TALKEETNA -- Hudson Air Service had its humble beginning back in 1946, when Glen Hudson, in a two-seater airplane, began shuttling outdoorsmen to premiere hunting and fishing spots in the Talkeetna area. At the time, there were no other air services in Talkeetna.
Glen Hudson's younger brother, Cliff, invited north from Washington state for a fishing trip with Glen, fell in love with Alaska and never left. He learned to fly in 1947 and eventually bought the business when his brother was killed in a crash at Disappointment Creek.
Cliff married Ollie Dahl and the couple raised four sons in downtown Talkeetna, living in the Quonset where Sparky's Drive-In currently sits -- Sparky was the name of the family dog at the time. The Hudsons still own the Quonset, leased to a tenant, and also have a modern home and a small office on the site.
Through the years, Cliff became well-known for his abilities as a pilot, for his climber rescue support, and for his service to the community. Hudson Air gained a solid reputation in the growing Alaska aviation industry.
Getting Ollie or Jay Hudson to talk about their family is not an easy task. Neither is the type to boast of their accomplishments. Apparently Cliff is the same way. But ask anyone who knows the family or who does business with Hudson Air, and you'll quickly learn just how respected and appreciated they are in the community.
"Cliff has never been a bragger, or one to seek publicity," Ollie Hudson said. "He is a quiet, easy-going man who has been good to so many people. He has the reputation of being very thoughtful and personal. People just think the world of him."
While Hudson may not have been looking for the limelight, it certainly found him off and on over the years. Good Morning America stayed with the Hudsons when they came to Talkeetna to do a story on Cliff. Cliff and his little dog Skippy were featured in People Magazine, and stories of Hudson can even be found in James Michener's book, "Alaska."
Donna Gochanour, who now lives in Wyoming, worked for Cliff Hudson for a few years in the late 1980s and remains close friends of the Hudsons.
"[Cliff] was always so concerned about people, always looking in on his customers who lived remote. He'd stop by with a bag of ice cream and a newspaper, just making sure they were doing OK."
Gochanour traded a lot of her wages at Hudson Air for flight time, traveling to her remote cabin northeast of Talkeetna.
"Cliff would say to me, 'How are you doing for money, girl?' Thinking he was asking if I needed my wages, I would say, 'Cliff, I bet I owe you money [for flight time] by now. And he would say, 'That's not what I asked you, now is it?' That's just the kind of man he is."
Gochanour also said Hudson was very safety conscious. "The man has been flying in Alaska since 1947," she said, "and he never crashed a plane. He wouldn't take a risk just to make an extra buck. If he knew it wasn't safe, he just wouldn't do it."
Jerry Sousa of Talkeetna went to school with the Hudson boys and also flies a small plane.
"Cliff is probably one of the best pilots in Alaska," he said.
In July of 2000, Hudson received the Exceptional Service Award from Lt. Gen. Tom Case of the U.S. Air Force for his part in the rescue of six airmen that took place 46 years earlier. The citation accompanying the award states that Hudson displayed "exceptionally superior courage" when he received a call on Feb. 5, 1954, that a C-47 flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks broke apart in midair during a storm, the wreckage landing on Kesugi Ridge. Ten airmen were killed. Six survived.
Within an hour after the Air Force sent out a message to local pilots, Hudson was in the air and pinpointed the exact location of the wreckage before the storm closed in. Three men were jumping up and down. Hudson scribbled a note promising to return with help, stuffed it into a weighted message bag, and dropped it to the men.
With no radio, Hudson headed back to Curry to report what he had seen. An Air Force helicopter and a Beaver, part of the rescue advance team, had arrived at the airstrip. The helicopter immediately tried to approach the crash site but soon returned due to poor weather.
The next morning, Hudson and fellow pilot Don Sheldon flew toward the wreckage. Before they arrived, Hudson spotted something among the spruce trees far below. There were three more survivors, Ed Fox, Ed Olson and Rupert Pratt, standing up to their waists in snow. Sheldon landed as close as he could and Hudson grabbed a hatchet and the extra snowshoes he had brought along and set off towards the men.
