Wilbur's Waco Restoration
Potter, Jean. The Flying North. “Fred Moller.” Indianapolis, Indiana: Curtis Publishing Company, 1945. 111-124.
When a Pan American mail plane crashed near Nome on April 6, 1944, it broke the company’s record of eleven and a half years without a passenger fatality. Six men were killed.
For New York officials of the globe-circling organization this was bad news. For Alaskans it was something more. In the airline shacks and on the runways, people were hardly able to talk about it. The report spread fast. “Little Freddie was aboard. Little Freddie got it this time.” Mechanics and pilots all over the Territory stopped hammering, welding, loading, checking, didn’t know what to do, couldn’t find words to say.
Slow old-timers, prospectors and dog-mushers, stopped one another all up and down the Fairbanks streets. “Did you hear? Freddie was killed this afternoon. Over to Nome.” Some just stood. Others walked awkwardly away.
Nobody wanted to believe it. Nobody quite did till newsboys began shouting toward evening and people read his name. There it was for sure-in heavy black print, listed among the dead: FLIGHT MECHANIC FRED MOLLER.
Only a few weeks before, as he watched the same white land slide under the wings of the same silver ship, Fred Moller had told a friend: “The plane hasn’t been built yet that can kill me.”
He believed this. Alaskans believed it. Fred Moller, by his own account, had survived nine bad wrecks. Nine times the ships in which he traveled had plunged suddenly to earth. Wings had been demolished, cabins shattered, engines hurled off, props twisted. Always Moller had crawled out, still breathing, still cussing, still game for flying.
The year before his death he had been aboard another Pan American plane when it had crashed in an icing blizzard on the Koyukuk Divide. Pilots searched relentlessly through winter storm. All the old-timers had wanted to hunt for the ship that was down with Moller. When it was sighted, smashed against the mountainside, there was no sign of life. But Moller had survived as usual. He had tramped a big OK in the snow, helped his pilot out of the wreckage and started off on foot, leading him slowly and surely home.
On their return to Fairbanks, that time, the pilot made a radio speech, told Alaskans all about their grim adventure. Reporters wanted Fred Moller to talk too. But when he saw them coming he crossed the street, dodged through an alley and hustled out to the airfield. All he wanted was to fuel another ship, load the mail and ride aloft again.
Fred Moller was a proud rascal. He stood only five feet high. He was wiry, skinny, spry as a rooster. On the load manifest Pan American listed him at 135 pounds. Everybody knew he was not that heavy but nobody knew his true weight. He refused to stand on the scales and he kept himself bundled up in a lot of clothes. “Two or three suits o’ pants and two or three sweaters ‘n’ coveralls made a pretty big man of him.”
Nobody knew Fred Moller’s age either. For ten years before his death he had been telling people he was fifty-two. Some said he was in his sixties. Some said he must be in his seventies. Some said he was already getting bald when he hit Nome in 1901. Freddie was a wrinkled, weather-beaten kid. In summer he wore a British cap on his head, in winter a fur hood.
Nobody could quite figure out Fred Moller’s accent. He talked rough, like a foreigner. He said he had been born near London, England, but had spent most of his life in towns and gold camps of Alaska. He may have spoken a mixture of cockney and siwash.
Fred Moller lived many years with Barney Lashley, the Fairbanks gunsmith, in a pointed wooden shack at the edge of the airfield. Lashley ran a shooting gallery down cellar, and there was a sign painted on the side of the building: WIN A RIFLE WHILE YOU PRACTISE. One night Moller returned from a flight and found his partner dead. He put another sign on the front door: CLOSED. From that time on he lived alone. He had a gold pan for an ash tray, an old iron stove to warm him and two big alarm clocks to wake him early in the morning.
Fred Moller’s heart was big and warm. He loved children; “liked to take a hungry waif home and feed him good. He’d cut their shaggy hair, give ‘em presents. He’d buy candy for all the kids in town.” Friends who sorted his effects after the final wreck found a satchel full of child snapshots. Moller had a weakness for women-especially Indian and Eskimo women, “the bigger the better.” They had a weakness for him; when he hiked in to a village after one of his wrecks a swarm of husky girls hugged and kissed him, laughing with relief. “A woman,” he said, “is liable to get too bossy.” He never married. All of his savings-$16,000-were willed to an Alaskan boy, the son of neighbors.
