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AFSC Historical Corner:  Aircraft for Enforcement, Surveying & Transportation

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Canning & Curing
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Tools & Equipment
DeHaviland Beaver aircraft, N715
A 450-hp DeHaviland Beaver used by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the 1950s.
Auke Bay Laboratories photo, 1954.

Fisheries enforcement:

Introduced in 1929, the use of aircraft for the protection of Alaska fisheries provided an important and efficient auxiliary patrol to the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) enforcement boats that had been in service since 1912.

Initially, the Bureau contracted with Alaska-Washington Airways, a commercial company for the limited service of a seaplane. The few flights that were made successfully demonstrated the efficiency of aerial patrol over the long, irregular coast of Alaska, a territory having numerous channels, bays, inlets, and mountainous regions where travelling by boat was often slow and difficult. In his 1929 annual report, the Bureau's Alaska Fisheries Division chief, Ward T. Bower, stated that "it would seem that aircraft will have a definite place in patrol work in the future."

  Grumman Widgeon used to check traps
A Grumman Widgeon is used to check fish traps in Cook Inlet, Alaska.  FWS photo, date unknown.

Patrolling by air proved to be an effective deterrent to illegal fishing operations. A plane's fast approach kept violators from removing or adjusting their fishing gear in time to escape detection. Bureau agents were also on the lookout for fish traps that had not been properly closed whenever fishing was prohibited. One drawback, however, was that any rough water would prevent landing a plane to make the proper investigations of an observed infraction.

At first, patrol flights were confined to the southeastern district and occurred primarily during the closed fishing periods between Saturday and Monday. These trips were made from Juneau and Ketchikan by BOF agents. In the summer of 1930, a warden would cover over 1,000 miles of flying a day. During the 1930s the region patrolled widened to areas such as Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay. In 1939, six charter aircraft companies were providing service over a 31-day period in which 64 hours of flying time covering 6,859 miles was reported.

In addition to enforcement patrol, chartered aircraft also provided Bureau agents with quick transportation to isolated districts in connection with their observations of certain salmon spawning grounds and general supervisory work of the Alaska fisheries.

Aerial survey and transport use:

  Grumman Goose at Olsen Bay
Unloading a Grumman Goose at Olsen Bay, Alaska.  FWS photo, 1965.

A 1920 annual BOF report stated: "The possibility of practical use of aeroplanes in various branches of the fisheries is one of the most interesting developments in aviation. The most obvious purpose that aeroplanes may serve is in the offshore fisheries in determining the location of whales and schools of surface-swimming fishes, like mackerel and menhaden, and in promptly communicating this information to fishing vessels or to shore stations. Other uses of aircraft in connection with the fishing industry will doubtless arise."

Ten years before the Bureau's use of aircraft in Alaska, the value of aerial surveying was first thoroughly tested in 1921, using Naval Aviation Service seaplanes to spot schools of menhaden in waters of the eastern U.S. The experiment proved quite favorable and contributed to the eventual expeditious aerial surveying of numerous Alaska spawning streams, many of which being remote and otherwise hard to reach.

In 1930, the first recorded stream survey in Alaska by air was conducted in the Lake Clark district of Bristol Bay by BOF special employee, C. M. Hatton. The following year, BOF Bristol Bay Management Agent, Dennis Winn, attempted the first extensive aerial surveying of salmon spawning grounds, but had limited success due to poor weather conditions. In 1938, another Bureau agent, George B. Kelez, started a sockeye salmon research program which utilized aerial and ground surveys. Using a mounted F-56 Fairchild aerial camera in 1947, Kelez and G. J. Eicher, Jr. began experimental vertical aerial photographic surveys of the Bristol Bay region as a means of permanently recording salmon spawning counts.

The FWS fleet:

Among the first aircraft by the FWS since 1940 were probably two planes purchased by Alaska fisheries employees, Clarence Rhode and Sam White. Some Grumman Widgeon planes were initially acquired at no cost as surplus property from the U.S. Navy and other agencies. Built for the U.S. Navy during World War II, the Widgeon was a smaller version of the Grumman Goose and was short-lived with the FWS, since replacement parts for the motors were difficult to find. It first flew for the Service in the southeastern region of the Alaska territory, used for hauling passengers/freight and surveying wildlife.

FWS aircraft
FWS aircraft based at Yakutat, Alaska:  Seabee (left) and Grumman Widgeon (right).
Auke Bay Laboratories photo, date unknown.  C. D. Swanson, photographer?

By the mid-1940s, the U.S. Congress was finally persuaded to provide funding for the aircraft and the FWS's Alaska fleet quickly grew. $400,000 was appropriated for a facility at the Anchorage Airport, complete with office/hangar space and equipment. The fleet consisted largely of the surplus Goose models purchased inexpensively from various places. Many of these smaller float planes were ideal for transportation into shoreline facilities, such as the Karluk Lake experimental fisheries station and the field camp at Olsen Bay. Other airplanes were rigged with skis for conducting game observations over ice and snow landing areas.

  aeromarine helicopter working for the FWS
A Bell 47G-5 aeromarine helicopter working for the FWS.  Auke Bay Laboratories photo, date unknown.

By Alaska's statehood in 1959, the (now) U.S. FWS was flying about 35 aircraft in the territory – many of which still being the Grumman Goose. FWS Director (1946-52) Al Day later recounted that the use of airplanes were "the best enforcement tool that we had. The pilot could fly along behind a hill and suddenly jump over the hill and down on a fishing boat in closed waters; snap a few pictures and go on his way. Several fine cases of illegal fishing convictions were made on that type of a thing." And with regard to survey use, Day stated: "We found that you could actually get a good reading on the densities and runs of could actually fly over and photograph and count the number of salmon and establish key observations and estimates from airplanes. They became more and more useful all the time."

Other oral history accounts of aircraft use in Alaska can be found on the FWS National Digital Library website  (last accessed 6-25-13).

George B. Kelez (FWS Assistant Fisheries Administrator) was killed when the twin-engine Grumman Goose he was flying in lost its wing after hitting a tree and went down on Admiralty Island, Alaska, on 1 September 1954.  The crash also claimed the lives of four other wildlife employees, Robert Schuman, Larry Kolleon, Patte D. Bidwell, and the pilot, Bob Meeks.  The lone severely injured survivor, Gus Hilsinger, was rescued after crawling 1.5 miles over rugged beach and signaling a plane.  To memorialize Kelez, a mountain in the Brooks range of Alaska (1954) and a Bureau of Commercial Fisheries vessel (1962) were both named after him.  See also Wilbanks*
Stan Fredericksen (Alaska FWS agent from 1953-58) died on 21 August 1958 along with USFWS Regional Director Clarence Rhode and his son Jack when their plane hit a rock and exploded in the Philip Smith Mountains (north central Alaska).  The Grumman Goose they were flying had been missing until it was discovered by a hiker 21 years later.
In 1984, four U.S. whale biologists fortunately survived a plane crash in the Arctic Ocean while conducting photographic surveys of bowhead whales.  Both engines of their DeHaviland Twin Otter stalled 1,000 feet over the Beaufort Sea, some 6 miles from shore.  More >>

Additional reading:

  • Aerial Methods of Assessing Red Salmon Populations in Western Alaska. By George J. Eicher, Jr.  Journal of Wildlife Management, 1953. ( website).
  • * Wilbanks, W. 1999. "#11 George B. Kelez", p. 53-55. In Forgotten Heroes, Police Officers Killed in Alaska 1850-1997. Turner Publishing Co. Paducah, KY. 192 p.  (Online through Google Books, last accessed 2-6-13).

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