Hudson built a fire then led each of the men to the landing site on the extra pair of snowshoes.
"Hudson came walking up to us on a pair of snowshoes and said, 'It looks like you boys could use some help,'" Fox said at the award ceremony. "His face right then was the most beautiful I've ever seen."
Sheldon arrived back at the site with a doctor and the group spent the night with the men before the weather cleared and they flew out the next morning. Hudson waited behind and was picked up by a helicopter, since he was the only one who knew the exact location of the crash. He led the rescuers to the wreckage and the other three survivors.
Planning for the award began when several survivors visited a crash memorial at Mile 146 Parks Hwy. and saw no mention of Hudson, then contacted then-Sen. Frank Murkowski, who contacted the Air Force.
"I never expected any of this," Hudson said at the ceremony. "I just wanted to help."
Hudson retired from the air service in 1998. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, he is now living in the Pioneers' Home in Palmer. It's been hard for the family to see his decline, but they are plugging along.
When Cliff Hudson retired, his oldest son, Jay, took over the day-to-day operations of Hudson Air. Jay Hudson had already been following in his father's footsteps as a skilled and respected pilot for many years.
"I've been flying this plane since I was 8 years old," Jay Hudson said from his Cessna 185 at the Talkeetna Airport. "I learned to fly sitting right here, on my dad's lap." Jay had his first solo flight in September of 1973, on his 16th birthday. He started flying commercially at the age of 19.
Today, Hudson Air and another six air services lease property from the state for their operations based at the Talkeetna Airport.
Hudson Air pales in comparison to many of the larger, newer operations. While other companies might offer seven or eight aircraft and have a dozen pilots on their payroll, Hudson gets by with four small planes and a staff of eight.
"We aren't anything big," Jay said, "but we are the oldest service, and the only one still owned and operated by the same family."
According to Jay, the focus of the business has always been taking care of the locals, those who live remote and depend on flights to deliver goods and transport them to town and back. But he said things are starting to change.
"Visitors to Alaska are our largest renewable resource," Jay said. "Our focus is changing as the community's focus is changing."
In the winter, when tourists and climbers are mostly gone, the locals still rely on Hudson Air to shuttle them back and forth to their remote properties. He also handles the mail contract for the community of Gold Creek. Once a week, he flies into the very small airstrip, lands, removes the outgoing mail from a box, puts incoming mail into the box, and flies away. Sometimes there's a little group of folks standing around, waiting on the mail, and he visits with them if there is time.
"Not a lot happens out there," he laughed, "so getting the mail can be a pretty big deal."
Nina Wheless now works in the Hudson Air office. In the same complimentary tone that Gochanour spoke about Cliff, Nina talked about Jay.
"Not just anybody can fly the mountain and do the search and rescue work," Wheless said. "He's kind of shy, doesn't say that much about it, but the Parks Service sure appreciates him. And everyone in this industry thinks so much of him."
In the company's airport office, a framed letter hangs discreetly on a corner wall. From South District Ranger J.D. Swede, sent to the Chief Ranger of Denali, the letter is dated April 1995. It outlines the previous three climbing seasons, where 18 people had died, 46 climbers were rescued, and over a hundred medical emergencies were treated.
"During these rescue missions," Swede writes in the letter, "a fixed wing aircraft is generally used for cover, to aid in communication, weather observation, and local knowledge of the mountain." Swede writes that Jay Hudson was the cover pilot in a majority of those recoveries and rescues.
"His knowledge of the Alaska Range, weather patterns, and piloting skills have directly lead to the saving of lives and the limiting of pain and suffering to those who required rescue," Swede wrote. He went on to write that "Jay is always level-headed, calm, and professional. He has earned the respect of rescue personnel and local and military pilots."
"He's a lot like his dad," said Ollie Hudson about her oldest son. "He has helped so many people."