So far as anyone knew, Moller left no blood relatives. But the double funeral with which he and a fellow victim were honored was one of the most crowded in Fairbanks history. Some of the roughest men in town wept as pilots and mechanics bore his coffin slowly down the aisle. Fred Moller was more than a flight mechanic, more than a man. To the people of Alaska he was an institution. There was never anyone else like him.
“Little Freddie,” they called him, and often smiled as they said it. “Saw Little Freddie over in the Co-op, just come in from Nome.—There’s Little Freddie, hoppin down the street.—Say what’s your hurry, Freddie?”
He was so shy, so earnest, so busy and so fiercely proud that everybody liked to kid him. Yet everybody, even the senior pilots, stood in awe of him. He was a hard worker, a tough number, quite a kick. Everybody, in one way or another, loved him.
Most called him Little Freddie. Some called him Shorty. A few nicknamed him the Midget. Others dubbed him the Little Giant.
The Little Giant—that was the best name for Fred Moller, for he was a small man who tried to do big things. He was a great pioneer, one of the truest pioneers Alaska has ever had. He did not know success. But he kept on trying. His spirit was sharp. His vision of the Territory’s future was large.
“You know,” he said shortly before his death, “this is my country. I want to see it develop.”
Freddie and his father migrated to Alaska from England during the Gold Rush. They lived a while in Nome, where Freddie peddled papers and kindling and his father panned the beach. Once, working for the Golden Goose Mining Company, the elder Moller hit it rich. He took Freddie back to London on a pleasure trip, returned to Alaska broke. Soon after this, he went to the States and disappeared. Freddie sent many letters trying to locate him. There was never a reply.
For a while Freddie prospected, wandering alone far into the Arctic, pitching his own camps, following the creeks to many new places. But he had no luck, so he got a construction job on the Alaska Railroad. He helped build the famous bridge at Nenana, one of the longest single spans in the world. He was a “jolly good little worker,” railroad old-timers recall, dependable even in winter when the wind blew up to forty miles per hour and the temperature fell to sixty below. He knew every rivet on the Nenana bridge, and liked to refer to himself as a “steel man.” He was so tireless, so meticulous, that one of the construction bosses offered him a high-paying job in South America. He turned it down.
More than anything else Freddie wanted to go back into the Arctic hills and look for gold. He liked the long suspense of hunting colors and the rare excitement of finding pay dirt. He was convinced he would hit it rich sometime. And he loved to live and work in the wilderness—all alone.
“Why, it’s the only country,” he told me. “The sheep are so tame the fellows walk right up to you and the young birds fly to your camp for crumbs. I had a pet fish one place, a bullhead; that fellow was always around at mealtime for me to throw him scraps. You know, out in the hills there’s no such thing as being lonely.”
His feeling for the Arctic was more than sentimental. He was a friend and disciple of Dr. Alfred Brooks, the United States Geological Survey chief in Alaska, who knew the Territory’s resources better than anyone and maintained they could support ten million people. Freddie knew long ago what government geologists today, more than ever, confirm: the Arctic, virtually empty of humans, holds untold riches—coal, oil, gold, asbestos, nickel, lead, silver, tin, tungsten—even amber and jade. He knew that the most inaccessible parts of the Far North are full of promise. That is why he learned to fly.
To a man of Freddie’s experience, the aviation idea came easy. He had tramped, mushed and floated hundreds of tedious miles. He had made his own automatic dams for sluicing, his own cabins, his own small boats. “You know, out in the hills we build everything and find a way to do anything. As I grew older I thought, by gosh, some means of transport must be invented to get over this country I the quickest way possible.” In 1923, when Ben Eielson arrived at Nenana on his first Alaskan flight, Freddie was waiting in the front of the crowd. He helped tie down the Jenny. Then he cornered Eielson. “I told him I wanted something like that for prospecting. I asked him if he thought I could be a pilot too. He really encouraged me.”
