Tuesday, January 6, 2009
On a mission to fly — Roald Amundsen blazed new flight paths in Alaska
By Clark Fair
Driving down the highway at age 91, Hans Roald Amundsen crossed the center line and was pulled over by an Alaska State Trooper, who issued him a citation. His license was taken away and he was later informed that he would have to pass the written and practical driver’s tests and get medical clearance in order to get his license back.
Amundsen, who had been living in Alaska since 1945, had never taken the written test because he’d been grandfathered in since territorial days. Sixty years later, however, he wasn’t going to let his lack of prior testing experience deter him from getting back behind the wheel.
“Dad liked to drive,” said his daughter, Jeanette Klodt. “So he studied hard and passed his written. Then he got his OK from the medical — no medical reason why he shouldn’t drive. And he took his practical test, and they passed him with flying colors.”
Amundsen got his license back, although his triumph was short-lived. The following year, 2006, his daughter took away his car keys, determined that, despite his protestations, he was no longer safe on the road.
In 2007, his family moved him into Heritage Place in Soldotna.
“He didn’t figure he should be here,” said Klodt, who works as a registered nurse at the facility. He lived there until his death, at 94, last month.
A fiercely determined and independent man, Amundsen had worked regularly at his Missionary Aviation Repair Center hangar into the late 1990s, when he began staying home to care for his ailing wife, Harriett. He also had acted as chaplain for Bible studies at his home until 2007.
Amundsen had long been known for big dreams and finding ways to turn them into reality. Named after the famous Norwegian polar explorer, whose hand young Roald shook at age 4, Amundsen went on to live with a similar thirst for adventure.
Always proud of his Viking ancestry, he first came to Alaska in 1936, when his father, a traveling evangelist, was pastoring for a church in Anchorage. He came north to explore, to see what Alaska was like, according to his daughter, but he didn’t begin to settle on his life’s work until he entered training for the chaplaincy during World War II.
“As Dad found his niche in various places, (his life’s work) sort of evolved,” Klodt said. “He went toward an education degree, which he thought maybe would lead to medicine, and then he went to the chaplaincy seminary, which then led to his natural bent toward mechanics and working with his hands, to flying and to missionary administration, in some sense, although he was not a detail person.”
He may not have been much into details, but he had plenty of ideas. And all long, Klodt said, Amundsen was confident that God would provide what was necessary for success.
After learning to fly and completing his seminary training in the Midwest, he married Harriett in 1944 and returned the following year to Alaska to serve with the Evangelical Covenant Mission in Nome, flying out to visit villages along Norton Sound and south to Nunivak Island.
Amundsen’s primary task for nearly the next 20 years, while he and Harriett lived in Nome and Unalakleet, was to fly missionaries wherever they needed to go and supply them with whatever they needed to be successful. His secondary task involved hauling freight and other people commercially, but mission work always came first.
As Roald spent all this time in the air — and while the Amundsens raised three children, Jeanette and her younger brothers, John and Tim — Harriett stayed on the ground, praying for Roald’s safe return.
“My mother didn’t like to fly,” Klodt said. “At all.”
Over the years, Amundsen occasionally gave his wife reason to worry, but “he didn’t talk much about close calls,” Klodt said. “He felt that you don’t dramatize or enlarge on close calls because some of those things were stupidity, and when you talk about them, it romanticizes them.
“He does have the stories about flying low through a (weathered-in) pass, one of those kinds of things, or landing on a mountain. Or we’d hear things about shining a flashlight out the airplane to land, you know, because it was winter and there weren’t a whole lot of lighted (airstrips).”
Despite his close calls and his wife’s concerns, Roald Amundsen thrived.
“Alaska was the Last Frontier and he loved it, and he loved being a missionary,” his daughter said.
In the 1960s, according to Klodt, he had a vision of something greater: a mission that could reach out to far more people from a far more central location, while simultaneously providing a more efficient communication system and a qualified, reliable maintenance facility to keep planes in the air.
From the mid-1940s through the early 1960s, Amundsen had been “doing his repair (work) in a Quonset hut, and, like a lot of Bush people, using smudge pots to keep mosquitoes out during repairs in the summer, and having to heat up engines for cold-weather flights,” Klodt said.
“So that was part of primitiveness you dealt with up there, and he envisioned a service that would not just be for one mission; it would be for various missions in a wide area.”
So he packed up his family in 1964 and moved to the Kenai Peninsula.
“Dad talked about his dreams, and he would just kind of encourage people along the line toward his dreams, and if they came into place, that was fine,” Klodt said.
In Kenai, J.W. Thompson bought into the dream and gave Amundsen some lots in Thompson Park in Kenai, while Amundsen began to plan a missionary operation with Bud Lofstedt.
The Soldotna Airport offered easy accessibility to fuel and parts, and so Missionary Aviation Repair Center was born there, beginning with a small wooden hangar and a single Cessna 180. While Lofstedt went on to form his own commercial venture known as Kenai Air Service, MARC continued to prosper under the leadership of Amundsen.
A new hangar was built. New airplanes were added. Services were expanded.
By the time Len Wikstrom came from Washington state to Soldotna to join the fold in 1982 — and to help build a new 60-by-80-foot hangar to replace the 50-by-60-foot structure that had just burned down — MARC pilots were covering an ever-widening area.
Wikstrom, now the director of the repair center, stood recently at a wall map of Alaska and used a string anchored at Soldotna to trace an imaginary arc from Bristol Bay north along Western Alaska to Nome and then east toward Fairbanks. He explained as he did so that sometimes MARC pilots fly their Piper aircraft on missions outside this 500-mile arc, including some to eastern Russia.
In 1996, Amundsen expanded his mission even more, creating in Soldotna a small vocational school that would serve young people from Bush communities. Authorized by the state’s Commission on Postsecondary Education, the Amundsen Education Center opened on East Redoubt land supplied by Basil Bolstridge. The school offers certificates in home construction, and its New Frontier Technical Vocational Center offers classes in accounting and computer-based and secretarial skills.
Throughout all his years and all such accomplishments, Amundsen was driven by a singular, faith-based sensibility.
“I would like people to see how God uses someone, like what Dad said: ‘Do with what you have in your hand,’” his daughter said. “If you have an ability, if you’ve been trained in a certain way, use that particular talent for God. If you have a mechanical hand, or if you have a teaching hand, or whatever else, you use that particular skill at the time which you have to use it.”
Roald Amundsen used his God-given talents for 94 years.