Bob Ellis cajoled his way onto a Lockheed Vega and then built a legendary life in the air and on the ground. "Few people," Bob Ellis
(pictured at right circa 1980) said in a 1991 interview, "have had a more interesting life than I have."
"Bob was a true pioneer, instrumental in developing aviation in the state of Alaska and helping make Alaska Airlines a success," said former Alaska CEO Bruce Kennedy. "He was a warm person with a ready smile and a good story to tell."
Born and raised in St. Albans, Vermont, Ellis entered the U.S. Naval Academy at age 16, but left two years later when he learned that only a small portion of his class would receive commissions due to military spending cuts following World War I.
A friend from Annapolis who grew up in Seattle invited Ellis and his brother Vic to come to the timber-rich Pacific Northwest. He worked in lumber exporting for a time, but joined the Naval Reserve in 1926 and became a pilot. In 1929, just months after receiving his commercial transport license, he served as navigator on the plywood floatplane—a Lockheed Vega—that made the first nonstop flight between Seattle and Juneau. Ellis had been enlisted to plot the course for the pilot of the historic flight, but purposely complicated the plan so the pilot would have to take Ellis along. Nearly eight hours later, with a hero's welcome, the native New Englander and one-time cadet at Annapolis was an Alaskan for life.
Over the next six years he flew all over Alaska for a variety of airlines, in all kinds of planes—landing on everything from ice fields to river bars. He always maintained a wonderful sense of humor—even in the face of close calls, daring rescues and challenging weather.
Ignorance, he said, was the worst enemy of early-day Alaskan pilots. There were no flight or aircraft manuals of any kind, and radio and instrument technology was a ways off. "Once we got our license at 200 hours, we were on our own, and the only thing you learned was something you discovered by yourself or you gained by talking with other pilots. And there usually wasn't another pilot around to talk over things—like wingtip stall—which is important to know," he said in the book Heroes of the Horizon. "When I discovered it I didn't even know the name for it."
In another book, Alaska Bush Pilots—The Float Country, he said, "We'd go on for days, flying all over hell into areas that weren't even on the map. Every flight back then was a grand adventure."
In 1936, with a four-seat, single-engine Cabin Waco floatplane, he founded Ketchikan-based Ellis Air Transport (later renamed Ellis Airlines). Business grew steadily with Bob's dedication to customer service. In the tiny villages he served in Southeast Alaska, for instance, he'd take orders for groceries before flying back to Ketchikan. People would also trust him with their paychecks, knowing he could be counted on to return with carefully identified envelopes full of cash. At Christmas, he'd dress up to become "The Flying Santa Claus," landing in the villages to pass out candy to the children.
His reliability, willingness to lend a hand, quick wit and gentle manner carried him far, not only in business, but in politics too. He served in the Territorial Senate and was mayor of Ketchikan.
When the Navy called Ellis to serve as a squadron and air station commander during World War II, his wife, Peg, and two trusted employees kept the business going. He was commanding the squadron based on Kodiak in 1944 when President Roosevelt made a surprise visit en route from Hawaii to Washington. D.C. Ellis' exaggerated stories about Alaska bears and Matanuska Valley strawberries are reported to have had the President in stitches.
After the war, with a growing fleet of war-surplus Grumman Goose aircraft, Ellis Airlines prospered, forcing Bob to hang up his goggles and focus on management.
In 1962, Ellis joined forces with Alaska Coastal Airlines, a Juneau-based carrier operated by fellow pioneers Shell Simmons and Ben Benecke. The merger of their combined company with Alaska Airlines six years later brought Bob to the Alaska Airlines board of directors, where he served for 13 years before retiring in 1981 as director emeritus.
He and Peg had two sons, Mike and Peter, and a daughter, Sabra Jenkins. The final chapter in the extraordinary run of the legendary bush pilot who founded one of the carriers that forms the Alaska Airlines of today came on May 8, 1994, when he died at his home in Ketchikan. He was 91.