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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Pilot Vern Bookwalter

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: December 2, 2023, 6:05am

For Airmail Aviation Week 1938, the Vancouver Post Office created a hand stamp for envelopes sent from the town memorializing the first interstate airmail and the first airmail in the Pacific Northwest. The cachet honored the 1926 flight from Vancouver to Medford, Ore. and back.

Oregon-born pilot Charles Vernon Bookwalter (1892-1975) flew that run for Pacific Air Transport.

“Book,” as many called him, was a top mechanic, pilot and Alaskan bush pilot. In 1925, he was pilot Tex Rankin’s mechanic, who bestowed the name “Anti-lift” on him because his girth worked against an airplane’s lift. Book also fixed planes for his father-in-law, Jack “Dad” Bacon, in an aviation shack at Pearson Field and for Pacific Air Transport, one of the forerunners of United Airlines.

Bookwalter flew Walt Bohrer on the youngster’s first plane ride. He also took Ann, Walt’s sister, on hers in 1927, but crashed when landing. Both walked away uninjured, and the Bohrers went on to make names for themselves in aviation.

Still, 1927 was a lousy year for Book. That year, he entered the San Francisco to Spokane Air Race. The Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, wanting to promote the city, asked to use his plane for advertising. They painted his plane’s blue fuselage with white letters spelling out “The City of Vancouver, Washington.” (Even then, there was confusion about the two Vancouvers.) The chamber believed if Book won the race, it would boost Vancouver’s image.

But that dream was short-lived.

Bettors thought Book had the best chance at winning because he had flown the route several times while carrying airmail.

On race day, Sept. 21, Book left San Francisco and was in first place when he landed at Medford to refuel. Then he took off and disappeared.

He had decided to take a shortcut through the mountains but got lost in heavy fog. He crashed on a mountain. After being knocked unconscious, he awoke, trekked down the mountain and hours later turned up in Eugene, Ore. He blamed the wreck on his pigheadedness and a failed ignition sparkplug. His first calls went to his fiancé, Esther Bacon, and his mother, who, after the race, he was to pick up in Spokane. Days later, he returned to the mountain to retrieve what parts he could salvage from the plane.

Later, on a mail run, he made a forced landing in a pasture and was worried the cows and horses might damage his plane. Two excited boys who saw the landing ran up to him. Book showed the boys some of the cockpit instruments, then asked them to guard his plane while he got help. When he returned, he found his guards asleep in the plane. Pacific Air Transport policy forbid giving flights to civilians. So, Book generously gave each boy $5.

In 1934, Bookwalter moved to Alaska. He bought a Ford Trimotor from Grand Canyon Airlines of Arizona, then flew it to Alaska, where he organized and operated White Pass Airways based out of Skagway. He and Esther also owned a gold mine near Nome.

Book longed for a warmer climate, but his wife liked Alaska, so he stayed and made a living carrying passengers and supplies to remote areas of the territory lacking good roads.

Columbian freelance contributor