Freddie took his ambition very seriously. He made a trip to the States for instruction, and took a few lessons from the famous Spokane pilot Nick Mamer. But the trip ended badly. On one of Freddie’s first solo flights his plane crashed into a line of electric wires. He was in bandages after the accident for a year and a half. Returning to Alaska, he decided to learn more about motors. “I’d go to the dumps and dig them out, them old motors, to cut wood with wood saws. I’d fix them up and get them running. After while people found out I knew all about it and when they needed a man they’d send for me.”
He worked a while as an airplane mechanic, servicing ”machines” for the earliest pioneer flyers. “Those men are all dead now,” he casually told me a week before his own fatal crash. “Cracked up, you know.” He helped outfit planes for the Wilkins expeditions. “I shoed their skis with the proper metal. They had put wooden skis on. I told them they were liable to stick and recommended they use some tin.” But Freddie was not content with ground work. He begged the pilots to let him borrow their planes. They usually refused, so he decided to get one of his own. “I rustled around till I heard there was a Waco cracked up that would be for sale. I bought her and we fixed her up.”
He took more flying lessons—a great many more. The average pilot needs eight hours of instruction before soloing; Freddie required fifty-four. Noel Wien smiles indulgently when he remembers how hard the Little Giant worked at the controls. All the old-timers smile the same way when they remember how hard he worked over his plane and the two damaged Curtiss OX-5 motors he bought to go with it. Evening and evening he could be seen at the Fairbanks field intently welding the struts, covering the wings, puttering over the engine.
He painted the ship bright green and polished it, “rubbing and rubbing to make her shine bright.” On the Fourth of July he strung small American flags over the wings and fuselage. He even built a model of the plane, perfect in every respect. And he gave his craft a name: Anna. Some insist it was named for an Indian girl. Others maintain he named it for his mother. Freddie would not say.
“The Anna,” as he solemnly referred to his Waco, made history. He was never prouder than on the June evening of the 1928 when the News-Miner announced his full-fledged entry into the aviation business:
What will probably be the first instance of a flyer-prospector using an airplane to carry him to the different mining regions in the Interior for the sole purpose of prospecting will start tonight with the departure of Fred Moller on an extended journey which will cover practically all the mining camps in this section of Alaska.
“The Anna” could hold one passenger, and Freddie decided to launch a flying company. He ran a large newspaper ad:
BEFORE YOU TRAVEL IN THE AIR,
SEE FAIRBANKS EXPRESS.
THE ONLY FAIRBANKS COMPANY GIVING RATES
TO PROSPECTORS AND MINERS
HOT SANDWICHES AND COFFEE SERVED
WARM FLYING CLOTHES FURNISHED
He made the sandwiches himself, slicing bread and meat in his shack. He “always had a few parkys around” to keep his customers warm. This was a real airline with all the trimmings. In fact, as he pointed out in the News-Miner, it was a more important venture than that. The Territory was planning to set aside a fund to aid prospectors. This project and its public meaning were featured with flourish in the little airman’s big ad:
When I was a boy Alaska’s greatest friend, Dr. Alfred Brooks, picked up a rock and told me a wonderful story about it—“Boy, this northern belt will produce in time four hundred million dollars.”
This Spring, Boys, We Will Have $20,000 to prospect this northern belt. Be with me and realize what that means and more of it to come if we need it.
Boys, we will have to make this a success. We will just have to show Uncle Sam that he is an old duffer and that really Alaska is the most wonderful land he has in his possession and really it is God’s country and we old-timers are right here to prove it.
Every dollar you can shove our way will mean one more prospector in the hills.
Think of It as You Travel In The Air.
For nearly two years Freddie flew “The Anna” through the inland mining country. He always carried a pick and shovel and gold pan in the cabin, ready to go to work wherever he came down. He took slight interest in hauling ordinary passengers, but he rode dozens of miners to their claims, free of charge, on the chance that they would find enough gold to pay him back. Often he chipped in with cash. He would make a fifty-fifty deal with a prospector any time.
Fairbanks Air Express was not a profitable venture. There were several reasons for this. Many of Freddie’s passengers returned from the hills broke. Others met with disaster, and he spent much of his time flying gratis to their rescue. “Their dogs would come back to a village, so we’d know the boys were in trouble—lost, drowned or killed by a bear, and I’d go out and hunt.” He located on of his customers on a mountainside, “stiff as a board.” Another had been eaten by a grizzly; “not much left of him, but I found a leg and one shoepac.” There was always misfortune on the airline. If Freddie’s customers were not in trouble, he was.
