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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Rex Bishopp

Joy Journeay
Courtesy Joy Journeay

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Legends in Alaska Aviation project celebrates the amazing lives of Alaska's long-time aviators who are still with us today.

Early Years

Rex Bishopp was born in Farson, Wyo., on his family’s ranch.  After high school, he left Wyoming for Monterey, California, to live with his aunt and uncle Ricklefs while attending Salinas Junior College.  After college, Rex became involved in the trucking business and was soon working for his cousin Jim Ricklefs, who owned and operated Rick Helicopters of San Francisco, Calif.

Every summer Rick and Rex would come to Alaska and work out of Merrill Field in Anchorage. Rex generally drove the truck from California to Alaska with two helicopters on the back. “We would travel up to Alaska in the summer with the piston machines.” He says. “Those early Bell 47 helicopters had a very short transmission overhaul time, so we trucked them up and back. It was cheaper than changing the transmissions when we got there!”

Jim Ricklefs and Carl Brady, owner of ERA Helicopters, started flying helicopters in Alaska about the same time in the late 1950’s.  After a few cocktails, it was always a lively debate between Rex, Jim, and Carl as to who truly was the first helicopter operator in Alaska. 

“We used to come up to Alaska years and years ago to fly the U.S. Geological Survey folks around in the summer.” Rex recalls. “In the fall we would take the helicopters back down to the San Francisco Bay area and do agricultural spraying.”

“In 1967 Rick Helicopters had a chance to do some Alaska flying in the wintertime on the North Slope.  Back then we only had piston engine helicopters and pilots had to take the batteries to bed with them, drain the oil and take the oil inside to warm it up,” Rex chuckles as he shakes his head.  “I guess we lost about $25,000 that winter!  Later we got turbine helicopters and they worked fine in the colder temperatures on the Slope and surveying the pipeline.”

Helicopters on the frontier

Rex helped with innovations early in his career at Rick Helicopters. Aircraft had skins removed to increase lift capacity, and he was an engineer on the projects. It always got attention from bystanders when the Piasecki Vertol flew a lift job.

Alaska Airlines also operated its own helicopter branch back then. Soon they decided it was not a good fit and sold that portion of the business to Jim Ricklefs.  He purchased the certificate and the last helicopter they were operating, then renamed the company Alaska Helicopters and operated from Merrill Field. In 1964 they moved into a new, large hangar at Anchorage International Airport.

Rex and Ruth Bishopp purchased Alaska Helicopters from Jim Ricklefs in 1967, and decided to move to Anchorage to run the growing business.  Rex had to get up to Anchorage right away, so he bought a plane ticket and flew. He asked his wife, Ruth, to put the kids in the car and drive up the Alaska Highway. Ruth just about killed Rex, but she did it. 

At one time Alaska Helicopters operated a prosperous base in Fairbanks.   Rex told his wife that they had quite a bit of business in Fairbanks and perhaps they should move up there.  “Bishopp,” Ruth said using his last name, as she did when she wanted to be sure to get his attention or make a serious point, “You can go to Fairbanks if you want, but when you expect to see me and the kids you’re going to have to come to Anchorage!”  They never moved.

When Rex and Ruth Bishopp purchased Alaska Helicopters, the sale included eight Bell 47G-2s helicopters.  Rex recalls, “I got into the aviation business because I thought aviation would be a lot more fun than the trucking business, but it sure wasn’t much easier! I enjoyed the helicopter business and had a lot of fun. We had a lot of great people that worked for us.”

By the start of the pipeline, Alaska Helicopters operated twenty-five aircraft that included the Bell 206B Jet Ranger and seven turbine-powered Hiller FH-1100 helicopters.

In the spring of 1978, Alaska Helicopters joined forces with Rex’s longtime friend and business associate, Wes Lematta, the founder of Columbia Helicopters of Portland, Oregon.  Columbia Helicopters was, and still is, a worldwide leader in heavy-lift, precision-placement helicopter operations.  

The merger between Alaska and Columbia Helicopters was mutually beneficial. Columbia operated a large fleet of Boeing Vertol 107 and Boeing 234 Chinook helicopters, and Alaska Helicopters operated light and medium lift helicopters. The merger allowed Alaska Helicopters to bid on construction contracts in the State of Alaska that required heavy lift helicopters. The merger also allowed Columbia Helicopters access to lighter helicopters to support their heavy logging, construction and power line jobs.

