SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


'Ollie' Prest Was First To Fly Into SE
Famous Air Daredevil Nearly Beat Roy Jones To Ketchikan in 1921


December 23, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska - Most locals are aware that Roy Jones flew the seaplane Northbird into Ketchikan the summer of 1922 and brought air flight to Southern Southeast.

But Jones was very nearly not the first pilot to come to Ketchikan. Almost a year before Jones' flight, a famous daredevil pilot trying to make the first flight from Mexico to Siberia had to turn around just five miles south of the First City and return to Prince Rupert.

Clarence Oliver "Ollie" Prest did not intend to land his wheeled biplane in Ketchikan - he was heading for a patch of grass near Wrangell - but he most certainly would have excited Ketchikan residents by buzzing the community and would have been the first plane to arrive in the skies over town.

Alas, his visit was aborted by - no surprise - a bad rain squall that nearly brought his plane down at the mouth of Tongass Narrows before he turned back to Prince Rupert.

Prest, 25 when he made his first attempt to fly to Siberia, had been obsessed with flying since he was a young boy in Southern California.

Prest had begun "experimenting" with gliders and low-powered aeroplanes in 1911 - when he was 15, according Robert Steven's comprehensive 1989 book "Alaskan Aviation History, 1897-1928."

He purchased a Bleriot monoplane in 1915 and moved to Venice, CA where he opened a short-lived flying school. He also attracted attention by performing early parachute jumps, most notably from a balloon at the Arizona State Fair.

By 1916, he had relocated to Riverside and had built another airplane that he used to set several altitude records and put on exhibition flights, according to Stevens.

The Los Angeles Times, in a 1988 history of Orange County, also noted ones of Prest's feats.

" It was in the skies above Seal Beach on Aug. 12, 1917, that Clarence O. Prest, a daredevil motorcycle racer turned pilot, attempted to set a new world's altitude record, reaching an incredible height of 18,100 feet with a makeshift oxygen system while 35,000 spectators gasped below," wrote Times reporter Kim Murphy in 1988.

Prest also began experimenting with various forms of aerial photography and became one of the most expert early practitioners of it. He often financed his flying ventures by selling copies of his aerial photographs.

Pilot Survives A Drop of 'Poison'

In 1919, he was flying out of Salt Lake City and had gained enough notoriety to be a "headliner" at the first air show in the then desert village of Las Vegas on Thanksgiving in 1920.

"The real star of that air show was a peculiar dwarf biplane emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, and bearing the legend "Poison: Dose, One Drop," wrote the Las Vegas Review Journal in a 2000 history of the city. "It was an experimental craft -- as most planes of that time were -- and was designed and owned by C.O. Prest, who had built it at Crawford Airplane Co. in Venice, Calif. Prest was a veteran airplane builder, having designed his first craft in 1909. Poison had a wingspan of 18 feet, was 14.5 feet long and weighed 500 pounds. Designed for short takeoffs, it could get airborne on only 100 feet of runway, and climbed at a rate of 1,400 feet per minute."

Prest had shipped the plane to Las Vegas by train because he didn't think it could fly high enough to clear the mountains between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The plane had a two stroke engine like most of the other planes of the day because they could revolve faster and therefore spin the prop faster than four stroke engines.

But two stroke engines require oil to be directly mixed in with the gasoline and that almost ended Prest's flight career in Las Vegas at Anderson Field..


"The crowd stood in breathless silence as Prest taxied the little plane into a headwind, then gave her full throttle," the Review Journal wrote. "Poison roared, Prest pulled back on the stick, and the plane shot into the sky. At about 75 feet, however, the engine abruptly quit and the plane nosed down into the dirt. Amid screams and shouts, the crowd rushed toward the crash, expecting the worst."

Surprisingly, Prest had survived the crash without a scratch. The plane had crashed because the oil and gasoline had not been properly mixed.

Even though the biplane was relatively undamaged by the crash, Prest decided to dismantle the Poison and build a monoplane instead, according to the Review Journal.

Prest remained in Las Vegas and early in 1921, he met up with a fellow Californian pilot and airplane builder named L. Morton "Mort" Bach who was 21. Bach had also been entranced by flight in the early 1910s and also flew gliders and built his own airplanes.

