Alaska’s Clown Prince

“Ya hear that noise? Christ, that ain’t static; that’s a bear! Yeah, I gotta bear in the plane with me, and he’s broke loose! He’s climbin’ right up here beside me, growlin’ an’ showin’ his teeth — big sharp teeth! Oh Jeezus, he’s tryin’ ta eat up the fuselage! There’s two of us up here now, but it looks like purty soon there’s only gonna be one ‘n’ it ain’ gonna be me! Stand by, I’ll call ya every other minute!”

. . . Archie Ferguson giving his blow-by-blow description of the baby polar bear which became loose in his plane while he was aloft.

“The best landing that Archie Ferguson ever made.”

. . . anonymous bush pilot when he was told that one of the baby polar bears had been at the controls when Archie’s plane landed.


Young Archie Ferguson beside his plane. Photo courtesy of Edith Bullock from the Burleigh Putnam Collection.

He was Alaska’s Clown Prince, one of the Territory’s most infamous bush pilots. It wasn’t that he was a great flyer, rather, he had a personality that you could absorb through your skin. He was, quite literally, a laugh a minute. Who was this colorful man of the North? He was Archie Ferguson from Kotzebue, the Flying Clown, and he had a string of zany achievements to his name that would have made the Marx Brothers proud — but there were four of them.

Ferguson came to the Territory of Alaska in l9l7 when his family opened a trading post in the Kotzebue area. While thin as a young man, later in life he was described as gnarled, dumpy and “built like a potato.” In his heyday, the 1950s, Archie looked more like one of the seven dwarfs than a bush pilot in the swashbuckling mold of Harold Gillam or Bob Reeve.

And Archie was a prankster. Always looking for a laugh, when he got one he joined in — except that his laugh was unique, a cackle like Donald Duck would make. Always talking, always laughing, another bush pilot remarked that Archie would “fly three hundred miles, ask three hundred questions, answer them all himself and fly three hundred miles back.” Other descriptions were both earthy and accurate. “Maybe he’s a pilot,” a lot of flyers lamented of Archie, “but he shouldn’t be.”

Claiming to have had more crack-ups than any other pilot in Alaska — quite possibly an accurate claim — Archie ran the farthest north flying service under the United States flag. His company was Ferguson Airways and his motto was “Anywhere, Anytime.” He meant it too. He loved to fly. Even on those days when it was impossible for him to make a trip, he would clamber aboard his plane and fly in circles around Kotzebue. Asked why, Ferguson would often reply, “I dunno, somehow in a plane I feel differ’nt. I’d go nuts if I couldn’t fly.”

Archie’s first trip in an airplane was with another legendary Alaskan bush pilot, Noel Wien, in l926. Once aloft, Wien proceeded to scare the living daylights out of Archie by doing barrel rolls and loops as he watched in amusement while the frightened Ferguson gripped the sidewalls of the plane in terror. But far from convincing him to stay on solid ground, the flight only sharpened Archie’s desire to fly. Deciding to buy his own plane, he spent $4,000 in l93l for a Great Lakes Trainer and spent another thousand to get it to Kotzebue. Then he hired a trainer, Chet Brown, whose advertisement he had seen in a flying magazine. He paid for Chet’s flight north, to what the trainer probably believed was the end of the earth.

After sixty hours of training, seven times longer than was normally required of a student pilot, Archie was still not ready to fly solo. But Archie was ready to fly solo. Archie wanted to fly solo and by *&%, he was going to fly solo. Finally Brown relented and let Archie go up by himself. But, taking the lead from Archie’s book of ongoing practical jokes, Brown slipped an alarm clock under the pilot’s seat. It was set to go off ten minutes after Archie left the ground.

“Go right up over town,” advised Brown with a pleasant smile on his lips and an evil one in his heart. “Climb to a thousand feet and circle around, and be sure to take your time.”

All went well for nine minutes and 59 seconds with Archie flying steadily. Then the alarm went off and the plane began wallowing across the sky, as if a wild man was in the cockpit — which one was. “Gosh I was scairt,” Ferguson said later. “I thought it was some kind of a signal!” Archie managed to land safely, but brought the plane down on a sandbar in the Kotzebue lagoon rather than on the landing strip.

ARchie, second from right, and his wife, Minnie, second from left. Photo courtesy of Edith Bullock from the Burleigh Putnam Collection

ARchie, second from right, and his wife, Minnie, second from left. Photo courtesy of Edith Bullock from the Burleigh Putnam Collection

Archie’s record with both cargo and passengers was replete with unique incidents and humorous anecdotes. He was also infamous for monopolizing the air waves — even during the war years when radio silence was the established rule. Once a radio operator in Nome who was not familiar with Archie and his antics tried to get him to stay off the air.

Ferguson began the conversation in his own inimitable style: “Nome Radio, Nome Radio. This is Cessna Two Zero Seven Six Six. Gosh it’s startin’ to rain up here! Looks like some awful dirty stuff ahead! Gimme yer weather in the clear!”

Mindful that the only authorized chatter on the radio was for an emergency, the operator asked innocently: “Cessna Two Zero Seven Six Six, do you declare this an emergency?”

“Yer darn right,” snapped Archie into his microphone, “Any time I’m in the air it’s an emergency!”