The aviation idea came easy to Freddie, but flying itself came continually hard. He was so small he had to perch on a pile of cushions to see out of the plane. He was high-strung and excitable in the cockpit—“just like a jumping jack.” Beyond this, those that knew him best believe that his eyesight was poorer that he would admit even to himself. Although he spent a total of 500 hours at the controls of airships he was never able to master the knack of being a pilot.
Again and again Freddie cracked up, and he spent countless days on the ground, repairing his plane. “Always busy mending a busted stabilizer or rudder or a hole in a wing or ski.” His sad landings were a common joke. People began calling him the “Slap-her-down-Kid.”
One day Fairbanks mechanics heard the noise of an engine. “Hold your hats,” said one, “here comes Freddie.” The Waco dropped down in a sideways tilt, hit with a lurch and flipped over on its back.
“What happened? What happened?” the Little Giant shouted as he hung head down in the cockpit, silver dollars dropping out of his pockets.
“You just turned over,” said a bystander, wounding Freddie’s feelings so deeply that he would not speak to him for a week.
Once, landing at the town of Curry, Freddie knocked several branches off a tree. He patiently mended his ship, climbed in, and slithered into another tree on take-off. Another time, clad in a black-bear flying suit, he prepared to take-off from a snow-covered river bar near Shungnak. He pushed the boulders to one side and laid a row of flags to line himself up. Then he climbed onto his pile of cushions.
“All fixed?” bystanders asked.
“Yup,” he replied, raising himself and peering ahead with the of a submarine captain sighting through a periscope.
“Can you see all right?”
He started the engine. “Then,” in the words of a witness, “by golly, he headed right for a pile of stones, smashed into it and broke twelve inches off the end of the prop.”
He picked up the splinters and fitted them together like a jigsaw puzzle. He slipped a piece of stovepipe on the blade to hold them in place and wrapped the whole with wire. Propelled by this classic piece of patchwork, he managed to get his ship safely into the air and flew 300 miles home.
Freddie usually carried an extra propeller in the plane with him. He also carried tools and a “big butcher-knife and a saw to cut trees.” They all came in handy. He couldn’t learn to watch the winds. Nor, well as he knew the country, could he recognize it from the controls of his plane. Again and again he was blown off course. Again and again Fairbanksans report that he could not even follow another pilot to Livengood, seventy-five miles away.
Since “The Anna” carried only thirty-five gallons of gas, these confusions led to repeated long walks. He was cheerful about this. Overland distance did not dismay him. Once he ran out of gas in the Koyukuk region and landed on a river bar. It was 200 miles to the nearest town. He built a raft of logs, floated downstream to the settlement and bought some motorboat gas. Loading it into a canoe, he paddled laboriously upstream, fueled his plane with the heavy stuff and took off.
Nothing and no one could persuade the little prospector that he could not fly. Ben Eielson, whom Freddie called his “staunchest friend,” was one of the few pilots who ever gave him any encouragement. Freddie was enormously proud of this. “Ben came right up to my hangar every time I came back from a trip, and told me—‘Attaboy! Keep going!’” Freddie did until he lost his ship.
It happened in the spring of 1931. He left Fairbanks with a load of mail, heading for the town of Eagle in the Forty-mile. By the time his gas ran out he was circling n the Nabesna, farther from his destination than when he took off. “The motor pooped as I was crossing a rocky ridge. I saw a little pond ahead and just made the edge of it. CRASH! “The Anna” was gone.
So completely was the ship demolished that Freddie, mortified, made a bonfire of it before he left. Then, dutifully dragging the mail sack behind him on a ski, he trudged several weeks overland to Big Delta, where he was picked up by Pilot Ed Young. Young had tried to rescue him earlier. Learning Freddie’s approximate position from settlements through which he passed. Young flew low over the dog trail many times, but Freddie hid in the woods each time he heard the plane. “His feelings hurt, that’s all,” Alaskans explain. “He just wanted to come in under his own power.”