"Long discussions in a darkened corner of a local saloon brought to light the idea which seized both of the young men," Stevens wrote in his book. "They would open Alaska. A sensational flight from the Mexican border to Siberia by way of Alaska would give them the promotional funds whereby they could open a flying business in that northern territory."

Stevens noted that air travel was the clearly the future for the wide open spaces of the north and that the two men even talked about using skis for winter operations.

"Had their plans worked out, Alaskan aviation may well have taken a forward step since both men were now experienced in the field and were possessed of inventive and engineering minds," Stevens wrote.

They went to work modifying an airplane that Bach had designed to give it more capacity and the power to get airborne with up to 500 pounds of gasoline. A Las Vegas man named William Pike helped raise money for the trip.

The plane, named the Polar Bear, had a wingspan of 35 12 feet and was powered by a 90 horsepower Curtiss engine. It had a cruising speed of 80 miles per hour. The specially designed wings also lowered the landing speed to 27 miles per hour so that the plane could operate out of the small fields and other areas it would need to land during the trip

Original Flight Plan Was To Stay Inland

On July 15, 1921, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner announced "Californians to Fly Today in Quest of Siberian Gold." There was a map of the 4,698 mile trip that showed an intended route that was inland all the way to Nome with stops in Tijuana, Montana, Calgary, Telegraph Creek, and Fairbanks among others.

On the 17th, the Polar Bear made a quick round trip flight from San Bernardino to Tijuana to start the trip and then headed off to Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and other points north.

Since few of the communities on the route had airfields, Bach had traveled ahead as far as Montana to scout out landing sites and mark out runways with piles of newspapers weighted with rocks.

By early August they had arrived in Canada, where they learned two things that complicated their trip. First, they both needed to have $500 in cash before the Canadian authorities would let them clear customs. And second, they could not engage in any "gainful activity" while in the country.

They solved the first hurdle by appearing separately at customs, each carrying the $500 in cash that they had between them.

But the second obstacle would be more problematic.

They were basically financing the trip by doing exhibition flights. They would have to fly their "fundraising" under the radar in Canada or face the consequences.

On August 8, they were cleared into Canada. On the 9th, they met up with two Royal Canadian Air Force fliers in Lethbridge, Alberta. The Canadians, J.E. Palmer and H.H. Fitzsimmons, agreed to fly with the Americans as far as northern British Columbia.

"They (the Canadians) would barnstorm passengers along the route while Prest and Bach did acrobatics and wing walking to draw a crowd," Stevens wrote. "Unfortunately, Palmer and Fitzsimmons also put the names of Prest and Bach on the handbills they dropped, advertising their air show. The Americans were to hear of this later on."

By August 20, the fliers had gone through Edmonton, Jasper, Prince George and were heading for Hazelton. Bach went ahead by train to set up a landing site near Hazelton on the Skeena River. He found a suitable hay field and set up smudge pots.

Hazelton Crash Altered Plans

Unfortunately, Prest had misunderstood the instructions he received from Bach and ended up landing - as he was running low on fuel - in a much smaller field some four miles - and on the wrong side of the river - from the expected landing site. The Polar Bear sustained some minor damage when it over-ran the field.

But the bigger consequence was that the field was too small to take off from.

First, they considered using a nearby field, but it had not yet been cut and the farmer wanted $500 to cut his grain early. Then the two men considered attempting to take off from a string of railroad flatbed cars, but the railroad said no.

Finally, they dismantled the plane and shipped it by dugout canoe across the Skeena.

They then decided - after a week - to ship the plane by rail to Prince Rupert rather than fly on to Telegraph Creek.

The route was changed to have the Polar Bear fly from Prince Rupert to Wrangell instead.

In Prince Rupert, the pilots felt their luck change. The local population was thrilled by its first airplane visit. The fairgrounds on Acropolis Hill were chosen as the field site and local officials even constructed a 100 foot wooden ramp that spanned a ravine to help with takeoffs.

Landing was another concern, until Alderman George Frizzell suggested a perfect North Coast solution. A seine net was strung at the end of the fairground. It was the first known use of airplane "arresting gear," according to Stevens.

By September 13, the pilots had the Polar Bear put back together and engaged in flying over the town and doing aerial stunts for the excited citizenry. On one landing, the plane came in a little "hot" and ended up in the seine net, breaking the propeller. Another one had to be ordered from Vancouver.

