Flying Fish in Alaska

What’s this airplane got to do with Arnold setting a world record? Nothing — it was just another distraction along the way.

C-119 with Charlie

C-119 for flying fish in Alaska, shown next to Charlie
Arnold Ebneter personal collection

In the late seventies, Arnold developed the detailed drawings he needed for building the parts for his record setter and assembling them, and he bought a used 75-horsepower Continental engine from a mechanic at Harvey Field. He brought the engine home and stashed it next to the barrels and bins of his ever-growing collection of Boeing Surplus parts.

In the spring of 1979, a pilot from Harvey Field, Steve Knopp, asked Arnold to help him retrieve a Convair 240 cargo airplane from Tucson. Knopp planned to use the airplane to ferry fish in Alaska – fishing boats dropped their loads of salmon at docks in King Salmon, and the fish had to get to Kenai to be processed. It was a short flying season, but there was no shortage of airplanes or pilots for the job – many pilots jumped at the opportunity to gain experience in challenging weather conditions.

The Convair has no instruments for flying in the clouds and only a hand-hand radio for talking to controllers on the ground, so Arnold and Knopp had to fly the trip under “visual flight rules,” which meant that the visibility had to be at least three miles and the clouds at least 1,000 feet above the ground. Given the mountainous terrain along much of the route, they wanted the clouds and visibility to be much higher than those minimums. The first part of the trip from Tucson to Seattle was uneventful – a short hop to Litchfield Park, near Phoenix, where Colleen and the girls had stayed while he was in Vietnam.

However, the next morning, they ran into low clouds and had to return to Litchfield Park. Better weather greeted them the next day, but when they arrived in California, the clouds dropped lower and the visibility again deteriorated. Checking their charts, the pilots decided they could make it across the mountains to Bakersfield by following the interstate highway through Cajon Pass. Crawling at 500 feet above the ground with cliffs on both sides, they were low enough to pass a helicopter, whose pilot must surely have been startled to see such a large airplane next to him.

After fuel and lunch in Bakersfield, the irate airport manager demanded they clean up the mess they had made – the Convair had leaked oil on the parking ramp during their short stay. Oil spill mopped and manager happy again, they flew to Redding, again following the interstate through the mountains. The following day, three days after they left Tucson, they delivered the airplane to Knopp’s base at the Arlington airport, about 10 miles north of Harvey Airfield.

However, instead of flying fish that summer, Arnold learned to fly helicopters. A flight school was conveniently located at Boeing Field, and he still had some of his GI Bill benefits. He finished the helicopter rating in October and added a helicopter instructor rating a few months later.

But the next summer, a mechanic at Harvey Field decided to get in on the Alaska action, and he pulled a C-119 cargo airplane from the “airplane boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force base by Tucson. This airplane was much better equipped than the Convair, with a full instrument panel, and could fly in the clouds or fog at altitudes as low as 200 feet for takeoff and landing. This time, helicopter ratings in hand, Arnold jumped at the chance to fly in Alaska. However, no one had mentioned that part of his job was to load the 22,000 pounds of fish onto the C-119 for each cargo run. The fish were in square aluminum boxes, each weighing 2,000 pounds, but he and his young co-pilot soon got the hang of pushing the load onto the airplane and tying the containers down. It was worth the effort – in addition to the stupendous scenery that dwarfed anything in Washington State, Arnold marveled at the poor weather conditions that Alaskan pilots battled every day. Nearly all the flying was in instrument conditions, and his young co-pilot, with only seven hours in multi-engine airplanes before he set foot in Alaska, reveled in the experience.

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