Freddie did not have enough money for another plane so he made himself a twenty-six foot poling boat. “He built it,” Joe Crosson recalls, “with the loving care of a master.” He announced that he was going off prospecting with it in the Arctic. A crowd of friends went down to the river bank on the day of his departure. Freddie shook hands with all around, climbed aboard, pushed off and started cranking. The new engine would not run. He tried and tried, and was still cranking as the boat disappeared around the bend. That was the last time Fairbanksans saw of him for two years.
They were years of bad luck. He panned and panned, but found little gold. Then one day, floating down swift rapids on the Colville River, his boat tangled with low-hanging “sweepers” and capsized. He swam to shore and hiked for weeks across the tundra, living as best he could off fish, rabbits and berries. He hurt his food, but made a cane of forked willow and hobbled on. He arrived at Fairbanks “thin as a sliver, pale as a ghost,” and was laid up six months with rheumatism.
The Little Giant worked a while as a mechanic, help build Pan American’s Fairbanks hangar and saved enough money to buy part interest in another ship. Pilots were appalled when they learned his choice: a Stearman biplane—at the time one of the fastest-landing aircraft on the field. “You’ll get killed, Freddie,” they warned him. “That’s too hot for you.” So many told him this that he agreed to sell his interest in it.
Dolefully, he went to work as a Pan American flight mechanic. He held this job of the next ten years and became a legend in it. So exacting was he that it took him an hour to accomplish something another man could do in twenty minutes. Rising each morning at five or earlier, he walked to work along the edge of the field when most mechanics were still in bed. He serviced Pan American’s ships as meticulously as if they were his own. “If he was assigned to a plane it was always the best.” He developed a special method of folding wing covers and insisted that new mechanics learn it. He rubbed the cowling and waxed the wings as a housewife would polish silver. “A clean ship is a safe ship,” he always said. Everything had to be just so.
Freddie worked nearly 10,000 hours aloft as a flight mechanic. Now and then, in Pan American’s dual-equipped Electras, pilots let him have a feel of the controls. However, in the Pilgrims—workhorses of the company’s Fairbanks-Nome winter mail run—he rode behind in the cabin with the passengers. He could hear the radio reports over his headphones, but his only means of communication with the pilot was by yelling or passing notes through a small aperture into the cockpit.
Crosson, who took Freddie along on many of the company’s original survey trips, declares warmly that he was “the best flight mechanic in the world.” It was not only that he was “nice and light to haul,” allowing room for more pay load. He was an excellent radio operator; “that little so-and-so knew the code.” He kept the ship’s logbook in a neat, labored hand. In years of work he learned Pan American’s routes by heart; their mountains, their rivers, their snow conditions and equally important, their people.
Freddie knew all the natives at little stops like Ruby and Nulato and Golovin. He was generous: at Christmas time he never forgot a man, woman or child. But he was stern. He bossed them sharply as they flocked about his ship to help refuel or unload. “He’d do anything for them—and they’d do anything for him.”
Freddie bossed the Pan American pilots too. With himself and everyone else he was a hard taskmaster. The company assigned him the job of breaking in new men and familiarizing them with the country. He herded them like sheep. “You’re just a kit at this game,” he told one who had had years of experience in the States. “You’d better listen
to me.” When another insisted on heading off course, he poked a fishing rod through the aperture and switched him on the neck. He threatened to spray a third with the fire extinguisher. There were several with whom he categorically refused to ride. No flyer, however high he stood in the company, escaped his vigilance.
Les McLennan, a large burly captain who crashed with Freddie the year before the final wreck, reports that his small mechanic bossed him all the way back to civilization. When McLennan tried to chop a stump for firewood and missed, Freddie snatched the ax and refused to return it. “You damn fool,” he said, “next time you’ll cut off your foot and then how will you get home?” When they left the plane and started hiking cross-country through the deep snow Freddie discovered that McLennan had brought along the ship’s Very-pistol for a souvenir. “Didn’t I tell you,” he shouted, “not to pack anything you don’t need?” He grabbed it and hurled it over a cliff.
