Wilbur’s Waco Restoration
By Rich Wilbur, Past President
2,756 views to 4-12-2023
The Anna was owned and operated by Fred Moller, a pilot and flight mechanic for Pan American. The Anna (a 1926 improved Waco Nine) was first purchased by the Bennet & Rodebaugh Company. It was shipped to Fairbanks, Alaska by rail along with another Waco Nine in the late 1920s. The Anna, as a wreck along with two engines, was purchased in 1929 by Fred Moller. There were 283 Waco Nines produced from 1925 – 1927. At present, there are only nine Waco Nines, one hanging in the Pittsburgh Airport, one in the Waco Museum in Troy, Ohio, one at the Smithsonian Institute, one in Hood River Oregon at the WAAAM museum and one at Mid-America museum in Texas. The others are privately owned and are in various stages of restoration. The Anna was one of four Waco Nines to have the OXX-6 engine installed at the factory. The OXX-6 is a later model of the OX-5 but with dual magnetos and 100 hp instead of 90 hp like the OX-5 which makes it even more rare.
The only story I have found about Fred Moller was written by Jean Potter in a book called the The Flying North which she wrote in 1945 but was first published in 1972. Fred Moller arrived in Nome, AK at the turn of the century to look for gold in remote areas accessible only by air or dogsled. After several years of prospecting by hiking around he decided that he should learn to fly and get his own airplane. He took flying lessons in Spokane, Washington from Nick Mamer, but crashed on a solo flight, spending the next 18 months in bandages the first of dozens of near-death accidents. To make money for more lessons and to buy his own plane, Moller taught himself how to repair old motors. Eventually he became a mechanic for several well-known bush pilots, (which included Ben Eilsen), but he never gave up on learning to fly. He was far from being a “natural pilot” when he finally got his license.
He bought the Anna as a wreck and rebuilt it entirely on his own at the Fairbanks field where he lived in a modest shack. For two years he ran a passenger service to mining camps, sometimes panning for gold as part of his pay. In the winter of 1931, he got lost, ran out of gas and crashed the Anna for the last time and was forced to walked out. In Jean Potter’s story, she wrote that Fred was so mad at having crashed the Anna, yet again, that he burned the wreckage before walking out to Big Delta, Alaska using one of the Anna’s skis to carry his gear and a sack of mail. Fred Moller was later killed in a plane crash in 1944 near Nome, Alaska while working aboard a Pan American plane as a flight mechanic. The Anna crash site location remained a secret until Floyd Miller, an air taxi pilot in Northway, AK, with the help of the locals discovered it in 1965. At that time only the engine was removed from the wreckage and was brought to Northway by sled dog.
The possibility of finding the Anna was first sparked after a flight I made with Captain Jerry Chisum in 1994. I was flying for MarkAir as a First Officer and had shared my story with Jerry about my brother Bruce’s desire to restore the Anna using the engine Floyd Miller had recovered from the crash site. Floyd Miller and Bruce became partners on the engine. The engine had been in storage since it was removed from the crash site. Bruce had started the overhaul of the engine prior to his death in 1988. My Brother Steve reassembled it for display and it is currently at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, AK.
Bruce decided to use the blueprints he was able to procure from the Smithsonian Museum because he was told that the wreckage of the Anna was not worth recovering from the crash site. Bruce never knew the exact location of the crash site. After relating the story about the Anna to Jerry he told me that he had flown Floyd Miller to the crash site using his Super Cub on oversized tires. Floyd asked Jerry for help because he didn’t currently own a Super Cub. Jerry said that they had donned hip boots and had walked about half a mile through the swamp from the gravel bar where they had landed. He said that it was so marshy that they had gone in over their hip boots several times. They found the wreckage of the Anna lying upside down in the swamp with only one ski sticking out of the water. Floyd hired some local residents to remove the engine and put it up on a platform of trees so it could be brought out after the ground had frozen. Dianne Miller, Floyd Millers widow, told me later that Floyd had a local resident of Northway bring the engine to Northway by sled dog in the winter as it was too far from the river bar and too heavy for them to move.