In the meantime, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had finally caught up with the pilots for their earlier "gainful activity."

First, Prest was led off to jail and Bach bailed him out. Then Bach was arrested and Prest bailed him out. The local officials were not particularly concerned with enforcing the Alberta warrant on the men. But as soon as the new propeller arrived, the pilots knew it was time continue on.

Prest departed Prince Rupert for Wrangell at 8:23 a.m. on September 23, 1921. He planned to land on Farm Island, about four miles north of Wrangell. Bach, meanwhile, would catch a steamer north and rendezvous with Prest in a few days, probably in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Unfortunately, Prest was back on the ground in Prince Rupert by 11:45 a.m.

Heavy Rainstorm South Of Ketchikan

"After leaving (Prince Rupert), he had made good progress on a strong southeast wind and, within a hour, was five miles south of Ketchikan," Stevens wrote. "Here he encountered a heavy rainstorm, and navigation became impossible. He circled for 45 minutes attempting unsuccessfully to outflank the weather. Finally, turning back, he flew south and landed, cold and disappointed, after two hours of bucking the strong wind on the return."

Ketchikan's date with aviation destiny would have to wait. for 10 more months.

Meanwhile, the wind in Prince Rupert got worse and the Polar Bear was tied to 600 pound sand bags to hold it in place. The two pilots discussed dismantling it and storing it inside. Then a full gale hit and on Sept. 28, the plane broke loose and actually took flight briefly. It was blown over a grandstand and landed more than 200 feet away. It was completely wrecked and the 1921 Mexico to Siberia flight was over.

Prest and Bach salvaged what they could and caught a steamship south.

Bach gave up his plans to pioneer aviation in Alaska, continuing to design and build planes. Eventually, he became a vice president for Lockheed Aviation and lived in Santa Monica, CA until he died in 1978 at the age of 78..

But Prest would try once again to make the trip to Siberia. He went east and purchased a Curtiss biplane - which he named the Polar Bear II - and attempted to fly - this time - from Buffalo, New York to Siberia.

That trip is also chronicled at length in Robert Steven's book "Alaska Aviation History, 1897-1928."

Suffice it to say, he didn't make it all the way to Siberia that time either, but he did make it Juneau, in a round about way. Because of his previous trouble with Canadian law enforcement, he was not given permission to land in either Vancouver or Prince Rupert.

So he dismantled the Polar Bear II in Seattle and had it shipped to Juneau where it was reassembled on a beach in Thane and flown to Skagway and then farther north. Finally, on July 15th, he was flying to Fairbanks when crash landed on the Seventy Mile River, not far from Eagle. He had to shoot a caribou and then find a deserted cabin to survive.

Eventually, he was rescued, but that was the end of his Siberian flight.

He left most of the remains of remains of the Polar Bear II in the field. Some parts are on now on display at the Eagle Museum.

When Prest finally reached Fairbanks on August 11, 1922, he was treated as a hero by the local populace, particular a young teacher and nascent pilot who was also interested in aviation. Carl Ben Eielson would talk to Prest at length about aviation and flying in the north country. Eielson would then go on to be come one of the most legendary of the early Alaska pilots.

Prest Never Returned to Alaska

Officially, Prest never gave up his goal of flying to Siberia and immediately made plans for a return flight in 1923. This time he would have the plane shipped to Fairbanks and continue on from there. He even had oil shipped north in the summer of 1923. But he had been seriously injured in a crash in Las Vegas that winter and he never again flew north.

He continued to develop new types of aircraft including several single wing "pursuit" planes in the late 1920s and, according to a 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times, he built the first airplane hanger at what would become Orange County (now John Wayne Orange County) Airport.

The August 1930 Early Birds Bulletin reports that one of the Prest's "Baby Pursuit" planes set a new speed record for the 100 kilometer Closed Course at slightly more than 100 mph, breaking an existing French record by more than 14 mph.

Later, according to Stevens, Prest ran a huge airplane surplus depot in California, but lost it during the depression. During World War II, he developed a new photo process for making templates for aircraft parts which speeded up the construction process significantly..

Prest eventually died in California in 1954, at the age of 58.


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Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Dave Kiffer ©2009

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