The Liberty Gazette
March 22, 2016Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Imagine what it was like nearly a hundred years ago in places we think of today as picturesque vacation destinations. Towns so remotely located in vast wilderness it took weeks, or more, to reach by boat - places where no roads existed. Residents, be they fishermen or lumber jacks, would have limited contact with the outside world or even the nearest town. But they were used to that.
Now picture a fisherman in his boat repairing nets after a long day on icy waters when suddenly he hears a clattering commotion from above. What thoughts fly through his head as he watches a gangly-looking beast descend from nowhere to the choppy waters of the bay? The year is 1922 and Roy Jones just landed his plane named “Nightbird” in Ketchikan, Alaska, the first to use an airplane to really connect the community with the outside world. For hearty souls willing to take on the challenges posed by “The Last Frontier”, great potential existed here.
The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau teamed up with the aviation community of Southeast Alaska and a few others partners to produce six films that promote tourism. One of these, “Ketchikan: The Bush Pilots”, chronicles the important contributions aviation has made and continues to make in Southeastern Alaska. While I would love to say that airplanes are the focus of the 30-minute production, Alaska’s majestic scenery is the real star of this documentary which won three Emmy awards in 2014.
Opening scenes of the breathtaking wilderness as viewed from above leave viewers awestruck. Then a lone seaplane comes into view to lend an even more graphic picture of the vastness of this incredibly beautiful and rugged place.
In Southeast Alaska, seaplanes provide the most basic of necessities to many remotely located villages, lodges and logging camps, transporting groceries, mail, medical aid, even newspapers. For Alaskans, the airplane is an integral part of life today, and a special aviation culture exists where pilots comprise a greater percentage of the population than in the lower forty-eight states. For some destinations, air travel offers the only way to get there. Around Ketchikan, runways are few and far between. If you want to land, you’ve got to land on the water.
Not long after Roy Jones made that first flight to Ketchikan other aviation companies began setting up shop in Alaska. Bob Ellis started out working for one of these and eventually branched out on his own. Ellis Air Transport bought surplus Grumman Gooses (twin engine amphibious airplanes), and formed a strong regional airline in Ketchikan which connected the communities of Southeast Alaska in a way that they’d never been before.
Over the years the driving force behind the economy of Alaska has been its natural resources, the major industries being mining, forestry and fishing. As those industries have shrunk or been undercut by foreign interests, Southeast Alaskans began seeking an alternative economic base. Today that industry is tourism. Once again, Alaska natural resources are on display, and it’s the seaplane that makes the aerial view available to anyone who wants to see it first-hand.
Kudos to the Ketchikan Visitor’s Bureau for creating films that come as close as possible to capturing the magnificent grandeur they call home. Enjoy them for yourself at http://www.ketchikanstories.com/.