I have always wanted to finish Bruce’s project in our family name and in Bruce’s honor. I contacted the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum located in Anchorage, AK in August of 2007 and explained to them my desire to finish the restoration of the Anna. Norm Lagasse, the director of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum was very excited by the prospect of the Anna being restored. It was decided that I would be the Project Director of the Anna and that the museum would help in the recovery, preservation and restoration. The museum is very unusual in the fact that they keep several of their museum aircraft registered and maintained in airworthy condition and fly them regularly. They currently have four flyable aircraft. Norm offered the use of their L-2 Taylorcraft for my use in locating the Anna.
My DadMy inspiration to restore the Anna came from my Dad, Joe Wilbur. Born to a prominent and successful farmer and businessman of Arizona, Dad came from the sort who pioneered the southwest. Where Greatness was measured in a man by what he’d accomplished rather than what he might say or who he might be. Like his father before him, Dad always considered that anything was possible if you applied yourself and didn’t allow the difficulties or challenges encountered to dissuade you from persevering. There was always a way to do what needed to be done and just because you may not have figured out what that was, didn’t mean you wouldn’t, unless you quit trying. While I am not sure exactly when or how Dad caught the flying bug, I do know he never got over it. We do remember stories of Piper J-3 Cubs and a Globe Swift in Arizona after the war, an airport that is now a residential neighborhood south of town and a Flight School full of GI Bill students. Dad was the kind of dreamer that doesn’t come around that often. He realized his dreams the old fashioned way. Hard work and determination bound tightly with more patience than we’ve seen in any other man.
If an old school bus were converted into a camper with room for storage, he could move his belongings to Alaska and have a home for his family on a homestead out by Campbell Station, (now Arctic Boulevard) in Anchorage, AK while he built a small house for them to live in
If an old converted school bus got some modification, like a big door in the side, it could be a mobile shop to start his own business out of when he wasn’t on the clock at the Airline
If an old travel trailer had the same big door to fit an engine of a Piper Super Cub or wing tip, he could un-hook his pick-up to go get parts without having to move the plane from his mobile shop
If a J-3 Cub had a balanced elevator it would have better control at low airspeed like a Piper Super Cub. So Joe submitted the necessary documents to the FAA and received a Supplemental Type Certificate for the alteration so that Piper J-3 Cub, PA-11 Cub and PA-18-90 Cub owners could enjoy the improved performance.
If a set of Piper Super Cub gear were bolted up to the lower fuselage tubing made from 4130 Chrome Alloy Steel one size larger than a cub?s standard fuselage tubing, he could clamp up a set of temporary gear to ferry the Cub back to town to repair
If a Super Cub had another set of fuel tanks, one on each wing outboard of the standard tanks, then the Polar Bear guides and outfitters could fly twice as long without having to land on the ice-pack and refuel at half as many fuel caches on the ice-pack, always a risky affair. Again, un-daunted by the enormity of the task at hand, another STC is approved by the FAA.
If a Super Cub had a third seat, a Hunting Guide and Outfitter could ferry two at a time from the base camp to the hunting ground and have more daylight for hunting and guiding and less time flying. Joe also received STC approval from the FAA for a third seat modification.
If a Maule M4-145, designed as an economical family cross country airplane was equipped with a two position propeller and larger wheels and tires, it could also be a fair Soft and/or Short Field Performance (STOL) aircraft. So, Dad arrives at Merrill Field with a brand new bird with a two position propeller, big tires and the first Maule Dealership in Alaska.
If he used the Maule to land between the buildings at Whittier and fly the pass to Portage then have Al Mowry (one of his pilots) fly the Stinson or Pacer between Merrill and Portage he could move twice as many stevedores (also known as longshoremen) to town and back for their days off. The summer of 1964 saw Dad fly over 900 missions after the earthquake. For a time, Whittier was the only open port Alaska had.
If, the flight testing requirements of an STC for Floats on the Maule was done in the winter in Anchorage, AK, I recall there is some of that there, it could be done on a lake covered with snow just as nicely as one that was wet and rainy…and come spring a new Float plane enters the market.
