Ernie Gibson: Hero to Lost Hikers
By Charles Hillinger
January 27, 1982
CHELAN, Wash. – When the weather is bad and Ernie Gibson is flying his plane, he puts aside his pipe and takes to whistling. He whistles a lot this time of year.
Gibson, 64, has been a bush pilot in Washington’s Cascade wilderness for 37 years. The floatplane skipper is a hero to hundreds of youngsters and adults in one of the most rugged slices of the Pacific Northwest.
In bad storms, he chases lightning strikes to pinpoint fires for the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. He flies injured and lost hikers out of the mountains.
Since 1945, Ernie Gibson has been Chelan Airways, the tiny airline of two floatplanes that buzz back and forth over 55-mile-long, one-mile wide Lake Chelan between Chelan and Stehekin.
The airline boasts a three-passenger Cessna 185 and a seven-passenger DeHaviland Beaver. Gibson chooses which plane he will fly by the number of passengers waiting to make a trip.
“I’m a coward,” the handsome six-foot pilot joked. “I never leave the runway.”
He flies low over the deep blue-green glacier lake, lighting up his pipe after he’s airborne and puffing away until he touches down again on the water.
Gibson figures he has bade at least 25,000 round trips up and down the lake.
He wears duck waders each trip. At Stehekin, he ties the airplane to a float. But at Chelan, he climbs out of the cockpit and wades through the shallow water, pulling the plane up a ramp.
“It’s like a horse,” he said, blue eyes sparkling. “I have to tie it up.”
For him, each flight is unique. “The mountains are always different. The lake is always different. Noting is ever the same.”
In years past, Gibson flew miners in and out of mining camps that were scattered along the lakeshore until the late 1950s. Now, he flies mostly homeowners and visitors to remote Stehekin and the Lake Chelan National Recreation area at the northern tip of Lake Chelan.
Normally, he flies only in the daytime. But during emergencies, Gibson will fly at any hour, in all kinds of weather.