The Greatest Pilot Who Ever Lived!

Famed mountaineer Bradford Washburn and his team leaned against the body of Bob Reeve’s bush plane, pushing the old Fairchild around so it would face the abrupt drop-off of a cliff. When Wash- burn looked into the cockpit, he saw no sign of emotion on the face of pilot Bob Reeve—even though Reeve was about to taxi his plane right off the cliff.

The year was 1937 and Washburn had hired Reeve, already a famous Alaska bush pilot, to ferry a climbing party to Mount Lucania in Canada. Reeve landed the party on the 17,146-foot mountain, only to discover the air too thin for his Fairchild to get lift for a takeoff. Three times he tried taking off, without success.

Washburn asked Reeve what he was going to do. Reeve snapped back: “I’m a pilot. You skin your skunk and I’ll skin mine.” Then he said that the only way to gain lift was to taxi his Fairchild straight off the cliff ahead.

Reeve had arrived in Valdez after being thrown off a passing freighter with two dollars in his pocket. He found a wrecked Eaglerock biplane, repaired it, then leased it from the owner for ten dollars an hour.

Valdez was surrounded with potential gold mining sites, but getting equipment up to those locations was difficult. Sometimes Reeve would wrap old mattresses around generators, small engines and other mining equipment, then drop them from the air. Other times he would do a “controlled” crash landing on an ice field, running his plane into a snowbank to stop it. Reeve and his gutsy flying resulted in 13 gold mines opening and operating around Valdez.

Soon, Reeve upgraded to a Fairchild cabin plane and charged miners 35 cents a pound for delivery. The “new” plane was so battered that the floor was patched with grocery boxes, labels still on them. He used nearby mudflats as his runways. Often he stated that he wasn’t flying a plane—just an assortment of parts flying in formation in the same direction. Over the shack where he slept was a sign reading: “Always use Reeve’s Airways—slow, unreliable, unfair, and crooked. Unlicensed and nuts. Reeve’s Airways—the best.”

Author Rex Beach, a friend of Wyatt Earp’s and author of The Spoilers, wrote magazine articles about Reeve. Women wrote to him, asking to marry him. Then one woman, Janice Morisette, wrote to Reeve asking if he needed help with his flying operation. Reeve hid out in the Yukon for a month before sneaking back to get a look at her. He found her attractive, and she soon became Mrs. Reeve.

Bradford Washburn had also learned of Reeve through those articles. Now here was Reeve behind the stick of his Fairchild, heading for the cliff. Over the cliff he went, then down and out of view. Washburn didn’t know what happened to him; it was only when the Washburn Expedition returned that he learned Reeve was still alive.

During the press conference on his climb, Washburn called Reeve “the greatest pilot who ever lived!” Reeve eventually found his established routine too tame and started Reeve Aleutian Airways in 1946, taking passengers and freight through the storm-plagued Aleutian Islands. He passed away due to natural causes in 1980, but his airline continued operating for another two decades.