Herman Ludwigsen

Herman Ludwigsen addresses a small audience on Friday night at the Tongass Historical Museum after being awarded the Federal Aviation Administration's Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. Staff photo by Raegan Miller

There is an adage in the float plane world: There are bold pilots. And there are old pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.

Ketchikan's Herman Ludwigsen is the exception.

With more than 50 years and 32,000 hours of flight time, Ludwigsen — now retired at 92 — survived all that  Southeast and Southwest Alaska could throw at him over a lifetime of cloud banks, whiteouts, and take offs and landings in nearly every hole in the wall in Alaska.

Ludwigsen was born in Seattle in 1927. It was there, as a child, that he remembers seeing planes in the air and being fascinated with flight.

"I fell in love for the first time,” he said recently. “I was six or seven years old. I had to walk down past the apple trees on Commodore Way to see her. She was a grand old lady. You could see that she had good structure and fine lines, a little dusty maybe but that did not affect my feelings for her. She was a 1930s biplane and had a wooden prop and a Chinese family who did not mind my visiting her."

In 1936, his shipbuilder father decided to relocate the 10-member family to Ketchikan and built a 36-foot boat — the Amalie — to do it. Seattle was still caught in the Depression, and Nels Ludwigsen felt that Ketchikan offered better opportunities.

“Dad got tired of Seattle, “ Ludwigsen said. “We were dead poor, we were practically on the bread line.”

The Amalie's top speed was about 7 or 8 knots so it took the family two weeks to reach Ketchikan. They lived on the crowded boat until they moved into a house on the water side of Tongass Avenue, near what is now the 1500 block. Soon a boatshed was built so Nels could continue his work. As a young boy, Herman sold copies of both the Ketchikan Chronicle and the Fisherman's News (the forerunner of the Daily News). He helped unload halibut at the Ketchikan Cold Storage, was a "soda jerk" at the Federal Drug Store and attended White Cliff Elementary School.

He also continued his fascination with flight by doing whatever he could as a "dock rat" to help out local pilots like Bob Ellis and Herb Munter, who had their operations near the Ludwigsen home.

Ludwigsen attended Ketchikan High School  (the old Main School downtown) where he was the student body president a and a three-year starter on the basketball team, the Polar Bears. He would continue to play for many years afterward, leading the Ketchikan team in Juneau's Gold Medal tournament numerous times and being named to the Gold Medal Hall of Fame.

During high school, he became a salmon troller, with his first boat, the 31V47.  His favorite "grounds" with the 27-footer were the south end of Prince of Wales Island, down around Stonerock Bay.

Ludwigsen never finished high school. He said that - like most teenagers - he felt he knew more than his teachers. One day, late in his senior year, he said he was "fooling around" in his civics class and his teacher made an example out of him.

"She stood me up in front of class and said ‘what did you come to school for?’ and I said ‘to play basketball,’" Ludwigsen said. "She said, ‘Get out.’ Out the door I went and I never came back.”

After high school, he got a larger troller, the 36-foot Don Carlos. But he said he was still interested in flight.

"I’d get to Chacon on my boat, the Don Carlos, I see airplanes flying by and I said, ‘Boy that looks like an easy life up there,’" he said with a laugh.

In addition to fishing, Ludwigsen freely admits the he and his friends occasionally "robbed a few traps, now (and) again." It was common for local fishermen to take the easy pickings from the dozens of salmon traps in the area and then sell the ill-gotten gains to the canneries. He said they had a few close calls with the "Pinkerton" detectives that were hired by the canneries to stop the trap robbing.

Ludwigsen also actively hunted and fur trapped in the area. His trapping exploits would eventually get his life story enshrined in the Alaska Trappers Hall of Fame.

In 1950, he said he was "rescued" by the Army, which drafted him. He was sent to Southwest Alaska where he spent his time recruiting and working as a mechanic on the airplanes that the Army used for transportation. He had learned to fly with Pete Cessnun, Don Ross and Jim Webber before he left Ketchikan and he continued his flying in the Bethel area.

