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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Rod Judy

Jane Dale

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 and Bill Stedman. Today, we go along for the ride with Rod Judy.

If you could page through Rod Judy’s log books, you'd be immediately impressed with the neat and meticulous record of his lifetime of flying in Southeast Alaska. Judy has carefully recorded each plane he has flown with the tail number, manufacturer, type, engine and size, plus its land or sea configuration. Each flight record is thorough and includes a description of the cargo, passenger names, destination, and any weather or other interesting aspects of the trip.

Rod Judy was born Jan. 1, 1946, in Coos Bay, Ore., where his father worked as a logger. In July 1962 his family moved to Sitka, Alaska. Rod was still in high school at the time, but quickly grew to enjoy hunting and fishing in the state. It wasn't long before he developed an interest in flying. 

Three years after moving north, in 1965, Judy embarked on what would become a lifelong love affair. During the first six months of flying he logged over 30 hours of flight time.

Of those first days, Judy relayed that learning to fly the Luscombe 65hp 8A on floats was great but it took a long time to get off the water -- especially with two people on board. His eyes sparkled as he recalled how much he enjoyed the freedom of flight.

Striking out on his own

In September 1965, Judy traveled to Minden, NV, just outside Reno, and started working toward his commercial license. As part of his training he flew six aircraft types: the Piper JC3-65, Cessna 120, Cessna 140, Cessna 150, Cessna 170 and the Aeronca Champ. He continued to learn by taking a master aerobatic course, which he called a "real confidence builder."

Judy earned his Certified Flight Instructor rating in 1966.

"When I finished flight school in Nevada, I had 42 cents left. I didn't know if I should go find a job or get some lunch, so I went and had a cheese sandwich," Judy recalled. But it was a good day because hours later a flight school offered him a job as an instructor.

Judy went to work for Afton Coon where almost all flights were on floats. In the beginning he flew a Norseman, three or four Cessna 180s, and a Cessna 206. The job itself was tough.

"Afton grew up during the Depression and would fire you if you took a day off from work," Judy said, admitting that during his time at Afton Coon he was fired two or three times. He couldn't afford not to work, so he would return the next day and take up where he left off, as if nothing had happened.

But the last time Judy was fired, he finally left for good.

Back to the North Land

In 1969, Judy made the move to Juneau where he worked for Southeast Skyways. He flew a Cessna 180 and a Beaver for about three years, before he moved again, relocating to Petersburg to work for Viking Airways, where a lovely young dispatcher named Darcy caught his eye. In less than a year the Judy and the young brunette were married.

Despite his newfound happiness in Petersburg, Judy needed to return to Sitka to complete his time with the Alaska Army National Guard. The couple moved, but it wasn't permanent. 1973 brought the young couple back to Petersburg where Judy picked up a job flying for Alaska Island Air. While at Island, Judy flew a Beaver, three Cessna 180s and a Grumman Goose, but only when his boss didn’t want to fly it. Rod enjoyed the small planes more and in 1978, Judy purchased his own C-180, which he leased to Ward Air in Juneau.

Soon, an opportunity to work in Bethel arose; Judy would be able to work two weeks on and two weeks off, so he jumped at it and went to work for Sea Airmotive, relishing the new work schedule along with flying the Twin Otters. 

In 1985, the airline industry deregulated and Judy finally had access to his dream. He created Pacific Wings in Petersburg with his C-180 and was soon able to trade it in for a Cessna 185 with 245 total hours. 

Today, there are over 17,300 hours on the plane and it continues to be part of the Pacific Wings fleet. Rod expanded his business to two Beavers and two Cessna 185s, but eventually went back to only one Beaver. Pacific Wing’s Beaver, a Kenmore military rebuild, is still in service and has flown over 34,000 hours from Petersburg. 

Judy has personally flown over 37,300 hours, averaging about 1,000 flight hours each year except for the last five years of his career, when he averaged 500 hours each year. He has more single-engine float time than any other pilot in Alaska.

A family business

Judy and his wife have two children, a son, Matt, and a daughter, Stacey. The Judy kids were always part of Pacific Wings, helping in the office, clearing snow, and, once old enough to drive, helping passengers from the airport to the floating dock where Beaver flight-seeing tours departed. Darcy Judy worked as Pacific Wings' official dispatcher. The business included longtime friends, extended family, and Tucker, the cat. 

Darcy’s father helped expedite freight. Sarah O’Brocta has been with Pacific Wings for over 27 years and continues to run the office and do the bookkeeping. Dave Riemer, himself an aviation legend in Southeast Alaska, flew for Judy more than 20 years. His son, Doug Riemer, owns and flies for Nordic Air, two hangars south on the Petersburg ramp.

The kids grew up in the business and currently work outside of Petersburg. Today, Matt is the head of the FBI in Juneau and Stacey, after obtaining her master’s degree, has lived in Hawaii for 20 years and is a librarian.

Life aloft in Petersburg

In Petersburg, glaciers, goats and phenomenal scenery are within 15 flight minutes from town. In 1991, Judy modified his Beaver to maximize sightseeing opportunities. The engine was moved 10 inches forward to accommodate more weight in the back; wing tips were installed, along with new windows on each side of the fuselage so all six passengers had a window for sightseeing.

During a 2001 water takeoff, a humpback whale breached right in front of Judy's planes, startling him. His foot slipped off the rudder pedal, and as the whale completed its breach and fell to the left, the airplane turned right, avoiding an incident. Not much was said for the remainder of the flight but the event made the local newspapers in Southeast Alaska. A year later it finally showed up in national news.

According to Judy, the plane was traveling on the water about 50 mph and just lifting off when a humpback whale breached about 100 feet directly in front of the plane. A passenger recalled the whale as being 15 feet ahead, saying, "we were staring right into the whale's stomach."

"It was impressive. You could see the whale’s eye," Judy said.

Word got out and well-known national columnist Dave Berry picked up the story as part of a column on the perils of vacation travel. Soon Rod was on national radio being interviewed by Paul Harvey.

After Pacific Wings 

Judy quit flying on April 8, 2011, when he sold the business to Sunrise Aviation. Judy's brother-in-law, Cole Rhoden, manages Sunrise. The two men agree that it is satisfying knowing that Pacific Wings remains a part of the family that grew and nurtured its success. 

While Judy now prefers to watch planes rather than fly, he maintains his A&P, IA and instructor ratings. But even in retirement, aviation is obviously in his blood. On a recent summer day as Cole readied for departure from the floating hangar on Petersburg’s waterfront, Rod couldn’t help but lend a hand to help launch the plane.