Story last updated at 7/2/2014 - 2:56 pm
Many in Southeast Alaska may not remember the Grumman Goose amphibian plane. After World War II, this was the workhorse of air travel to remote Alaska villages. Larger towns in Southeast had no landing fields and relied on airplanes that could land on water. An airfield on Annette Island, built during the war, was changed to civilian use. The Grumman Goose ferried jet passengers to Ketchikan's waterfront. (I didn't forget the PBY amphibian planes that also carried passengers. That's for another time.)
The Gooses (the preferred plural use) were built during the war as courier planes, and for submarine patrol, training and air-sea rescues. Only 345 Gooses were built, according to Don Dawson, Ketchikan aircraft historian, and only 42 were for civilian use. Grumman no longer made that model after WWII.
Air taxi owners saw the possibilities of this military airplane to haul passengers and freight in the water- bound areas of Southeast Alaska, and purchases were soon made. The first Goose arrived in 1945. By 1947, Ellis Airlines of Ketchikan maintained three of the twin-motor planes that carried eight or nine passengers, more than smaller float planes. Alaska Coastal Airlines, headquartered in Juneau, also acquired Gooses. Ellis and Alaska Coastal merged in 1962 to become Alaska Coastal-Ellis Airlines. In 1965, Alaska Coastal-Ellis Airlines was the world's largest amphibian-equipped airline. In the mid-1980s the company merged with Alaska Airlines.
Soon after the purchase, Alaska Airlines ceased to fly Gooses commercially. At that time, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Island Airways of Petersburg were the only ones in Southeast Alaska using a Goose.
Because they were in use for so long, stories have been told over the years of adventures and misadventures aboard the Grumman Goose airplane. Owner/writer Bob Pickrell in the September 1965 New Alaskan fantasized how a newcomer felt after landing in a jet at Annette Island.
"He is told to board that squat little airplane for a 12 minute, 30 second flight to Ketchikan." The passenger thinks "Hey, look! Some fool passenger with a silly grin is flying CO-PILOT. What kind of outfit is this?"
The hull door closes. The Pilot looks like he's pumping the plane up by hand, as he starts the two engines. After the plane on wheels gets to the end of the runway, the pilot gives it full power and it lifts in the air.
"Look at that passenger, talking up a storm with the pilot. Let him fly it!"
Approaching Ketchikan, the plane makes a wide sweeping turn and begins to drop. The plane settles gently off the step, and a wave of water flashes by the window.
"We're sinking," the newcomer thinks, "What kind of crummy airline is this anyway?"
Once settled, the plane taxied to the wharf. That is, the majority of the time: A few pilots forgot to crank up the wheels after leaving Annette and before landing on the water. This resulted in a flip and a bath for pilot and passengers. No one was ever killed in that kind of accident.
Pete Hocson remembers his adventures while working for Alaska Coastal Airlines at the Juneau airport back in the days of the Grumman Goose. On this particular day, a Goose en route from Haines to Juneau was flown by Captain George Stragier with Terry Jackson as co-pilot. As the plane approached Juneau, the nose wheel would not deploy electronically so Captain Stragier left his seat in the cockpit and crawled into the nose compartment to hand crank the wheel down while the co-pilot flew in circles over the airport.
After the safe landing, Hocson actuated the air stair door and helped the passengers deplane.
"I noticed a lady showing the co-captain Jackson what I thought were photographs. In the office I asked him if she was showing pictures of her family. He said that while he flying in circles she had come forward and offered to fly the airplane if he wanted to help the Captain work on the nose wheel." He told the woman "That wasn't necessary but thank you."
After landing, the woman showed him her flight log book. She had been a Women's Air Force Service Pilot (WASP) during the war. She had thousands upon thousands of hours piloting multi-engine military airplanes during World War II.
Another of Hocson's stories took place again in Juneau, when he and the other staff were told by Operations Manager Hunt Gruening that the ground crew absolutely had to get the Sitka flight out on time. The reason was because Pan American and Pacific Northern Airlines had just informed Hunt that they would no longer wait for Alaska Coastal at Annette Island for the Sitka passengers destined to Seattle or beyond.
"We have to pay for their lodging and meals," Gruening said, "and we don't want to do that."
One day Hocson had to make sure the flight was away on time. All of the passengers had checked in except Governor Bill Egan.
"I tried calling all his telephone numbers to no avail. I listed him on the manifest and let Sitka ticket him. Wheels were up at 0830 with the plane heading to Sitka. Ten minutes later the governor drove up."
"At 1,000 hours, Shell Simmons fired me. When Governor Egan heard I had been fired he called me and apologized for his outburst at Simmons and my termination."
"About four months later, Ellis Air Lines hired me to work in Ketchikan. Upon hearing that, the Alaska Coastal Air office manager, Bob Olsen, told me that they changed my record to resigning rather than firing."
A couple years later, Governor Eagan flew into Ketchikan and saw Hocson.
"I joined him for coffee. He said he was on the next morning flight back to Juneau. He asked me what time to check in. I said 0810."
Since Hocson wasn't on the early shift the next day, his colleagues asked him, "What time did you tell the Gov. to check in?"
He was there promptly at 0730!
Today no Grumman Gooses fly commercially in Alaska. Over time, the need for scheduled service faded as new runways were built. Maintenance costs on the aging machines were high. In 1985, Pen Air became the only remaining air carrier in the United States that used a Goose. Its last scheduled Goose flight was October 22, 2012 between Akutan and Unalaska. However, several private Gooses still fly in Alaska.