Alaska Bush Tales: Harold Gillam
Harold “Thrill ’em, Chill ’em, Spill ‘em” Gillam
In the heyday of the Alaska bush pilots, there were three descriptions of weather conditions. First there was “Pan American weather,” when the sky was clear and the visibility unlimited.
Then there was “flying weather” which ranged from good to poor, depending on who was doing the talking. Finally, there was Gillam weather, conditions that were so BAD that only Harold “Thrill ’em, Chill ’em, Spill ‘em” Gillam would fly.
Whenever there was Gillam Weather, bush pilots would sit out the bad spell, primarily because it was too dangerous to fly and, secondarily, because, in their words, “God’s plenty busy taking care of Harold.”
From the gravel strip runways of the most remote communities in Alaska to the pavement of Merrill Field in Anchorage and Weeks Field in Fairbanks, there is an old saying that bush pilots understand well. “There are old pilots,” the adage goes, “and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.”
There is something dramatic about an Alaskan bush pilot that has captured the attention of the world. He is a giant in the world of aviation, the stuff from which legends are made. These are the men, and more than a few women, who flew by the seat of their pants, in open cockpits when the temperature was well below zero, over the roughest terrain in North America in some of the worst weather on the planet. Season after season, year after year, these pilots loaded their planes, climbed into the cockpit and headed out over the Alaskan bush, that part of the Last Frontier that even today is not connected by road to the Lower 48. Whether it was groceries to remote villages, fur to a rendezvous in Anchorage or the injured to a hospital in Juneau, these pilots were, quite literally, the lifeline of Alaska.
One of the most apparently careless fliers in the early days of Alaska aviation was Harold “Thrill ’em, Chill ’em, Spill ‘em” Gillam. Gillam would fly in any weather. ANY weather. He had the uncanny ability — not to mention nerve — to fly in the worst conditions that existed. When other Alaskan pilots were grounded because of bad weather, Gillam was in the air.
“Everybody loved Harold,” the saying went around Cordova, “except maybe a few husbands.” Gillam looked the part of the swashbuckler of the sky. Well-proportioned and blessed with devastatingly good looks, he was also the hero of the younger set. A third grade Native in Cordova, assigned to write a poem about his favorite person, penned five lines that stuck to Gillam like fog to the Thompson Pass:
He thrill ‘em
But no kill ‘em
The son of an automobile salesman in Chadron, Nebraska, Gillam ran away from home at l6 and joined the Navy. He mustered out in l923 and worked in Seattle for a while as a painter. Then, on a construction job, he came north to Fairbanks. When the project was finished, Gillam stayed on and took flying lessons.
Oddly, considering his career, Gillam was the first survivor of Alaska’s first fatal air crash. He was aboard a Swallow as a flying student when the plane he was in suddenly spun out of control and crashed. The instructor was killed instantly. Gillam, with his wounds stitched, was out flying the next day and it wasn’t long before he was practicing pulling out of spins — alone.
Gillam entered aviation in a money-making capacity in l93l in the Copper Mining district inland from Cordova. From a pilot’s point of view the area was cursed. It was overshadowed by a steep mountain that was often blanketed by storm clouds from the Pacific. Turbulent air was more than common; it was routine. Fog was ever-present and winds were strong and inconsistent. Worse yet, the landing strips were short and, quite literally, hacked out of the side of a mountain or on a plateau. “If you undershot,” another bush pilot, Oscar Winchell, recalled with trepidation, “you ran into a bluff — when you took off you hadn’t a foot to spare.”
It was here that Gillam first made his name. However, he did not make it without a few mishaps. In his first six months of operation, Gillam had six crack-ups. No one was seriously injured, but he lost an estimated $30,000 which did not put him in good stead with his financial backers.
But Gillam proved early that he was a pilot with a future. He rapidly acquired a unique reputation. It appeared he could see in the dark and through clouds. On one particularly miserable night, “Honest John” McCreary fell into a cellar and onto a nail. Since there was fear that McCreary would die without a doctor, Gillam flew the man 125 miles through a driving snowstorm — at night — to Kennicott. There the doctor sadly predicted that McCreary would probably not last the night. Gillam went up again, this time flying to Cordova to bring back McCreary’s son. McCreary did not die and Gillam’s reputation as a seasoned pilot who had the eyes of a cat was enhanced.
After three years in Cordova, Gillam headed north to Fairbanks again. With the money that he had saved in Cordova, Gillam bought a Pilgrim and began flying the Alaska Interior.