In addition to being a pilot, Ferguson was also a successful entrepreneur. He and his brother built a sawmill and operated a handful of trading posts in the vicinity of Kotzebue. They also started and operated a mink farm, built and operated the first movie house in the Arctic, brought the first automobile [an International pickup] above the Circle and imported the first cow and motorcycle.

Archie’s parents, incidentally, were scared to death of Archie in a plane and every time he approached their home in Shungnak they would look up in trepidation. Passengers also had their moments of terror. One winter Archie’s plane broke through the ice at Shungnak and several inches of the wooden propellor were sheared off before Ferguson could get the plane onto solid ice. Hefting an axe, Archie sheared off a few inches of the undamaged end of the propellor while the passengers watched with incredulity.

“I’ll fix this baby,” Ferguson said jovially, “We’re really going to fly today!”

It took the plane more than three miles of skipping along the ice “rattling like a sawmill” before the aircraft finally lifted off the ice.

Another time he was transporting a baby polar bear from Point Hope. The two had been aloft about ten minutes when Archie became aware that the cub had gnawed through its bonds and was roaming around the back of his plane. Not familiar with an airplane, the cub would take bites out of the pilot’s seat and claw at the fuselage. Finally the bear settled down. As long as the flying was smooth there was no problem, but whenever there was turbulence, the bear became rambunctious.

Archie did make it down, and the polar bear cub, which grew rather large, became a fixture in Kotzebue for years. During the winter it would stay under the Wien Hotel; but throughout the tourist season, the bear would lounge around in the sun and attract the attention of Outsiders. The bear was also adept at frightening tourists. Often it would lie on its belly hiding the chain with its body. Whenever a tourist to whom the bear took a particular dislike approached, the animal would explode off the ground and charge to the very end of its chain. The shocked tourist would usually stumble backwards, often ending up seated in a muddy pool of water. If the bear could have laughed, it probably would have.

A list of Ferguson’s antics could go on and on. One time he reported seeing a Japanese submarine moving north along the Arctic coast. Another time he took out ten yards of telephone line and flew into Nome with the wire wrapped around his prop. On another occasion, while hunting wolves from his airplane, he became so excited he actually shot his own propeller off.

But of all his escapades, Ferguson is probably best known for what is called the “Arctic Bump.” For Archie, there was no such thing as a trip without excitement; even if he had to create that excitement himself. Flying between Kotzebue and Nome, as an example, he had to cross the Arctic Circle. When Ferguson crossed over that theoretical line he would sometimes cut the gas to the engine.

“We’re cumin’ ta the Arctic Circle!” he would shout excitedly as he secretly reached for the gas line switch. “Ya can’t see it but ya’ll sure know when we hit it. The engine’ll quit! There’s no air in that darn circle for eight hundred feet!”

Then he’d cut the gas line and the plane would go into a steep nose dive. Passengers would shriek and cry in terror as the plane plunged hundreds of feet. When he’d had enough fun, Archie would re-open the gas line and re-start the prop.

The man who popularized the Arctic Bump commercially was Fred Goodwin. Although he never turned his engine off to frighten his passengers, while flying for Wien he would “push it over and give the tourist the same sensation as when they went over the top of a roller coaster.” But he flashed the seat belt sign first to make sure everyone was strapped in.

Ferguson retired in l949. He turned his flying business over to his adopted sons and maintained the family businesses in Kotzebue. Never one to pay taxes, the IRS eventually caught up with him in the early l960s. The IRS froze his assets and forced him to make his living as a miner. With his second wife, he left Alaska for Mexico where he intended to start a barge operation in Guadalajara. He died in Mexico in l967.Though Archie Ferguson may be dead, he is not forgotten. Part of the humorous heritage of the northland, pioneered by Archie, is the “Arctic Bump.” As the story is now told, when pilots first flew across the Arctic Circle they discovered an air pressure differential. The air above the Arctic Circle, most likely because of its proximity to the polar ice cap, was colder and thus thicker than the air on the southern side of the Circle. Where the thick air mass from above the Circle collided with the thinner, warm air from the Alaskan Interior, there was a convection current. This mixing, interestingly, was in a clockwise direction because of the Coriolis Effect.

At the actual point where the two air masses meet, on the Arctic Circle, flying conditions change. If a small plane is flying north over the Arctic Circle, it will rise suddenly when it encounters the colder, thicker air from the polar ice cap. Conversely, a small plane heading south will lose altitude rapidly when it passes out of the thicker air and into thinner air blankets. Larger planes have much less difficulty because of their size. But even on the modern jets, a slight bump, strong enough to spill coffee, can often be felt when the Arctic Circle is crossed. This is known as the “Arctic Bump.”

Today, Alaska’s pilots play this tidbit of absurding to the hilt. When crossing the Arctic Circle, Alaska Airlines pilots still ‘bump’ their planes. Their home office keeps this legend alive as well. When reached for comment, the Assistant Vice President of Communications for Alaska Airlines, noted, with a straight face, that the rarified air above the Arctic Circle actually made flying smoother. “Because of the thicker air currents above the Circle,” he said, “pilots are able to make more fluid, banking motions when landing.” These are known as “Arctic turns.” When properly used “these turns can save on fuel consumption.”


Story by Steven Levi

Categories: History

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