Robert C. Reeve
Died: August 25, 1980
Robert Campbell Reeve often said, “The weather was so bad the year that I was born not one plane got off the ground.” Reeve and his twin brother, Richard, were born March 27, 1902; the Wright brothers would not fly until the next year. Hubert Reeve, the twin’s father, was the depot agent and telegrapher for the Chicago and Northwestern railroad that passed through Waunakee, Wisconsin. Their mother, Mae, would die when the boys were two and, after their father remarried, they were left to their own devices.
Bob was a voracious reader, discovering the Wright Brothers and their successes at age 7. He studied all that he could find on flying, deciding that “the future of the world lay in the air”. Cal Rogers, the cross-country flier, captured the boy’s interest and provided him with dreams of travel. By 1917 Reeve was bored with school, filled with wanderlust, and wanted to be involved with the war.
The 15 year-old ran away to enlist in the Army and was accepted on his second attempt at Davenport, Iowa. After the hostilities ended he was discharged as a Sergeant having served his entire enlistment in the United States. While in the Army, Reeve saw his first airplane when a flight of Curtiss JN-4 "Jennies" flew over Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. Later, while stationed at Camp Custer, Michigan he would pay $5 for his first airplane ride, a ride that lasted all of five minutes. Five minutes that would change his life forever.
He returned home at his father’s urging and tried to complete high school. School held even less interest for the Army veteran and soon he was off again, this time to San Francisco. He joined the crew of a steamship and sailed for China, jumping ship at Shanghai. He would find work at the Chinese Maritime Customs Service eventually traveling to Vladivostok. His father’s pleading brought Robert home once more in 1921.
Bob now buckled down, finished his high school requirements in a scant six months, and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1922. While studying there he found three air-minded classmates and soon they were at the airport, abandoning their studies. They would all be expelled just months from graduation but now Reeve had his passion for flying reignited and there would be no turning back.
Traveling to Florida and then Texas in search of flight training, by 1926 he had earned both commercial pilot and aircraft mechanic certificates. Finding work as a pilot was difficult so he re-enlisted in the Army. Soon he was stationed at March Field, California where his brother Richard was a flight cadet. He also met Nathan Twining, a young Army officer and flight instructor who would become a life-long friend. The military quickly lost its luster for Bob and so at the first opportunity he again left the Army.
In 1928 Reeve was hired by Ford Motor Company to learn to fly its new, large Tri-motor airplane. He completed his schooling at the Ford Flight Training School in Phoenix and then was on his way south. Reeve was sent to await a disassembled aircraft that would be shipped to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Bob delivered the first Ford to Lima on August 1, 1929 for Pangara Airways, a partnership between Pan Am Airlines and WR Grace, a shipping company. The airline offered Bob the opportunity to fly the new long-distance mail route, Foreign Mail Route 9, the longest route in the world. It stretched 1,900 miles between Lima, Peru and Santiago, Chile. The aircraft for this route were the Fairchild 71 and the Lockheed Vega. Bob preferred the Fairchild for its dependability. "It was," he said, “the best performer at high altitudes of any airplane I have ever flown”. He would set two records along this route using the Fairchild.
Reeve would also use the Fairchild on the route between Santiago, Chile and Montevideo, Uruguay flying over the Andes at altitudes exceeding 23,000 feet without oxygen. While flying the mail he met several old timers who told him tales of Alaska, its gold and of flying possibilities there. It wasn’t long before Reeve was feeling that pull to move once again. After a minor landing accident involving a Lockheed Vega he was on his way north.
A short visit home turned into a longer stay when Reeve fell through thin ice on a hunting trip. Soaking wet he hiked the four miles for home.. What Reeve first thought a cold and then muscular rheumatism turned out to be a bout of polio. The effect on one leg would trouble him for years. After spending a month in bed, he packed up and headed west, stowing away on a steamer bound for Anchorage. Finding too many pilots there for his liking he heeded some advice, traveling next to Seward and then settling in Valdez during the summer of 1932.
He began his bush-flying career in an Eaglerock biplane that he first rebuilt and then rented from its owner, Owen Meals. His first flights would prove to be more learning experiences than moneymaking but Reeve persisted. Finally, he found a service that others were not providing, taking equipment and supplies to mines located in the mountains near glaciers. He bought his first airplane, a Fairchild 51.
Bob was always finding unique ways to solve challenges. One solution that won him worldwide acclaim was his technique of flying off the Valdez tidal mud flats with skis. This method allowed him to service his mining clients year round. Before leaving Valdez, in 1938, Reeve would make over 2,000 glacier landings, hauling over 1 million pounds of freight. "Glacier Pilot" was the title given Bob Reeve by World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle and it stayed with him throughout his life.
After several setbacks and a short stint flying out of Fairbanks the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) hired Bob in 1941. Bob would fly a Fairchild 71 and eventually a Boeing Model 80A, carrying more than 1,100 tons of equipment and 300 workers between April and November to an airport construction project. Using this infusion of money Bob bought three more aircraft (one would crash before delivery) as he prepared for expected work for the military. In November 1942, he signed an exclusive contract with the Alaska Communications Service. Bob became the only civilian pilot authorized to fly in combat zones by virtue of this agreement. Reeve and his wife Tilly, along with their four children, moved a final time to Anchorage.
During World War II Bob flew the entire Aleutian Chain learning its weather, the islands and the coastlines. As the war wound down Bob developed a plan, he would serve the Aleutians with scheduled service. Following a tip from a military friend he learned of a C-47 being sold as surplus. He bought it and then spent $5000 converting it for civilian use. When rumors of a steamship strike came true Reeve was ready. He and his two pilots flew 26 round trips between Seattle and either Anchorage or Fairbanks in 53 days. He made enough money in those 53 days to pay off the loan for the first and buy three additional C-47s. Reeve’s dream of an airline was about to take off.
Bob petitioned the CAA for approval to serve the Chain on a scheduled basis during the winter of 1946/1947. Reeve Aleutian Airways was incorporated on March 24, 1947 and that summer began its once a week run over the 1,783-mile route. The airline would add aircraft as demand would dictate operating Douglas DC-3s, DC-4s, DC-6A/Bs, Grumman G-21 Goose, a Sikorsky S-43, Curtiss C-46s, Lockheed L-188 Electras, NAMC (Japan) YS-11A, Boeing 727s, Lockheed 10, a Helio-Courier H-250, and a Beechcraft D-50 Twin Bonanza.
Reeve was an avid outdoorsman and loved to share Alaska with his friends. He would often host Jimmy Doolittle, Nate Twining, and Hoyt Vandenberg on hunting excursions. During a 1948 hunt Reeve would shoot a world record Brown Bear, a record that would stand for a number of years. He was awarded the Sagamore Hill Medal from the Boone and Crocket Club in recognition of that success.
In 1952 Reeve was invited to run for territorial governor but decided against it due to possible conflicts with the airline. Robert C. Reeve was named “Alaskan of the Year” in 1972, inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1975, and inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1980. Robert C. Reeve would die in his sleep on August 25, 1980. The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum inducted Robert C. Reeve into the Alaska Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame during ceremonies on February 25, 2005.
The airline couldn't withstand the effects of increased competition, deregulation and the continued difficulties of flying to the Aleutians. Reeve Aleutian Airways stopped scheduled air service December 5, 2000, after nearly 70 years.
Read more about Robert C. (Bob) Reeve in The Bush Pilots, a volume in the Epic of Flight series by Time-Life, Glacier Pilot by Beth Day or Flying Beats Work by Stan Cohen.