Following the example of “Into the Wind,” the latest special exhibit at the Tongass Historical Museum, the focus of the “Museum Midday” lecture series has shifted to aviation in Alaska for the remainder of March.
The new theme was kicked off Thursday by a lecture from AJ Slagle Jr., who shared his experiences with working as a ramp hand and building ramps and floats for various aviation services in the 1980s.
Marni Rickelmann, senior curator of program at the museums, estimated that the lecture series itself has been an off-season staple since late 2017 or early 2018.
“We wanted to offer programming for the community that connects people to our exhibits,” Rickelmann said during a recent interview with the Daily News.
Program Coordinator Erika Jayne Christian added that the series was “just another way to invite people into the museum.”
Christian said that while she developed the program, the task of curating the wide variety of speakers and topics morphed into her way of “satiating” her curiosity as she settled into her position in Ketchikan, which she has held since last fall.
The Museum Midday series got started in January this year, and has covered topics ranging from a regalia and beading presentation delivered by Lorraine Kahle, to “a history of cultural exchange,” presented by the Kanayama Program, according to museum information.
While the lectures will continue on through the end of April, the month of March will be dedicated to all things aviation.
A.J. Slagle Jr.'s lecture, “Memories of an Air Taxi Ramp Hand,” kicked off the new theme, drawing a crowd of nearly 40 listeners to the museum at noon on warm and sunny Thursday.
The presentation, which lasted just under an hour, focused on Slagle's experiences as a ramp hand for Westflight Aviation's air taxi services, among other outfits, in the 1980s.
Prior to his lecture at the museum on Thursday, Slagle told the Daily News that his presentation was mainly focused on the “workings of how an air taxi operates.”
Slagle got his start with air taxis and aviation because of his brother, Chuck Slagle.
AJ Slagle started work at Westflight Aviation in the fall of 1981, after the Neets Bay logging camp where he resided was shut down in July of the same year.
“My brother owned the outlet there at Westflight Aviation, and so he hired me as a dock boy and that's where I started,” Slagle explained.
Slagle said that his work allowed him to work in “just about every facet” of the field, short of piloting a plane.
“He gave me a position there working for $8 an hour, helping him run the freight room, getting planes loaded, fuel serviced, working with them (planes), starting them up, working on the facility and the docks,” Slagle said.
Slagle remembered that around the time he was first being introduced to the industry, he and his brother were transporting concrete via airplane to the Swan Lake area.
They were flying over Ward Cove when Slagle said they saw smoke on the northern-facing side of the hills.
The brothers had discovered a crash site.
“It gave me an insight at what's at stake here,” Slagle said about the incident, adding that nobody was injured in the crash.
The air taxi industry was booming in Ketchikan at the time.
Slagle explained that air taxis — planes that helped transport freight, mail, passengers and baggage — were operated through “coordinated efforts” of many positions in the organization, including dispatchers, ramp hands, mechanics, ticket agents and pilots.
Dispatchers monitored radio traffic and set up flight schedules, Slagle explained.
Ramp hands, a job that he worked during his five years with the organization, “handled the aircraft's safety on the dock.”
This included fueling the aircraft, monitoring oil levels in the engines, organizing freight and leading passengers to their plane.
“And at Westflight Aviation, we were also obligated to clean, service and perform a checklist of duties every night on each aircraft,” Slagle said. “Every one of those planes, unless something happened — and it rarely did — every one of them was gone through from one end to the other in the cabin, completely swept, all the pockets checked. … As soon as they turned that engine on, it was ready to fly.”
Slagle said that pilots would often fly long days in inclement weather to ensure that a schedule was maintained.
“There wasn't an eight hour timeline. … You flew until you were done,” Slagle explained.
Slagle also noted that during Westflight's operating years, the company handled up to 5,000 pounds of ticketed freight daily, in addition to baggage, mail and passengers.
“We were able to move a lot of people and transport freight and be an integral part of the community for about five years,” Slagle said.
At the Westflight location on Tongass Avenue, which was located next to the E.C. Phillips building, Slagle recalled they had a variety of planes.
Slagle said that “at peak,” Westflight operated with four de Havilland Beavers, a Cessna 185, a Cessna 180, Cessna 206, an Amphib 206, a Grumman Goose, de Havilland Otter and two turbine twin Otter planes.
Aside from the aircraft that the organization employed, Slagle said that Westflight was “cutting edge in a way,” adding that his brother was always looking for ways to improve the business.
The outfit was responsible for the development of the style of cargo bins used to transport baggage and other freight.
“Some of them are still in use,” Slagle said.
Slagle remembered that he and the other ramp hands would often ride the bins — full of various kinds of cargo —down the ramps at the dock.
“It could get kind of scary if you weren't paying attention,” he joked, remembering how a fellow ramp hand once crashed a bin full of 600 pounds of soda.
Westflight also introduced safety briefing cards — used to identify emergency exits and other safety-related information — to its planes. Chuck Slagle, whom AJ Slagle called “a visionary,” was behind this effort.
“They were pretty enough that people took them home,” Slagle said about the cards, although he added that the precaution “just made a huge difference.”
Slagle moved on from Westflight in 1986, after the company shut down.
“I was really proud to run that crew,” Slagle said.
Slagle referred to his time with Westflight as “an education,” and said that after the company shut down, he “started exploring all over the place,” which included a short stint at the Gildersleeve logging camp.
During his exploration, he landed at the Wings of Alaska outfit, where he was employed until 1989.
“The standards were a little different,” Slagle said about Wings of Alaska.
For example, Slagle said, Wings of Alaska pilots chose not to fly in weather over 35 knots. This organization also had stricter rules applying to the level of visibility the pilots had to have while flying.
Wings of Alaska operated two Amphib 206 planes and four Cessna 207s with “top notch” maintenance, Slagle said.
“They were very safety-conscious,” Slagle said.
In 1989, Slagle went on to work for one season at Salmon Falls Resort.
Slagle said that he is now retired from working in the air taxi field, although he has continued to work maintaining docks.
He said his current work in the industry is “not on the same level,” as it was when he was employed as a ramp hand.
Throughout his tenure on the waterfront, Slagle has built around 22 boat ramps either solo or with a crew — his most recent construction being last year for Seawind Aviation. Slagle also has experience with building "floating structures," estimating he has built around 100 in different sizes and configurations.
After Slagle wrapped his lecture to the soundtrack of applause and cheerful chatter, he told the Daily News that he believed the talk went well.
“I think it went well,” Slagle said. “I felt comfortable and I think the folks got to see a little bit different area of aviation that they may not have seen before.”
Slagle said that his fondest memory of working as a ramp hand was working on the planes at night.
“You see the sunsets and it was quiet,” he said.
Slagle said he hopes that his lecture helped people to “appreciate the other people that keep those outfits running.”
The next Museum Midday lecture will be held at 12 p.m. on March 19, when Gary Frietag will present “Science Supported by Aviation.”
On March 26, Chuck Slagle's presentation, “Aviation in Ketchikan,” will wrap March's aviation theme.