Monday, January 02, 2012

Willard's journey: From local deckhand to globetrotting pilot

Originally published Thursday, Dec 22, 2011; Issue: 51

By: Rosalie Loewen

Ask Ray Willard how he feels about his job flying 747 cargo jets around the world and he has a quick answer: "Sure beats working." That’s how much Willard enjoys his career as a jet pilot, something he says he "stumbled into."

Willard grew up in Klukwan and Haines. His father, Evans Willard, was a commercial fisherman who gillnetted Lynn Canal before moving out to Bristol Bay. Willard is proud of his Tlingit roots and Native heritage.

"In my company they all know that I am Tlingit. I am always talking about it. My dad was a chief before he passed away. My grandmother, Mildred Sparks, was big into heritage."

Willard didn’t get an early start in flying. After graduating from Haines High School in 1976, he worked winters as a welder and spent summers fishing with his father. In the early 1980s Willard was working in Anchorage when he passed a sign at Merrill Field that caught his eye: "Introductory flight lesson, $40."

The way he tells it, he had nothing better going. He said he remembers thinking, as the plane landed at the end of his first lesson, "I think I could probably do this."

Today, Willard lives in a Wasilla fly-in airpark that includes a runway and floatplane lake. He has a hangar attached to his house and owns three airplanes: a 1969 Cessna 180 on wheels, a 1979 Cessna 185 on amphibious floats and a recently acquired Piper PA18 Super Cub that came with floats, tundra tires and a cabin on 19 acres near McGrath.

"My wife tells me that I have to sell one of them. She gets on my case because she thinks I don’t fly the little airplanes enough anymore."

Willard’s first plane was a 1954 Cessna 180. The year was 1984 and he had just acquired his private pilot’s license. Ernie Walker, a pilot and airplane mechanic, sold him the plane in Haines. "I only had 54 hours of experience," Willard remembered. "Ernie made it look easy, so I bought it. I found out they aren’t quite as easy to fly as you might think."

Besides the plane, Walker sold him on the idea of getting a commercial pilot’s license and flying for Haines Airways, a local airline Walker was just getting started.

Shares of the company were owned throughout town, helping develop a clientele. "It was really a local airline: I was a local boy, and everyone involved lived there; no outside corporations. (Everyone) helped. Klukwan, Inc. was still in the money and used us a lot and that helped boost the bottom line, too."

Former Haines Air dispatcher Midge Stokley, reached for comment at home in Cowley, Wyo., remembered Willard as an extremely skilled pilot. "People were always comfortable flying with him. He was requested by many that were white knuckle passengers when weather was not the best... I am one that would climb into a plane with him anytime.

Once though, Mother Nature smacked him, Stokley said, recalling a draft that caught the plane and tipped it sideways, causing a cargo door to pop open and a mail bag to fall out. "Ray and (owner) Mike Shallcross went out on a search, but none of it was recovered. Ray said that could be the true meaning of airmail."

Willard feels he owes his successful career in part to a work ethic he inherited from his father. "My biggest influence was my dad, who was a hard-core, hard-working guy and didn’t tolerate anyone sitting around. Even if you were leaning up against something, he would notice."

The job also suits his nature, Willard said. "Anybody who knows me, knows I am pretty laid back. Most pilots are calm under fire, think-before-you-do sort of thing. You have to be able to make smart decisions...quick decisions."

Willard bought additional shares of Haines Air and was a partner and pilot for 13 years until the airline was bought by a branch of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) in 1997. He cashed out and moved on to flying medical evacuation Lear jet flights full time. "That got me addicted to flying jets, flying high and going fast."

In 1999 he was hired by Atlas Air Worldwide and trained on the Boeing 747-400 planes that he pilots today.

Despite his high-flying career, Willard takes off a month every year to commercial fish in Bristol Bay, a job he’s done almost every year since he started deckhanding on the family boat at age 13. He flies one of his Cessnas into Kvichak Bay, to the mouth of the Naknek River, where he skippers a gillnet boat with a permit he inherited when his father died.

"I don’t really have a (financial) need to fish, but I promised my Dad and it helps my Mom out. And I think it is kind of an addiction. Around June I start wanting to be there, getting ready. I am already thinking about it now (in December): What I need, how I am going to get all the days off... I plan on fishing until I can’t do it anymore."

He calls fishing a kind of reality check "to see what it is like to really work for a living. After a month in Bristol Bay, I really appreciate (my piloting job.)"

When fishing, he and his crew spend nearly all their time on the water. They come in to the cannery only for groceries and fuel, or during regular closures. He considers crewmen Danny Willard and Mark Williams among the best in the bay. "They have been fishing with me a lot of years. I am going to try to keep them fishing with me as long as I can."

Willard just put the finishing touches on a new 32-foot, flush-deck welded aluminum boat. He hired a Washington state contractor to do most of the construction, but flew down to help out and put his 10 years of experience as a professional welder back into use.

Despite his recent promotion to captain from first officer, Willard characterizes himself as a "nuts and bolts" kind of guy. "I like to do a lot of stuff myself. Typical Alaskan: You have to be able to figure it out."

For this story, Willard was reached during a layover in Everett, Wash., traveling between Charleston, South Carolina and Nagoya, Japan, flying one of four existing 747 Dreamlifter jets.

Despite his worldwide experience, Willard said he enjoys flying over the Chilkat Valley most. "I’ve still got a cabin at Chilkat Lake. I know the area so well, it’s fun for me to fly down there. I’m familiar with every little dirt strip, every beach you could land on."

Not that he considers flying, or even fishing in the Chilkat Valley, easy. "I have probably had my adrenaline to its peak just being a Lynn Canal fisherman caught in a blow, trying to make it back into the harbor. Even flying in Lynn Canal, dealing with the weather, getting caught halfway between Juneau and Haines, orbiting a beach between snow showers saying, ‘Please, God, just let me make it back.’ That is where you test your cool."

He describes as "pretty mellow’ the job he holds now. "I just go from one big airport to another. Back doing medevac flights in Southeast Alaska, flying around in all that terrain and snowstorms... in the middle of the night. That was pretty exciting."

He plans to retire in his current job. "New rules say I can fly until I’m 65 and I plan on continuing flying that long."

Willard has this advice for young people. "If they have a dream, they should at least go and try it. I didn’t think I could learn to fly. I never had encouragement and it just seemed out of reach, but I stumbled into it one day and it has turned into a decent career... (Flying) is challenging, but it is definitely doable for the average kid."

"Over the Mountains" is a series of articles spotlighting Haines students who have achieved success.

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