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My Friend Ralph
By Mark Evanoff, EAA 769689
December 9, 2015 - “Hey, you must be the pilot!” With that warm greeting and a steady smile, a bespectacled octogenarian ushered me into his tidy retirement home apartment. “The Captain,” as his daughter calls him, has flown most of his life, and she knew I’d be entertained with his stories of flying in Alaska. My emerging fascination with aviation was about to grow exponentially.
After exchanging pleasantries, Ralph Savory immediately wanted to know how I, a newly minted student pilot, was enjoying my flight training. With the customary enthusiasm of someone now flying solo, I described at length and in great detail the challenges of bounced landings, pilotage, and my recent cross-country flights. At key times he would issue pearls of wisdom but would promptly bring the conversation back to my quest for my certificate.
His seeming reluctance to talk about himself that morning would be my first exposure to the modesty, humility, and earnestness that I would come to associate with the more accomplished pilots I’d meet in the years to come. It was only after some arm twisting and gentle prodding that Ralph relented and shared snippets of his adventurous life.
He had earned his commercial certificate in 1933 and by 1935 was flying a Curtiss Thrush, delivering “fuel drums and prostitutes” to the mining camps of Alaska. In 1936, he got a job with Star Air Service, the founding company for Alaska Airlines, and two years later landed a job with Pacific Alaska Airways, predecessor of Pan Am. By 1944, Ralph was certified as a master pilot and helped pioneer commercial air service in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. I was on the edge of my seat when this kind man, a truly pioneering pilot, proceeded to apologize for having to end our meeting as it was time for his customary nap.
My next visit with Ralph started much as the first, with him inquiring about progress on my private pilot’s “ticket.” I had experienced some uncomfortable disorientation in haze during one of my cross-country flights, to which he responded, “It’s good to stick your nose into the weather a little on occasion, but not too far!” He’d often grab a pen, one of several readily retrieved from the pocket of his crisp white shirt, and draw an illustration of how I could enhance my fledgling skills. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, being given the attention of a pilot who had earned his certificate more than 70 years earlier.
Like the saying goes, it was “harder than pulling teeth” to get Ralph to talk of his own accomplishments, but I persevered. During World War II he flew flying boats in the
South Pacific and also flew behind enemy lines in the Aleutians. Later, he was the first to land a commercial flight — in a Boeing Stratocruiser — on the ice at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. He retired in 1969 having flown over much of the globe in a Boeing 707, attaining chief pilot status with Pan Am. In his retirement he would fly his Cessna 180 on floats to his second home on Blakely Island, Washington.
To hear these stories from Ralph was like being given a gift, one which filled me with images of a life lived full with immeasurable adventure.
I eventually earned my certificate and bought an old 1963 Cessna 182F Skylane. With my passion now involving traveling to fly-ins and EAA functions, I was to be exposed to other pilots of accomplished backgrounds, and yes, they were also kind and inordinately supportive of my living the dream.
As pilots, we all have an opportunity to nurture those who are embracing that which we love. I’ve had the benefit of meeting many extraordinary individuals that took a genuine interest in me and set fine examples of “paying it forward” in the process.
Evidently, even for my friend Ralph, there were limits to his supportive engagement of my quest for a private pilot’s certificate. One afternoon I said to him “When I get my ticket, Ralph, the first thing I’m going to do is take you and I flying in the Cessna 152!” With the measured manner of a seasoned master pilot with over 30,000 hours flight time, he pondered for a moment and said, “I just might have to think about that.”