Simmons, Sheldon B.
by exerpted with permission from Alaska Airlines AlaskaLine, December 2, 1994
Adventure it seemed should have been the middle name of Sheldon (Shell) B. Simmons, born October 8, 1908, in a log cabin in Weippe, Idaho. At 16, he quit school to become a deckhand aboard a freighter bound for the Orient. Over the next three years, he drove a delivery truck in Ketchikan, studied electrical engineering in Los Angeles and worked as an electrician in the Alaska-Juneau gold mine. He quit the mine so he and a friend could sail 2,100 miles down the Yukon River on a 14-foot rowboat. When they landed in the Arctic, he took a job on a runway construction project. He got the flying bug watching Noel Wien and others land on the unfinished airstrip.
Simmons returned to his boyhood home in Washington’s Yakima Valley in 1929, to take flying lessons. Afterward, he went back to his job at the mine but started working with friends to restore planes and hone his flying skills. He went to work for a Juneau airline in 1934, but his assigned plane was damaged in a storm a short time later, and the owners couldn’t afford to rebuild it. They sold the wreck to Simmons for $1. He promptly rounded up local investors to finance the rebuild and a new airline, Alaska Air Transport, was born. He worked tirelessly, dropped mail and Christmas turkeys to miners and even hauled the Juneau marshal to a gunfight. In the summer he would fly sixteen hours a day, and he was the first commercial pilot to fly year-round in Southeast Alaska. In 1939, he and his competitor, Alex Holden, joined forces to create Alaska Coastal Airlines. Their most reliable airplane was the famed Lockheed Vega, and they later added Bellancas, plus other float-equipped aircraft and a durable workhorse, the Kingbird, which was twin-engined and used to service the Tulsequah gold mine up the Taku River. After World War II, Coastal (along with Ellis), purchased surplus Grumman Gooses and PBY’s and converted them into passenger aircraft. In 1962, Alaska Coastal merged with Ketchikan based Ellis Airlines to form the largest scheduled airline exclusively operating amphibians. Five years later they merged with Alaska Airlines, bringing Simmons and partners Bob Ellis and Ben Benecke to the Alaska Airlines board of directors. Simmons served on the board for 13 years and was named director emeritus in 1981.
He was a skilled businessman whose high standards helped build a one plane fleet into a major regional carrier. He was an innovator, improving seaplane designs and engine performance and playing a key role in gaining approval for instrument landings in Sitka and night flights into Juneau. He was an excellent mechanic with a background in engineering that earned him the admiration of federal regulators for the reliability of his planes.
The most storied of Simmons’ exploits was the 1938 rescue of the crew of the cargo ship Patterson that ran aground in a storm near Cape Fairweather, one of the most inaccessible beaches on the Alaska coast. Navy planes and Coast Guard cutters couldn’t get to the eighteen survivors because of huge swells, driving snow and gale-force winds. With the situation getting desperate, Simmons landed in the extremely rough surf, dropping off a guide to lead the passengers to a pickup point and flying the two weakest sailors out. He dismissed his actions as “just work.” He made this rescue while still recovering from injuries sustained in a crash three months earlier which left him with scars on his hands and face that he bore for the rest of his life. Never wanting to be romanticized as a mercy pilot, he regarded the daring missions as just another aspect of the profession.
He died November 16, 1994, and was preceded in death by his wife, Bernice (Bee) Reidle Simmons, whom he married on December 23, 1940, and their son and only child Shelby.
In July 1982, Shell was recognized at a “small gathering” of 225 persons to celebrate his half century in Alaska aviation. This was held at the Seattle Hyatt and organized by Nina Brown, wife of former Coastal and Alaska pilot, David (Brownie) Brown and Miriam Knipple, wife of veteran line mechanic, Chuck Knipple. There is an exhibit located in the Juneau International Airport terminal honoring the outstanding contribution he made to aviation in Southeast Alaska featuring memorabilia from Shell’s life and the history of Alaska Coastal-Ellis Airlines.
The following was written by Bee Simmons for Shell:
Most young girls think about and wonder how the man to be in their lives is going to show up. They’ve already read about the Knights of old who came into view dressed in a shining coat of armor astride a white horse ready to pursue and slay any dragons that come along.
My pilot came into view in a very different manner. The Knight of old would have been sure it was a dragon, spitting fire, belching smoke and burping up to the float. However, I think he would have fled in terror when he saw the whirly-gig thing attached to its nose.
When my pilot unfolded himself - 6 feet some - out of the cockpit and stood on the float my heart knew this was him! I like to think the feeling was mutual, and so some time later we were married and life began.
He used to tell me when he was going on a trip in bad weather, “Don’t send anybody looking for me for three days, and then if you must - call the Coast Guard.” Most of the time I didn’t worry too much; because if there was any room left at all, his mechanic would go along with his trusty tools. I figured that between the two of them they would get that thing back somehow. Which proved to be the case more than once. The mechanics were wonderful – not only would they go along, they would hassle baggage, belt in passengers and sometime even become near mid-wives. We loved them all.
My pilot didn’t talk much about God, but he knew there was one and he believed in Him. I know because I heard his call upon Him in no uncertain terms demanding that He damn the weather, the competition, the red tape and faulty equipment. He also pleaded with him occasionally - during the many years of flying in high winds, snow and generally bad weather, he also thanked Him a lot.
So, here we are tonight - many of us grounded, but our hearts are with you guys that are carrying on - high in the sky and on the ground.
Shell and Bee Simmons.