Harold Gillam, 01-05-43
Survivor's memoir describes 1943 crash
By MIKE DUNHAM, email@example.com, Published: January 17th, 2009
The death of bush pilot legend Harold Gillam in the winter of 1943 and the heroic
saga of the crash survivors was recently turned into a book based on the memoirs
of one of those survivors, Joseph Tippets, formerly of Anchorage.
Tippets' son John added photos, maps and newspaper clippings to his father's notes
to create the most complete account of the tragedy to my knowledge, "Hearts of Courage"
(Publication Consultants; briefed in "Reading the North, July 20, 2008).
The crash and the book are the basis of a television program that's been running
on BYU Television this week and will be shown one more time at 7 a.m. Monday. The
network folk, associated with Brigham Young University's College of Fine Arts and
Communications, say that since cable channels swap around with great regularity,
those interested in viewing or taping the episode should scroll for "BYUTV" and
for the program called "LDS Lives." The episode will be "Hearts of Courage." It
can also be accessed online for the next two weeks at byu.tv.
The Brigham Young connection comes from the elder Tippets' work as a leader in Alaska's
Mormon community during territorial days.
Harold Gillam, one of Alaska most notorious bush pilots, went missing on a flight
from Seattle to Ketchikan on Jan. 5, 1943.
Born in 1903 in Illinois and raised in Nebraska, Gillam joined the Navy as a teen,
served in the Pacific and mustered out in Seattle. While there he learned of construction
opportunities in Alaska and came north in 1923. His career in aviation developed
here, while he worked at Weeks airfield in Fairbanks. It was Gillam, as a trainee
flying alone, who found Carl Ben Eielson's crashed plane in Siberia in 1930.
Gillam had a reputation as an inordinate risk-taker, not a useful approach in flying
small aircraft. He had six crashes in a little over six months flying out of Cordova
to Kennecott in 1931.
In early 1943, Gillam flew for Morrison-Knudson, one of the major contractors handling
military construction in Alaska during World War II. Piloting a twin-engine Lockheed
Electra, he flew from Seattle on Jan. 5 that year, carrying five passengers, intending
to refuel at the Annette Island air base near Ketchikan. Probably because of confusion
over the heading of the radio beam from the Annette Island tower, Gillam flew into
the top of a mountain on the mainland not far from the base.
Everyone survived the initial impact, but a woman aboard died within two days. The
other four passengers managed to descend the mountain to the shoreline where they
were rescued a month later. Gillam had separated from the others, made his way to
the shore and had tied up makeshift visual markers to guide air or sea rescuers.
Unfortunately, he had apparently broken through ice on a stream and likely died
from exposure. He is buried in Fairbanks,Alaska.
He was noted for his daring as a bush flier, but his career also serves as a poignant
reminder of the need for prudence and meticulous attention to detail when flying
the Alaska wilderness.
There are two recent biographies: Arnold Griese, "Bush Pilot" and Ken Eichner, "Nine
Lives of an Alaska Bush Pilot".