If a guy wanted to land on a snow covered lake in the winter one day and a plowed and sanded runway the next, a set of quick-change Skis would sure save a lot of time and effort. Hence, the Wilbur Tire Cushion Ski STC Approval
If…the list would take hours to only share a part of what Dad accomplished in his aviation career.
Dad was a great father, a great mentor, a great friend, a great man who gave more than his share, and for all that, I can’t recall him getting angry, accept at me when I pulled some hair brained stunt or worse. You could always count on a smile and a warm reception with Dad. The strength of his heart shone brightly in his eyes and he spread it liberally on all he came in contact with. His “keep trying until you get it right” way of going about doing things, spilled over on most of those he came in contact with. Dad didn’t talk much about “getting it done.” He was all about doing it and moving on to the next thing to be done. Dad is one of the last of Alaskan Pioneer Aviators to close out his last flight plan. He completed Commercial Flight training in 1959 the summer of Alaska Statehood. He went on to earn a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor Rating and Multi-Engine Instrument Rating and then he came down with that dreaded “swing-wing bug.” He flew several models of helicopters, Brantley’s, Bells, Fairchild Hiller and even a Hughes 500. There was fish counting and Gold Mine grocery runs, surveyors to drop on mountain tops and communication repeater site generators to refuel. There were reindeer to herd and satellite dishes to be re-aligned, downed aircraft to retrieve from sandbars and beaches, to name only a few of his expeditions.
And then there were sons and daughters to raise, Steve, Anna, Rich, Ken, Meg, Paul and Bruce, seven in all. We all were immersed in and a part of Dad’s dream day in and day out. His girls were pumping gas and scrubbing bellies of the airplanes right alongside the boys. And it seemed that if you were big enough it didn’t matter how old you were. Dad would set you to doing what needed doing, answer your questions with “now you try it” and leave you to it. Dad’s confidence in the abilities of his kids and a trust that we would get it right fostered in us the same independent pioneer spirit his father had given to him. So with the spirit instilled in us by my dad I decided to finish my brother Bruce’s final project, The restoration of the Anna. Bruce had recently completed a restoration of a World War II Stinson L5 Bird dog. Bruce was never able to complete the Anna project as he was killed in a plane crash while working as a mechanic for Wilbur’s Flight Operations in 1988.
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.
Finding the Anna
The search party consisted of myself, Dan Saunders, my son Mark Wilbur, and my daughter Lindsay (Wilbur) Martin. We arrived in Anchorage, AK from Colorado Springs, CO in the first week of June 2008. Our search aircraft consisted of a Cessna 150 on loan from my mom, Anne Wilbur, and an L-2 Taylorcraft on loan from the Alaska AviationHeritage Museum. The Cessna 150 was hangered in Girdwood, AK so Dan and I drove there to pick it up and ferry it to Anchorage. We had planned to land at the Lake Hood runway next to Anchorage International Airport. En route to Lake Hood we discovered that the radio was inoperative. With the radio out we were forced to either return to Girdwood or continue to Merrill Field, a smaller airport in downtown Anchorage. Merrill Field is the airport where I learned to fly and where my family’s aviation business was located. The no radio procedure is to fly toward the control tower flashing the landing lights until you get a green light to land or a red light to go around. So we flew right towards the control tower flashing our landing lights, we got a green light signal which meant we cleared to land. After landing we taxied to the local radio repair shop. It turned out to be a bad on\off switch, which the shop had in stock. The radio shop was able to repair the radio that afternoon. Dan stayed with the Cessna and I went to the museum to get checked out in the Tailorcraft, an insurance requirement.
