Story last updated at 9:43 PM on Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kachemak Air bids farewell to 'NC9084' End of an era

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

After almost 40 years in Homer, Travel Air NC9084, a seven-place, six-passenger, blue and orange float plane in which pilot Bill de Creeft of Kachemak Air Service logged thousands of hours, is giving up its floats and heading for a new life. Out of Homer. Out of Alaska. Out of de Creeft's life.


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Closing the page on nearly 40 years of flying in Alaska skies with Homer pilot Bill de Creeft at the controls, Travel Air NC9084 begins its journey to a new life. In September, de Creeft and the plane's new owner, Howard Wright of Seattle, will fly the plane to its new home.

"It did a lot of work. Did a lot of sightseeing. Made a lot of people happy," de Creeft, 76, said. "But it's become more and more valuable and finally got to the point where it really represented a retirement for us."

Almost as soon as de Creeft announced the Travel Air was for sale, an owner appeared.

"This guy already knew the airplane and wanted it," de Creeft said. "So, what I did was sell it and quit flying it."

He hasn't given up flying, however. In place of the Travel Air, de Creeft purchased a 1948 Aeronca Sedan, N1266H.

"I tell everyone it looks like something right out of the Saturday Evening Post or a Norman Rockwell painting. It's just a sweetheart to fly," de Creeft said. "There are quite a few of them in Alaska because they're really appreciated."

Not able to find one in good condition for sale in Alaska, de Creeft's search led to Chicago. He then flew the plane back to Homer, a journey that took almost two weeks with 40 hours of flying and 22 landings. Temperatures were uncomfortable, frequently in the 90s, with the sun in de Creeft's face most of the trip. Hailstorms struck almost every night.

"It has a real short range, which is fine for Homer," he said of the new plane.

It also has less room than the Travel Air.

"It's a small plane compared to (NC9084), so it's going to be limited business," de Creeft said. "And then, whatever's left of the summer, I'll be flying the sedan and see how much we can haul."

The change in planes means a slower pace is in de Creeft's future.

"I really enjoyed (the Travel Air), but it gets to be just hard physical work to fly that thing on a windy day. I'll just be able to take it easier now," he said

Age de Creeft's, not the Travel Air's also factored into making the change.

"It isn't that I'm old now, but I'm looking forward to getting old," he said, adding that people with the desire and money to purchase a plane like the Travel Air don't come along that often. "So you better grab them when they do."

The first of September, with its floats replaced by wheels, the Travel Air, de Creeft and the plane's new owner, Howard Wright of Seattle, will head south to the plane's new home.

De Creeft began flying in 1948. His first solo flight was in 1951, the day before he entered the U.S. Army and headed to Korea. He got his commercial license in 1956, and a water rating in 1960.

"I've been flying on the water ever since," said de Creeft, who first came to Homer in 1962. In 1966, he and his wife, Barbara, returned to make Homer their home and to open a flying business.

Log books and "Travel Air NC9084 the History of a 75-Year-Old Working Airplane," a book by local author Jim Rearden, have recorded much of the Travel Air's history since it rolled out of the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, Kan., in 1929. From the day of its "birth" until Kachemak Air Service bought it in 1969, the plane served Phillips Petroleum Company in Oklahoma; performed for owners in the Wichita, Kan., area; returned to Oklahoma for a brief time; and spent two years in Texas before finding its way to Oakland, Calif., where it was owned first by Duck Air Service and then Dawn Mercedes Duck. From there, the plane spent more than 15 years in Idaho. During part of that time, it was owned by A. A. Bennett, described in Rearden's book as "a renowned, but not universally respected Alaska bush pilot."

It was from Bob Johnson of Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, Mont., that de Creeft bought the plane. In August 1969, it arrived in Homer, flown here for de Creeft by Roy Behrens.

De Creeft's first log entry for the Travel Air reflects a load of mail and freight carried for Cook Inlet Aviation, from Homer to Seldovia, Sept. 17, 1969.

Two days later, he and the plane were called into service when an injured Homer Electric Association employee had to be flown to Anchorage. That was just one of many times de Creeft has come to the aid of others.

In 1970, facing 30 knot winds and two-mile visibility, de Creeft located three people from the Grizzly II, after that vessel was reported missing.

The following year, he received a Certificate of Achievement from the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary for assisting in the search for the F/V Linda K. Not only did de Creeft find the wreckage, he also sighted the three survivors on the beach, landed and returned them to Homer.

The 1980 rescue of Roger Lewis and Denise Harris caught worldwide attention. The couple had high hopes of mining on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Their dreams were tragically transformed, however, to a three-week nightmare of winter survival that very nearly cost them their lives. It was de Creeft who spotted the couple from the air and led rescue efforts to their location.

"It's not anything personal. It's just the way the job goes," de Creeft said modestly of his life-saving efforts.However, he adds that his role in saving Lewis and Harris "was a big deal for me. It didn't involve any courage on my part, but it did involve persistence and that's something I've always believed in."

Certainly, de Creeft is a persistent pilot.

"I've been doing it so long, it's just what I do. I've always wanted to be in Alaska. Always wanted to fly," he said.

He'll continue to fly with the Aeronca Sedan, but it won't be the same as Travel Air NC9084.

"We'll all just be names in a log book by the time it's hanging from a ceiling of a museum, but some of us have lived every day of its life and have a lot of memories," he said.