Alaska Airlines' roots trace to the Great Depression, and the hard work & resourcefulness of Mac McGee. For Linious "Mac" McGee, 1932 marked the beginning of a new way of life, steady work.
Seeking opportunity during the Great Depression, he stowed away on an
Alaska-bound steamship hoping to find better times. The Indiana native
and transplanted Montanan subsequently worked as a miner, truck driver,
dishwasher and fur buyer.
But it wasn't until 1932 that he found his calling when he launched
an airline that would, after years of aviation pioneering, become one of
the largest and most highly regarded carriers in the U.S.: Alaska
Along the way, he teamed with other aviation adventurers, such as Harvey Barnhill, Charlie Ruttan, Steve Mills and Oscar Winchell
(pictured here at McGee's right in 1959), to help revolutionize
transportation in the Alaska Territory. By overcoming tremendous
risks—frequent crashes, forced landings, terrible weather, unreliable
airplanes, primitive navigation, and Alaska's vast and unforgiving
terrain—the airplane and its pilots and mechanics became vital parts of
the state's history.
McGee and Barnhill, a barnstormer of some renown, partnered up in
1931 to buy a three-seat Stinson for $5,000 from a San Francisco outfit
that was the parent company of United Airlines. The plane initially was
used to support McGee's fur-buying business.
But in January 1932, McGee and Barnhill started advertising their
company in the Anchorage Daily Times as a furrier, but also as an
airline offering service between Anchorage and Bristol Bay. Barnhill and
McGee dissolved their partnership in the late spring of 1932, shortly
after using a bank loan to buy a second Stinson. Barnhill kept the newer
plane, but sold it back to McGee at the onset of winter.
McGee then hired Winchell, a highly regarded bush pilot. He made
Winchell a unique offer—his pay would be 12 1/2 percent of the gross
business he was able to generate with McGee's plane, making him a
commissioned salesman. This scheme helped keep McGee's planes full
wherever they flew.
McGee was a workaholic known to run or jog everywhere. He worked
seven days a week and asked his employees for the same dedication, but
never drove them beyond the bounds of reason. He was said to be as
honest as summer days are long in Alaska.
pioneered the concept of having a fleet of identical aircraft so that
parts would be interchangeable. Despite his hard work and innovation,
McGee was on the brink of financial disaster for several years. He
sometimes could not make his payroll and his pilots often had more money
than he did.
As McGee was struggling to survive, competition was increasing. With a Fleet biplane, Ruttan, Mills and Jack Waterworth (all
fliers from Seattle), founded Star Air Service in April 1932 with the
financial help of a wealthy Alaskan mining engineer named Earl Dunkle. Their plan was to offer flight instruction and charter service from Anchorage.
Just like McGee, Star was having difficulty making ends meet. Flying
lessons weren't paying all the bills so Ruttan joined the Anchorage Fire
Department so he could sleep for free in a fire hall bunk.
On July 4, 1932, Star's only plane was hired for $100 to help
celebrate Independence Day. But the black powder they used to leave a
trail of dark smoke as the plane flew over the crowd exploded, badly
damaging one of the biplane's wings. Shortly after that incident, Star
went out of business temporarily when another pilot crashed the plane on
a charter flight. Ruttan, Mills and Waterworth got jobs shoveling
gravel and worked on their plane at night. By the time the biplane was
fixed, an investor loaned them the money to buy a Curtiss Robin. And
they were suddenly a two-plane airline.
McGee, itching to work some mining claims he had staked, agreed to
sell McGee Airways and his seven silver-and-black Stinsons to Star for
$50,000, creating the largest airline in Alaska with 22 aircraft. But
there was one important condition: If McGee didn't get paid on time, he
would return to manage the airline until he got all of his money.
Sure enough, McGee was soon back running the business. He paid
himself three percent of the airline's gross. And by 1936, Star's gross
income was $190,000 a year. Passengers were charged 20 cents a mile, and
35 percent of all freight moved in the territory was by plane.
Aviation opened up The Great Land, but it was not without cost. A
number of pilots were killed, including Steve Mills in a 1936 crash.
Others got lost in storms, never to be seen again. Engines froze in
flight. Rings and push rods broke. Valves burned out, bent or were
sucked into engines. Tails and wings fell off. Landing gear snapped.
Wooden parts rotted. Fabric skins were torn. Fierce storms sometimes
blew planes away. It was an environment unforgiving of men and their
After Mills was killed, McGee bought out Waterworth's share of Star
and ran operations until his mining interests again prevailed. When Kenny Neese,
McGee's successor as manager, left the airline, McGee again returned
yet again to manage the company. He expanded business by buying
struggling Alaska Interior Airlines, a carrier founded by McGee Airways'
first pilot, Oscar Winchell.
Ruttan left Star in the late 1930s when he purchased an oil
distributorship. And in late 1937, increasingly frustrated by the
growing presence of federal regulators in Alaska skies, McGee sold the
airline to a corporation of investors led by one of his former pilots, Don Goodman, and the Strandbergs,
a successful Kuskokwim mining family. They changed the name of the
carrier from Star Air Service to Star Air Lines. When Goodman and the
Strandbergs sold the airline in 1942, the name was changed to Alaska
Star Airlines. And in 1944 the name was changed for the last time—to
Mac, meanwhile, never returned to the airline business, instead
opening a very successful liquor store and eventually returning to
placer mining in the Manley Hot Springs area. He retired at age 73 and
moved to Vancouver, Washington, before settling in Reno, Nevada, where
he died at age 91 in June 1988.