At the museum, Dick Benner, a museum volunteer pilot/mechanic and I got the Tailorcraft out of the hangar, washed and pre-flighted it. The Tailorcraft was built in 1946 and had no electrical system which means that it has no electric starter or radio installed. The engine is started by hand propping. Radio communication was with a battery operated portable radio. The museum was unable to locate the portable radio so we called all the radio shops and were able to locate one we could buy at Merrill Field where Dan was waiting for the Cessna radio to be fixed. By the time Dan arrived at the museum with the Cessna the wind had increased to a point that my checkout had to be postponed until the next morning. I met Dick the next morning for my checkout only to find out that we couldn’t make the new radio work. Dick’s solution was to check me out in his own airplane, a Stinson, as it was also a tail wheel equipped aircraft like the Tailorcraft. I hadn’t flown a tail wheel equipped airplane for more than fifteen years so I was a little apprehensive. I took off, flew half way around the traffic pattern, expecting to do several landings, when Dick said to make it a full stop instead of touch and go. I wheeled it on almost perfectly, cleared the runway and Dick said that’s good enough for me. Flying isn’t something that you forget how to do. I bought Dick breakfast at a local diner and off I went to round up my crew and gear. The problem with the portable radio was solved and the weather forecast was good so we departed Lake Hood for Northway.
Dan and Mark in the Cessna and Lindsay and I in the Tailorcraft. The Cessna is a much faster airplane than the Tailorcraft by 30 miles per hour so Dan was practically slow flying to stay beside me in the Tailorcraft. Our planned route was from Anchorage to Palmer to Gulkana via GulkanaPass to Big Delta via Slana Passto Northway, a total of over 400 miles. This is the same route of the Alaska – Canada highway; also known as the Alcan Highway. Our first fuel stop was Palmer. From there we headed up into Gulkana Pass. Along the way I had been teaching Lindsay how to read the aviation sectional map. As we started getting into the pass, Lindsay remarked, “Dad you probably need the map to know which way to go.” I said, “Well, the highway goes all the way through the pass and that river down there goes to the top of the pass. I have flown through this pass over a hundred times, so I think I can find my way.” Our second fuel stop was Gulkana Airport in the town of Glenallen, AK. The weather was still good so we continued on through Slana Pass to Northway, AK. It took seven hours to reach Northway, the nearest town to the crash site. The map that Jerry had given me showed five possible locations along the Nabesna River. He wrote on the map that the Anna was west of the river and north of the hills. One of the locations was actually in the hills. The other four were grouped together along the Nabesna River.
We began our search that evening, since we had continuous daylight at that time of the year. We searched the four areas that were on the Nabesna River, and I flew just above the tree tops in the Tailorcarft; Dan flew the Cessna at one thousand feed above ground. We searched the area for about an hour before returning to Northway for the evening. We were looking for the ski sticking out of a pond, a proverbial needle in a haystack. Two of the areas were high ground and had no ponds. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anything in any of the ponds near the other two areas. That evening we hung out at the lodge, making it a point to talk to anyone that would listen about what we were looking for. The next morning we continued the search of the same area and took pictures of all the marsh areas with a digital camera so we could look at them more closely on a computer. After examining the photos we were unable to locate anything that resembled an aircraft ski.
I continued calling local residents but was unable to find out any other information about the location of the Anna. While eating lunch, several local residents approached us. They all knew of different aircraft that had crashed in the area, but none knew of the Anna. We were getting ready to go search some more when we were approached by two individuals who thought they knew what we were looking for. They said their families had trapped in the area and knew of the crash site. I gave them a map and asked them to try and find the location. After about 20 minutes, Keith Albert and Joe Spitler both agreed on the Anna’s location. It turned out to be the fifth area on the map that Jerry Chisum had given me that we hadn’t searched yet.
Dan and I decided to go in the Tailorcraft by ourselves to do one final search. Our initial search of the area was very difficult due to a rain shower in the area, but Dan spotted something in the water by some moose. It was very windy and turbulent so I discontinued the search for a few minutes to allow the weather to improve. When we returned to the search area, Dan was able to find the same spot although the moose were gone. We found the Anna in a pond with the ski sticking out of the water, just as Jerry had told me. We flew back to Northway to upload the pictures to make sure we had proof. We were ecstatic to have found the Anna! One of the locals offered to take us up the river by boat, but I declined the offer as we were not prepared to hike to the crash shite. Our flight back to Anchorage was hampered only by a small rain shower in Slana Pass. We arrived back in Anchorage that evening.
Confirmation of the Anna – 2009
My original plan was for my team to assemble in Anchorage, AK the weekend at the middle May. We would be flown to Northway, AK by the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum where we would meet up with Dick Benner in his 1946 Stinson. Dick would fly us to the Nabesna River gravel bar near the Anna crash site. The gravel bar was approximately one half mile from the crash site. We would then hike in to the site with waders on because it was so marshy in the area.
