His daring exploits made national headlines, but Shell Simmons was an
innovator and entrepreneur at heart. He made his living in the air, but
is remembered by friends and colleagues as "down to earth." He was
famous for daring rescues and mercy missions, but was eulogized as
someone who put "no stock in heroism—he just did what he thought was
Shell Simmons (pictured
at right circa 1980 at banquet honoring his early work) was a pioneer
bush pilot of legendary renown. And he founded one of the airlines that
formed the Alaska Airlines of today.
"Shell often said he didn't want to be romanticized as a mercy pilot," Jim Johnson,
Alaska Airlines' senior vice president emeritus said at Simmon's
November 1994 funeral in Juneau. "To him, the daring missions were just
another aspect of the profession."
Indeed. There was much more to Simmons than heroic acts. He was a
skilled businessman whose high standards helped build a one-plane fleet
into a major regional carrier. He was an innovator, improving seaplane
designs and engine performance and playing a key role in gaining
approval for instrument landings in Sitka and night flights in Juneau.
He was an excellent mechanic with a background in engineering that
earned him the admiration of federal regulators for the reliability of
his planes. And his occasionally colorful language told you he was
passionate about his work.
In short, he made giant contributions to Alaska Airlines, the state of Alaska and commercial aviation.
The most storied of Simmons' exploits was the 1938 rescue of the crew
of the cargo ship Patterson that ran aground in the storm near Cape
Fairweather, one of the most inaccessible beaches on the Alaska Coast.
Navy planes and Coast Guard cutters couldn't get to the 18 survivors
because of huge swells, a driving snow and gale-force winds.
After two weeks, the situation getting desperate, Simmons acted on
his own. "To our awe and amazement," said one of the stranded, Simmons
landed his floatplane in the bubbling surf. He flew out two of the
weakest sailors, and a trapper who Simmons brought along guided the
others 15 miles down the coast where a boat could reach them. Simmons
was lauded nationally. Always reluctant to be in the limelight, he
dismissed his actions as "just work."
"To fully grasp just how unassuming Shell was, you need to know that
when he made the Patterson rescue he was still recuperating from
injuries sustained in a crash three months earlier," said Johnson, whose
42-year airline career began with Simmons' Alaska Coastal Airlines. "In
that crash, Shell dove beneath the water repeatedly before eventually
saving a trapped passenger." The memory of that incident, caused by a
faulty fuel line, stayed with Simmons for the rest of his life in the
form of scars on his hands and face.
Adventure, it seemed, was Simmons' middle name. At 16, he quit school
to become a deckhand aboard a freighter bound for the Orient. Over the
next three years he'd drive a delivery truck in Ketchikan, study
electrical engineering in Los Angeles and work as an electrician in the
He quit the mine so he and a friend could sail 2,100 miles down the
Yukon River in a 14-foot rowboat. This lead, indirectly, to his career
in aviation. When they landed in the Arctic, he took a job on a runway
construction project. He got the flying bug watching Noel Wien and others land on the unfinished airstrip.
Simmons returned to his boyhood home in Washington's Yakima Valley in
1929 to take flying lessons. Afterward, he went back to his job at the
mine but started working with friends to restore planes and hone his
flying skills. He went to work for a Juneau airline in 1934 but his
assigned plane was damaged in a storm a short time later and the owners
couldn't afford to rebuild it. They sold the wreck to Simmons for $1. He
promptly rounded up local investors to finance the rebuild and a new
airline. Alaska Air Transport was born.
Simmons worked tirelessly. He flew at night, dropped mail and
Christmas turkeys to miners and even hauled the Juneau marshal to a gun
fight. In the summer, he'd fly 16 hours a day. He was the first
commercial pilot to fly year-round in Southeast Alaska.
When cash flow was tight, he'd accept company stock from his backers
in lieu of salary, prompting one writer to describe Simmons and his
well-worn attire as "a picture of poverty in flight." But business grew
and he acquired more planes. In 1939, he and competitor Alex Holden of Marine Airways joined forces to create Alaska Coastal Airlines.
In 1962, Alaska Coastal merged with Ketchikan-based Ellis Airlines to
form the largest scheduled airline exclusively operating amphibians.
Five years later, they merged with Alaska Airlines, bringing Simmons and
partners Bob Ellis and Ben Benecke to the Alaska Airlines board of directors. Simmons served on the board for 13 years and was named director emeritus in 1981.
Simmons, who died at age 86, was preceded in death by his wife, Bea, and their only child, son Shelby.