T-Craft Tales: A book worth reading

Ranney: One of the passengers had said there was no way he was going to fly with a woman pilot … but then he guessed it would be okay.

Ranney’s first book includes 78 photos.  This one shows the author after landing Fishing & Flying’s Cessna 185 near Cape St. Elias. Photo courtesy Gayle Ranney collection
The cover of Gayle Ranney’s book T-Craft Tales features her faithful first plane, Taylor Craft N95888, soaring past Alaska peaks. Photo by Dick Shellhorn

Cordova’s Gayle Ranney has written a book titled “T-Craft Tales”.  It’s about flying small planes in Alaska, and much more. After a 40-year career that spans 26,000 flight hours, she certainly has plenty to write about.

This 220-page book is so entertaining it only took me four hours to read it and I am a notoriously slow reader. The book centers around page-turning anecdotes, beginning with a chance encounter with an Alaska Bush pilot back in 1965 when Ranney took a teaching job in Juneau. Gayle learned to fly there, and the title comes from the first plane she owned, a Yakutat based T-Craft she purchased sight-unseen before she even had her private license.

Ranney’s happy passengers Sue Shellhorn, Tom Carpenter, and May Ekemo enjoy refreshments at the famous McCarty Lodge bar, June 1995.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn

If you don’t know what a T-Craft is, join the club. This 1946 puddle-jumper, tail number N95888, soars through many adventures with Ranney at the helm. By the time you finish this book, you will have also felt yourself airborne, in all kinds of conditions, some ideal, other not quite so.

Recently, I had a chance to visit with Gayle and John Tucker at their beautiful home overlooking Eyak Lake. The ice is slowly melting, and the late evening view of mountains and sky was spectacular, almost akin to the background of the book cover.

“It isn’t always like that,” commented Ranney, who still looks at the sky with a pilot’s eye.  Weather, and its fickle nature, is a major topic throughout the book. What goes up must come down.

Ranney is so soft spoken and modest that John had to prod her to speak up about her adventures, as if there was much to say about 26,000 hours in the cockpit of various small planes.

It turns out Gayle was nervous. I almost spilled my coffee when she said:  “I’m not used to talking about my book to a real author,” referring to my book “Time and Tide.”   OMG.  She taught English, among other subjects, and must have obviously overlooked the butchery of spelling and grammar within. I noticed only one word misspelled in her entire book, and plan on hiring her as proofreader for future endeavors.

When Gayle started flying commercially, there weren’t a lot of female bush pilots in Alaska, and she candidly admitted it was a challenge, even after she had considerable experience.   “I remember one time landing at Macleod Harbor on the far end of Montague Island in windy conditions to pick up some government survey workers. It was bumpy and cross wind. One of the passengers had said there was no way he was going to fly with a woman pilot. He watched me land, and then get calmly get out to give him a very firm handshake.  And then said he guessed it would be OK after all.”

Ranney received recognition in the Fifth Anniversary edition of “Working Woman Magazine” back in November 1981. A three page feature titled “Gayle Ranney: Bush Pilot”, starts with “An intrepid entrepreneur flies the vast wilderness of Alaska.  The work is hard and the pay is not great, but for a frontierswoman it’s close to the perfect life.”

The article also shows her doing less glamorous jobs such as pumping excess water out of the floats of a plane, loading baggage and freight into a Cessna 180, and catching up with paperwork and phone calls during frequent storms.

First stop on the flight was at Collin’s lovely place at Long Lake. Jewell Collins, Dick Shellhorn, and May Ekemo enjoy another sunny Interior day in June. Photo by Sue Shellhorn

Gayle and John have quite an extensive library, but perhaps their most prized book is “Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots”, published by the Smithsonian Institute National Air and Space Museum in 1997.  It features photos and interviews with 36 unsung contemporary American women aviators, ranging from astronauts to early pioneers.  There on page 120 was “Gayle Ranney, Alaskan Bush Pilot.”

She and John went back to Washington, D.C. for a private grand opening of a photo display based on the book at the Air and Space Museum, and had a chance to meet and visit with this amazing group of trailblazers.  “They were all so nice”, said Ranney.  “Here we were chatting with astronauts and U2 spy plane pilots, for goodness sakes.”

Yet what is most impressive about Ranney is her quiet, humble nature.  Back in 1995, we  chartered one of Ranney’s Fishing and Flying planes to take my wife Sue’s mother May Ekemo on a trip to Long Lake and McCarthy.  Before passing away, Sue’s father John Ekemo had made many a trip to the area with close friend and local pilot Cliff Collins, and came back with tales of the beauty and magnitude of the Copper River and Wrangell-St. Elias region.

We wanted May to have a chance to see what John had been talking about, and on a bluebird day took off from Mile 13 in a Cessna 185.  Future son-in-law Tom Carpenter also came along.  Gayle happened to be the pilot.  We first landed smoothly at the well-maintained strip at Long Lake.  Cliff and Jewel were there to greet us.   May saw first hand what John had tried to describe. It was a poignant reunion.

Next, a stop at McCarthy, where we toured the Kennicott mines before having lunch at the McCarthy Lodge.  It was a hot day, and we decided a cold one at their famous five stool bar was in order. Tom and I choked on our beer when May ordered a Martini, which befuddled the young barkeep.  And her daughter.

“I don’t know why Mom did that”, said Sue later. “ She probably hasn’t had one of those in all her life.”

The flight back was quietly serene.  It had been a happily overwhelming day.

Next week Sue and I will be heading to Seattle for a family celebration of May’s 95th birthday.  I bought an extra copy of Gayle’s book as a present, and asked her to sign it.

Here’s what she wrote:  “Greetings from Cordova, May.  Would be fun to fly together again.   Such a joyous day we shared together.  Maybe this book will remind you of the beautiful area around us.  Enjoy!  Take care.”

Every time we visit with May, she asks:  “What ever happened to that nice lady pilot?”

Well, she wrote a book.

And I would recommend you all read it.

Signing and copies:

Gayle Ranney is planning a book signing at the Cordova Library sometime in May. In the meantime, copies of T-Craft Tales are available at Laura’s Liquor, or can be purchased directly by contacting the author at 424-5321 or orcaeagle.gr@gmail.com.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.