Here his reputation grew by leaps and bounds. Unlike other pilots, he would sleep during the day and fly at night — in any weather. He would fly through pea soup fog without batting an eye. Cloud cover and darkness didn’t bother him. He would get up, dress and fly.
One particular incident exemplifies his unique ability. On a particularly miserable night, a group of veteran bush pilots were grounded in McGrath. The storm was so fierce that, as one of the flyers stated, “I wouldn’t have whipped a cat out there that night.” Yet Gillam flew. The grounded bush pilots were sitting around the fireplace when they heard a plane come in. Gillam entered, said “Hello” to his friends, refueled his plane and took off. Three days later, those men were still in McGrath — and Gillam was back in Fairbanks safe and sound.
In l938, Gillam was awarded the mail contract between Fairbanks and twenty bush communities. Unlike Pan American, who had held the contract before, Gillam delivered his mail on time, month after month, with a perfect safety record. Gillam’s record of delivery, according to the United States Postal Service at that time, was the best in the United States or any of its territories.
While Alaskan bush pilots found Gillam’s flying precision hard to believe, pilots from the Lower 48 did not believe the stories they had heard at all. No one had eyes like that — or good luck that often, for that matter. Hearing of Gillam’s exploits, a pilot from United Airlines, Danneld Cathcart, wanted to see for himself. Bracing himself, he rode with Gillam from Fairbanks to Barrow.
Even under the best of conditions this was a treacherous route — the one on which Will Rogers and Wiley Post had been killed in l935. It was a six-and-a- half hour trip and Gillam’s plane could only carry enough fuel for seven hours. The two men boarded the Pilgrim and Gillam went up, spiraled his way through several thousand feet of cover and then proceeded to fly for six and half hours over an unbroken sea of clouds. Suddenly Gillam nosed the plane down. Cathcart, undoubtedly sure that his last moments on earth were at hand, later recalled that once into the soup he saw nothing but fog. In fact, the first objects he did see were antenna poles flashing by as Gillam landed in the Barrow lagoon.
Although every pilot in Alaska felt that he “hadn’t a nerve in his body,” it appears today that Gillam was not just flying by the seat of his pants. In a day when most of the pilots steered by compass alone, Gillam was a technology buff. He established air-ground radio stations in those areas where he flew frequently and had old-timers monitor them when he was in the area. He installed a direction-finder, directional gyro, altimeter and an artificial horizon in the plane and studied weather and weather patterns assiduously.
But Gillam’s good luck was not to last. The Civil Aeronautics Board, forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration, was not thrilled with his antics and had filed charges against him numerous times for his “bizarre approaches” to landing strips. Before any action could be taken, Gillam took a flying job with Morrison-Knudson. Flying passengers and cargo all over the Territory of Alaska, Gillam was putting in l25-hour work months, far in excess of the l00 maximum. On January 5, l943, Gillam picked up five passengers in Seattle. A storm was headed in and after “considerable argument” Gillam was given permission to head north.
Four hours later Gillam entered dense fog in Southeast Alaska and proceeded to grope his way north. What he did not know was that the maps he had been given were obsolete. He became confused and began to circle at 6,000 feet trying to orient himself as his plane began to ice up.
Then things got worse. An engine went out and shortly thereafter the plane was hit with a powerful down draft that caused it to plunge 4,000 feet before Gillam could recover control of the craft. The next thing the passengers saw was mountainside and trees whizzing by the plane’s window. Gillam steered for a break in the clouds but he was too low. His wing clipped a tree top and the plane came down very hard.
Since Gillam had not bothered to use the radio to report his position, no one knew exactly where the plane had gone down. Only later was it discovered that they were just sixteen minutes by air from Ketchikan, almost home free. It took more than a month to find the survivors. One of the passengers had been killed in the crash and the others suffered horribly during that month in the wilderness but they survived.
But Gillam was not with the survivors. After the plane crashed, Gillam, with just a gash on his head, had headed out to look for help. He had never returned. When his body was finally discovered it was determined that he had tried to cross an ice-covered creek. The ice had not been thick enough to support his weight and he had broken through the crust and tumbled into the ice water. Apparently he had taken his clothes off to dry them and, in failing to start a fire, had frozen to death.
Thus ended the saga of one of Alaska’s most enigmatic fliers. But even today, among the old timers, Gillam weather is still weather that is so bad only Harold “Thrill ’em, Chill ’em, Spill ‘em” Gillam would fly.
[Steven Levi’s mysteries can be found at www.authormasterminds.com. His other books are available from Kindle and ACX.]