial Services Board, has been chairman of the Lake Clark National Park Subsistence Resource Commission since the early 1980s, and is a founding member and president of the Tanalian Electric Cooperative.

Glen has been Lake and Pen Borough mayor since 1989. He volunteers his flying skills for Samaritan's Purse Humanitarian Aid Program, specializing in the Chukotka Russian Far East, and is a lifetime member of AOPA and NRA, the former chairman of SWAMC, and a former commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay and False Pass.

Glen and his wife, Patty, have raised five children and are proud grandparents to 23 grandchildren; eight live in Africa, two in California and 13 in Port Alsworth. 

Glen's first pilot was his brother, Wayne Sr. Glen truly has a partnership with the people that fly Lake Clark Air. Glen spends about a month each year in currency training -- either providing the training to others or receiving it himself.

"Flying is so incredible because you can learn something new each day," Glen beams.