2011 Hall of Fame Inductee
Explorer and Pathway Pilot
Harold was born in Illinois in 1903, grew up in Nebraska and ran away from home when he was only 16 to serve in the U.S. Navy. After leaving the Navy, he ended up in Seattle where he learned of opportunities for construction workers in Alaska. He arrived in Fairbanks at the age of 24 and worked in the construction industry for several years. While working on runways in the region, he fell in love with airplanes and decided he should become a pilot. He left Fairbanks in 1928 to purchase an airplane and learn to fly. He was a natural in the cockpit and he had a real passion for the freedom of flight. He was often described as being "part bird" with absolutely no fear of flying, even in poor weather or adverse flying conditions.
He returned to Fairbanks and with only 40 hours of flight time, he borrowed a Stearman biplane and joined Joe Crosson to search for Carl Ben Eielson and his mechanic Earl Borland, who were missing in eastern Siberia. Eielson and Borland had been flying a rescue mission and ferrying passengers from an American fur-trading ship that had gotten stranded in the ice but on their second flight to the ship, the Nanuk, Eielson's plane vanished into the fog. Gillam had incredible eyesight which enabled him to fly in "soup" and to navigate with little or no visibility. Because of this sharp sightedness, Gillam and Crosson spotted the wreckage of Eielson's airplane and began the recovery effort.
Gillam's daring and skill, especially flying into extreme weather, earned him the reputation of legendary competence. Considered one of Alaska's most notorious and fearless pilots, it was often Gillam who would fly a trip when no one else would. It was noted then that there were three types of weather in Alaska: "Pam American Weather", clear sky flying; "Flying Weather", when most other pilots would fly; and "Gillam Weather", when flying conditions were so bad that only "Thrill 'Em, Chill 'Em, Spill 'Em but No Kill 'Em" would fly. Many Alaskans owed their lives and livelihood to his stubborn courage and willingness to fly in extremely poor conditions.
Harold Gillam provided scheduled air service in the Cordova and Copper Center region for several years before moving his operation to Fairbanks in 1935, where he established Gillam Airways and provided regular air service between Fairbanks and Bethel.
His reputation for indestructibility came to an end on January 5, 1943 when he crash landed a Lockheed Electra on a mountainside near Ketchikan. All aboard the aircraft survived the initial crash; however one woman died of injuries two days later. Five days after the accident Gillam left the passengers in an attempt to find help. Thirty-three days after the accident, the remaining passengers were rescued and Gillam's body was eventually found. He had apparently died of exposure while trying to hike out for help.
Joseph Tippets, one of the survivors of the accident would later write "Harold Gillam was no stranger to survival in the Alaska wilderness and based on his past experience, he fully expected to find someone, or be discovered, and be able to bring rescue to the rest of us. We have no idea what pain and anguish he may have experienced. He was truly risking his life in trying to help all of us survive. It was a heroic deed."
Mr Tippets book, Hearts of Courage is available in our store.