The week before our expedition I received an email from Norm Lagasse, Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum Director, informing me that he would not be able to fly us to Northway due to budget constraints, but he did have a thirty foot motor home we could possibly use. He also informed us that he didn’t think Dick Benner would be available either. My next idea was to go by river boat or air boat up the river from Northway since it was only about 20 miles. A river boat trip up the Nabesna River in spring was a secondary choice. Each year the spring run-off creates new channels and forms new log jams. The trip upstream can be a new experience at each river bend even for the seasoned guide. I also needed someone to do a fly over to check the site for accessibility. I contacted Forty Mile Air in Tok, Ak. They had a charter flight going by the site a few days before I left for Anchorage, AK and were able to tell me that the snow was gone and there were several good landing spots on the gravel bars near the site. They also said the water level at the site was about a foot or so higher than it was last year and the pilot could not see the ski sticking out of the water. The day I left for Anchorage, AK, Norm Lagasse emailed to tell me that the motor home also would not be available but Dick Benner would be.
My team this year would consist of Steve Hennessy of Vancouver, WA, Dan Saunders of Colorado Springs, CO, Matt Throumoulos of Webster, NY, Dick Benner of Anchorage, AK and myself. Steve arrived earlier in the week. I arrived on Friday night. Matt and Dan would arrive Sunday night after not getting on their flight Saturday night since they were traveling on a standby ticket and the flight ended up being full. . Friday evening, forty eight hours prior to our scheduled departure to Tok, we had no transportation and had found we could not rent dive equipment in Anchorage. Dan, our lead diver had numerous PADI open water and advanced diver certifications, but no dry suit certification. There are certain things you do not do in a dry suit. In addition to the obvious, you must not allow air to collect around your legs and feet as it inverts you and begins a potential uncontrolled ascent. The dive shop could not rent to Dan regardless of the depth of our ten foot swap, and Steve’s certification records were not in the PADI computer data base.
My mom, Anne Wilbur generously loaned us the use of her condo in Anchorage which Steve nicknamed Base Camp One. Steve and I spent Saturday arranging for transportation to Tok, AK, getting diving gear and bear protection. I used my JetBlue Airways rental car discount with Hertz Car Rental to reserve us a Ford Explorer. There were Beverly Hillbilly visions of the Ford Explorer’s roof rack piled high with dive gear and camping equipment and the four of us overfilling the SUV as we swerved our way up the Matanuska Valley road toward Northway. Once at the Hertz counter Steve began bargaining for an upgrade when the Manager, Sherrie Dow recognized Steve from a company rental two years prior, proclaiming; “I REMEMBER YOU, Upgrade them to the Expedition.”.
With the transportation issue resolved we headed for the Matanuska Valley to get the diving equipment from Alaska Aquatics and bear protection from an old friend of Steve’s. Ron Durheim at Alaska Aquatics had purchased the Denali Dive Shop who had certified Steve as an SSI Open Water Diver in January of 1982 in Whittier, AK. After verifying certifications Ron was willing to set us up with everything we could possibly need including a digital underwater camera at a very reasonable rate.
Steve’s friend, Mike, had just returned from the lower forty eight as they call it in AK and was eager to loan us as many firearms as we wanted to carry, from Glocks to AK47’s to M1’s which he had stored in his house, all of which were fully loaded. When I asked about them being loaded his response was; ”A gun that is not loaded isn’t worth having.” We let him choose for us which ended up being a couple of 9mm pistols and an AK47 with a 20 shot clip and ammo.
Steve and I returned to Anchorage with our gear with hopes that Dan and Matt would be arriving that night. We found out around 5pm that they would have to try the next night so we made plans to pick them up at the Anchorage airport Sunday night and drive all night to meet up with Dick Benner, our bush pilot in Tok, AK Monday morning. Steve and I spent Sunday purchasing our food and other miscellaneous items from R.E.I. and the local grocery. We picked up Matt and Dan at 10:00 pm and headed north to Tok. We all took turns driving and sleeping the best we could in the Ford Expedition arriving in Tok around 4:30 am.