The larger Boeing Vertol 107s moved heavy loads like mixed concrete and power line towers, while the lighter helicopters moved construction workers and linemen.  It was the perfect marriage between the two companies, and it lasted for nearly twenty years.  Wes passed away in December 2009, but the two families remain close today. 

Alaska Helicopters operated independently under a separate Part 135 certificate held in Anchorage between 1978 and 1995.

In December 1975, Alaska Helicopters filed to raise their hourly rates for helicopter service because their workers compensation insurance rates for pilots and mechanics more than doubled in less than one year, and the Anchorage Daily Times carried the news.  Aviation, like nearly every other industry, faced regulatory and insurance challenges that continue to this day. Aviation regulations in the 1970s stipulated that companies could not raise their fees without filing for a new tariff rate. 

Business Expansion

In 1981, Rex broke ground on a new, 18,000 square foot hangar facility in South Airpark at Anchorage International Airport. In addition, Alaska Helicopters offered outside maintenance from this hangar.  Tommy Craig, chief of maintenance, handled the maintenance part of the business.  Tommy Craig came to Alaska with Rex and stayed with Alaska Helicopters.

Alaska Helicopters modified aircraft for specific missions. They had two internal tanks installed in the Boeing 234 Chinook helicopters to provide long range ability.

Alaska Helicopters used the Chinooks to shuttle crews to the Navarin Basin, 400 miles offshore from Nome.  Those two internal tanks gave the aircraft the capacity to go 335 miles from the Arco base on St Paul Island.

Alaska Helicopters also had a barge anchored half way out into the Bering Sea as a safety precaution in case it was ever needed. Good safety practices insured that it was never needed during Alaska Helicopter’s service.

In the mid 1980’s, Alaska/Columbia Helicopters operated a Boeing 234ER (Extended Range) Chinook Helicopter in support of offshore exploratory oil operations for Amoco Production Company from the Navarin Basin in the Bering Sea. In six months, from St. Paul Island, the helicopter ferried crews and supplies to the SEDCO 708 semi-submersible rig, located nearly 400 miles from the shore. 

In the 1980s Alaska Helicopters upgraded its fleet of Bell 205 helicopters and purchased Bell 212 aircraft from Taiwan. The aircraft were used extensively for fire-fighting efforts and external sling loads.

Alaska Helicopter’s played an important, long-term role in the formation of Alaska’s business and industrial future, one that we enjoy today. It served countless customers in the mining, oil exploration, government, construction and pipeline industries for more than 40 years.

Recognition and Retirement

Clint Johnson, Rex’s stepson, worked for the family business for nearly fourteen years, as a company line pilot and in various management positions.  In 1995, Alaska Helicopters was purchased by ERA Helicopters. As part of the sale agreement, Clint and other company principals, were required to sign a three-year non-compete for more than 40 years.

In 1987, in recognition of his selfless leadership in aviation safety and formation of the association, he was awarded the Arlo Livingston award by the Alaska Air Carriers Association, which represents over three hundred aviation companies serving Alaska. “We were concerned about keeping the aviation community together, improving safety, and having serious clout in Juneau and Washington,” Rex recalls. “The helicopter industry in Alaska was having an especially rough year in 1969. It was very busy with pre-pipeline work and all of the helicopter operators experienced multiple accidents that year. Back then, the equipment being flown, and the overall aviation infrastructure was nothing like it is today.”

Rex knew early on that something needed to be done, and he was tireless in finding like-minded individuals to improve the industry.   Rex Bishopp was a founding member of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation.  “There was no other acceptable option: industry needed to improve safety.”

He was instrumental in creating the Alaska Air Carriers Association in 1966. Rex served on the AACA board for more than a decade and held the officer positions of president, secretary, and treasurer during his tenure. 

Rex and Ruth sold the business in 1995 and retired.  Rex Bishopp not only led his own company safely and professionally, but he took multiple opportunities to give back to the aviation community and to contribute to aviation safety in a very substantial way.