Peninsula Reflections

Posted: Monday, January 07, 2008

The Kasilof Airport is unique in the Clam Gulch-Kasilof area because the state owns it. The other eight airstrips are private. Most of them were built by people who owned an airplane and wanted the convenience of having it at their home.

Two factors have faded the popularity of Kasilof Airport, though its upkeep, approach, length and surface make it best overall. First, thieves have been a problem because security is lacking, second, road and emergency services improvements have diminished its importance.

Several pioneers have left their mark on local aviation history. Wilbur "Bud" Tri is one of these. He married Dorothy Jane Lifto in Minnesota in 1945 and they moved to Anchorage with their children nine years later. In 1955 they moved to Cohoe on what is now Tri Road, being the first family to locate there. Their children then were Dawn, Virginia, Allen, Guy and Eddy. But flying started earlier for Bud.

He was a navigator on a B-24 bomber, flying in Europe during World War II. He made staff sergeant and completed 25 missions safely. Their 25th mission was flown over Naples, Italy. Their bomber was hit with bullets or flak and a gunner was killed. The gun was still functional, apparently, so Bud pulled the gunner out of the turret and climbed in himself. That's when an unexploded shell or another piece of flak came through and nearly tore his arm off. By this time damage to the plane was serious so the men left the dead aboard, strapped Bud in a parachute and the survivors bailed out. The men were eventually rescued, but Bud's arm had to be amputated.

Bud got flying lessons from someone named Jim Adams and became a one-armed pilot, probably Alaska's first. He bought an Aeronca Champion that had been wrecked and took two or three years fixing it. Then he kept the plane at a strip on Funny River Road (now the Soldotna Airport). He had hay fields near his house where he sometimes landed.

On June 27, 1966, Bud went to the Funny River strip. Harry Reger, a local Civil Air Patrol (CAP) pilot, helped him "prop" the plane. On his way south Bud flew over Marge Wills' house, next to Reflection Lake. Marge saw the plane, which looked similar to one her husband (then) Jerry had. The plane disappeared over a hill and suddenly Marge heard an explosion. In these days before rural telephones, she went to Soldotna and alerted the CAP. Reger flew her on a search mission and they spotted an oil slick on Lake Orpha. Bud had crashed into the lake. His airplane was recovered the next day but his body wasn't found until much later.

The cause of the crash was never determined. Bud left behind his wife and nine children, four having been born in Alaska. His oldest daughter, Dawn, a graduate of Kenai Central High School, had gotten married in Minnesota on June 18, just 10 days before this accident.

This article was written by Brent Johnson with the Kasilof Historical Society.

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