Bush Pilot Hall of Fame

Meet the pilots who created the Alaska bush pilot legend.


Alaskans loved them for their resourcefulness. By memorizing rivers, lakes, mountain peaks, and the relationships among them, the state’s pilots managed to deliver everything and everybody to places in an uncharted wilderness. One of their most famous, Noel Wien, said that when all else failed, he learned to fly downriver and hope that little rivers would lead to larger rivers, along which he might find a cabin.

Not surprisingly, bush pilots were frequently lost. Nearly every one of them could tell a tale of landing on the sandbar of some river or on a patch of ground way out beyond anything, then hiking 50 miles through grizzly country to find a town where fuel and a dog team could be had.

The world loved them for their daring. In the 1920s and ’30s, newspapers tracked the many searches for lost aviators—some rash, others heroic—who had challenged the elements and lost. Though their numbers are small, no history of aviation is complete without the chapter written by Alaska’s bush pilots.

Pictured above: Ground crew for Pacific Alaska Airways refuel a Lockheed Vega floatplane in southeast Alaska. By the 1930s, commercial pilots in Alaska had the luxury of enclosed cockpits, radios, and a route structure. The pioneers of the 1920s had none of those.

Robert Campbell Reeve

(University of Alaska Anchorage)

The noted mountaineer and cartographer Bradford Washburn said that Bob Reeve was “without a doubt the finest ski pilot and rough country flier I’ve ever seen.” Reeve arrived in Alaska in 1932, after several years of flying mail for Pan American–Grace Airways (Panagra) in South America. Supplying the mines in the mountains near Valdez, he became a local attraction by flying his skiplane from the slick tidal flats near Valdez Bay. “If I could have charged admission,” he told his biographer, “I would have had it made.”

In 1937, when Reeve set a world record for highest skiplane landing (8,750 feet), the snow was too soft for his Fairchild 51 to take off from. After waiting five days for the glacier to freeze, he managed to get airborne, but then had to dive for hundreds of feet before he could gain enough airspeed to level and climb. He became known as “the glacier pilot” for making more than 2,000 glacier landings. In 1949, he founded Reeve Aleutian Airlines, which his family ran until 2000.

Reeve was also a mechanic. In this photograph, he’s at center working on his Fairchild 51.

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