In Bethel, he met Anita Lieb, the daughter of Max Lieb who owned the popular Tundra Shack, an ice cream parlor and roadhouse in Bethel. Ann's family were Inupiaks who had lived in Western Alaska for generations.

After several months of courting, Herman and Ann married. To the residents of the area, Herman became known as 'The Akutag-Suun Nengauk.' In other words, the 'Ice Cream Maker's Son.'

When his tour was up, Herman decided he wanted to return to Ketchikan. His father-in-law helped him purchase a beat-up Piper Cub and Herman spent several months getting it into flight shape. Then he flew it to McGrath, Anchorage, Yakutat and Ketchikan.

"Anyone with any sense wouldn't have left," he said. "It was late November. I was on wheels, no skies, no radio, never having flown there before. (I was) just some dumb guy who took it and went. I can't believe it (now)."

Since the plane had no floats, Ludwigsen eventually landed at the Annette airport and kept his plane there for the rest of the winter. In the spring, he decided to fly to Ketchikan, even though there was no runway. The result was a brief use of the "Mountain Point airport." With the help of Territorial Police Officer Oral Freeman, Ludwigsen's good friend Larry Erickson blocked a section of the South Tongass Highway, so Ludwigsen could land there. After the landing, they took the wings off the plane and towed it into Ketchikan.

Ann joined him in Ketchikan, but their stay was only a couple of years.

On one the notable moments during his time back in Ketchikan was in 1953, when he located the plane of millionaire Texas oilman Ellis Hall which had crashed in Boca de Quadra. For locating the plane and helping to recover the bodies of the five people on board, Ludwigsen was given a reward of $30,000 ($280,000 today). He split part of the money with other pilots who taken part in the search.

Over years, Ludwigsen has developed an almost "sixth sense" for finding downed airplanes. The Ellis Hall recovery was just one of 10 such recoveries by the veteran pilot. When asked why he has so often recovered both planes and downed fliers, Ludwigsen just says he "flies low" and that decades in both Southeast and Southeast Alaska got him very used to spotting what was out of the ordinary in the miles of wilderness. He said he’s most-proudest of the numerous recoveries.

Ludwigsen had hoped to go to work for Ellis Airlines and even got his multi-instrument flight rating, but Ellis and Bud Bodding didn't hire him. Instead they gave him a letter of reference that helped him get hired by Wien Air back up north. Ludwigsen flew large twin-engine cargo planes for Wien, supplying DEW Line construction of out Fairbanks for a while, but his heart wasn't in flying the large cargo planes high in the sky.

Eventually, he and Ann ended up back in back in Bethel in 1956 and formed Bethel Charter Service which operated for nearly a decade. He also flew for Northern Consolidated. In Bethel, Herman and Ann — who served as the dispatcher and ground crew — also started their family, which would include Jocelyn, Lynn and Manny.

Besides the regular supply and transportation runs for the villages in Southwest Alaska, Ludwigsen also flew charter operations for several of the oil companies that were exploring in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As a result, there is a Lake Herman deep in the Brooks Range.

In 1965, the family made the decision to return to Ketchikan, because they felt it was a better place to raise their family. Herman went to work for Webber Air for the next decade, where he would finally get to the fly the plane he had wanted to fly a decade before with Ellis, the Grumman Goose. He would be the chief pilot until his friend Jack Swain, the owner of Webber Air, would die in a crash in 1978 and the airline would be sold.

Ludwigsen went to work as the chief pilot for Tyee Airline briefly, but that airline was also sold. He was then hired as the chief pilot for Southeast Stevedoring. He would retire in 1998 and the family would move to Wrangell.

In 2013, they returned to Ketchikan. They live not far from the Ketchikan International Airport, where Ludwigsen enjoys watching planes take off and land all day long.

He is also passing on his decades of flight experience to his grandson Max, who is training to become a commercial pilot.


Dave Kiffer is currently working with Herman Ludwigsen on a biography of Ludwigsen's life.