Title meant less than nothing to Freddie. He bore an ill-concealed scorn toward desk workers and office executives. “So you’re the new traffic manager?” he asked on pompous arrival from the States, and spat on the floor. When a group of visiting officials diverted a plane from the mail run to polar bear hunting, he told them off as severely as he would the Eskimos. “Rich bawstards!” he snapped, fierce with indignation.
For years he wore on his cap the gold band that is reserved, by company regulation, for captains and first officers. No one wanted to tell him to take it off. Despite his age and thirsty independence the company kept him on the payroll and gave him the title of chief Fairbanks flight mechanic. In honor of his tenth year of service, Pan American staged a surprise party in the hangar. Crosson flew north from Seattle to attend. Freddie, who virtually worshipped Crosson, was pleased and “proud as a peacock.” He prized the new two-starred company emblem on his lapel. Still he was restless.
All down the years he had been fretting. He missed the Far Arctic. He wanted to get back at the controls of his own plane and search for gold again. “I’m really a miner at heart,” he said, “a prospector. I want to fly out and look for new places.”
Pan American had done all it could to allay his discontentment. Once the company tried to send him on a vacation trip to the States, but he did not like cities. He traveled only as far south as Juneau, and took the next plane back north. For years he had been granted extra time in addition to his vacation so that he could go prospecting. But this was not enough of the life he loved best.
In 1943 he decided to buy an airplane and strike out once more on his own. He paid $750 for a wrecked Curtis Robin with J-6-5 Wright engine. Moving to a tar-paper shack by the airfield, which also served as a nose hangar, he worked in his spare time for months re-covering the fuselage and re-building the stabilizer of his new ship, NC511N. He panted the plane bright orange with a black stripe. In November he announced it was ready to fly.
The boys in the hangar tactfully suggested that he let someone else give it its initial test. He was too impatient. An anxious crowd watched as he climbed into the cockpit and revved up the engine. He waved happily, taxied out, began practicing S-turns—and ran straight into the Pan American tractor. The Wright engine was badly smashed.
He started all over again and worked many months in his spare time repairing it. When spring came and the warm sun melted the ice from the ponds he announced he had it fixed. “I’ll be hanging the motor in another week,” he told me. “Then I’ll go out and just roam around. It’s not the money: you know I could be living anyway. But I got my old maps, I know where the tin and tungsten are, and right now I want to look for vital minerals for the government.”
Freddie’s friends were all worried. He had not piloted a plane for many years. He wasn’t young. He had used up enough luck for ten men. He would crash, people said, in no time. The Little Giant never had a chance to prove them wrong. He was not at the controls when death struck. He was riding on his last trip as flight mechanic, sitting in the cabin of a Pan American mail plane with the passengers.
He had notified Pan American that he would quit the flight mechanic job the first of April. The company had asked him to stay on a few days longer, as they were shorthanded that week. He had agreed.
It was a fair morning on April 5 when a Pan American Pilgrim piloted by young Robert Bullis, a newcomer in Alaska, prepared to leave Fairbanks on a routine mail flight to Nome. Aboard, along with Freddie, was his friend Ted Seltenreich, also an Alaskan veteran, who was to replace him on the job. The hangar crowd kidded as they watched them load the plane. “Two mechanics,” somebody said. “A sure sign of bad luck.”
Freddie hustled over to the airport office to make out the flight plan. He was in a chipper mood.
“Well, Pop,” he jubilantly told the manager, “this is my last trip with PAA. From now on I’ll be flying on my own.”
The next day, seven minutes after take-off from Nome on the return trip, the plane plowed through white haze into a snowy hill. All members of the crew and three Eskimo passengers were instantly killed.
Fred Moller’s body lies today on the steep slope of Birch Hill cemetery, just outside the “Golden Heart” town.
Beyond Fairbanks, for hundreds and hundreds of miles, spreads Arctic wilderness. Through jagged peaks and creeks rush unseen. Winds blow and blow, the sun beats down, and seldom a human feels them. Under the earth they lie as they have lain for centuries—rich minerals, wealth for the people, waiting to be dug.
“You know, it’s my country. I want to see it develop.” He could not fly. He never hit it rich. But few men in the North have had the sharp pioneer spirit of Little Freddie Moller. “He had the kind of spirit that don’t die easy.” Few men have had as much right to call Alaska their own.