We met up with Dick at 6am at the local restaurant, Fast Eddies and formulated the plan. Dick would fly me and my gear to the crash site first to evaluate the site and figure out where he could land us on the gravel bar on the Nabesna River. Flying in Dick Benner’s Stinson brought back old memories of when I use to fly the bush of Alaska first for my father’s company, Wilbur’s Flight Operations and later for Peninsula Airways, accumulating over 14,000 hours, before I aspired to be a jet pilot. Upon arrival in the area of the crash site I spotted the site where we saw the ski sticking out of the water last year, but the ski was no longer visible. If we had done our initial search this year instead of last year we may not have found the crash site at all.
No sooner had we started looking for a place to land than Dick spotted a Toklat Grizzly bear running across the river bar right next to our first possible landing spot. The crash site is located in a bend in the river so we evaluated all the areas we could land for accessibility, debris, length and surface condition. Dick decided on his spot and landed us without incident. We unloaded my gear, which consisted of a tent, sleeping bag, food, water, a satellite phone, bear repellent and of course Dick’s 30.06 rifle. Dick reviewed with me how to use his rifle and the bear repellent then took off to go get the rest my team and gear. I watched Dick takeoff and fly away leaving me alone in the wilderness as I had done for so many people before when I flew the bush. It is a very strange feeling, one you have to experience to really know what it’s like. I immediately picked up my SAT phone and called my wife in Colorado then got down to business to find a way across a channel in the river that was between the landing area and the crash site. Dick suggested cutting down some trees to make a bridge so I donned my chest waders, shouldered the rifle and bear repellent and headed out. I found a couple of places to cross the channel and returned to Base Camp Two as Steve named it upon his arrival.
Dick brought in the rest of my team and most of the gear, with the exception of the diving equipment as we decided to evaluate the site first. Dick spotted a log jam up the channel a little ways when he returned with the first load of gear and Dan. Dan and I hiked to the jam and by moving a few logs we made if crossable. Matt brought a handheld GPS that he had loaded the local terrain into the software. We crossed the log jam, passed the Grizzly tracts and headed towards the site as depicted on the GPS. I disagreed with the GPS and decided to follow my instincts. I actually headed almost 90 degrees different from the GPS, which was basically downhill since I knew the site was in a swampy area. As you can probably guess I was right and we found the Anna.
We waded into the pond and found it to be only 18 inches deep, no need for dive equipment after all. The ground at the bottom of the pond was frozen. Grass and silt has covered over most of the wreckage leaving only part of the fuselage and pieces of the bottom wing above the grass. We reached down into the pond and were able to find the ski, the axle and part of the landing gear. The more Dan and I groped in the water the more pieces we found. I found the control tube that goes between the front and rear cockpits, the throttle, part of the elevator control system and the piece of the boot cowling. Dan found half the instrument panel which had the tachometer, oil pressure gauge and the magneto switch on it. We also found part of the rear spar of the bottom wing, pieces of ribs and pieces of the steel tubing that formed the fuselage.
I also found a piece of one of the control sticks that was just lying on the bottom of the pond. It was broken and was only five inches of the top of the stick. Standing there in the pond I thought to myself I am the first person to touch the stick since Fred Moller crashed the Anna in the spring of 1931. Further site evaluation rendered no other pieces so we decided that any further work at the site would have to wait till the ground thawed later in the summer. We hiked back to Base Camp Two and relaxed and spent the night. The next morning we broke camp and Dick flew us out to Northway, AK and Tok, AK Steve, Matt and I drove back to Anchorage and Dan flew with Dick in his Stinson.
Our next expedition will be in late August of next year. The pond should be thawed so we can remove more of the Anna. I am guessing that all the aluminum parts will still be intact base on the condition of the boot cowling. That would include the seats, cockpit fairings, the firewall and the rest of the instrument panel. The landing gear including the axle and ski mounting also was intact but it was frozen in the pond so we were not able to remove it. I also hope the radiator will be intact and maybe part of the top wing since they have been covered most of the time. Click here to see the photos of the 2009 Expedition.
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