K. Gene Zerkel
A Short History of His Aviation Career
Kenneth Gene Zerkel was born August 16, 1926, in his aunt’s farmhouse in Wells County, IN. He graduated from Hartford Township High School, home of the Gorillas, and enlisted in the US Army Air Corp as a pre-aviation cadet in December 1943. He had to wait until February 1945 to be old enough to enlist, so he learned to fly during those 15 months. After going Active Duty USAAC, the end of WWII led Gene to leave the US Army Air Corp in November 1945.
Gene then joined a traveling air show where he performed as a wing walker and ferried aircraft for the show. As his flying time increased, he received his commercial pilot’s and instructor’s licenses both in 1946. He joined Airgo, Inc. in 1946 as an Instructor Pilot (IP) and Charter Pilot and worked for them until he enlisted in the US Air Force in 1949. After being called to Active Duty with the USAF, he was sent through Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) and graduated as an Outstanding Aviation Cadet, Class of 50E, from Reese Air Force Base, TX.
Zerkel was then retained as a B-25 instructor and promoted to Wing Instrument Check Pilot as well as put on the Multi-Engine Upgrade program for instructors. He was also a member of the Reese AFB Wing Flight Standardization/Evaluation group, serving as the only 2nd Lieutenant in the organization. Gene left the Air Force in August 1953 to pursue a career as a private-sector pilot.
Gene joined Flying Tiger Lines, located in Burbank, CA, as a Co-Pilot/First Officer. When Flying Tigers merged with Slick Airways, Zerkel left to join Zantop Air Transport in Detroit, MI. He was hired as a Co-Pilot/First Officer, but he was made a Captain within 30 days. Gene was promoted within Zantop to Check Pilot then to Chief Pilot and finally to Director of Operations. In 1966, Zantop was sold to Universal Consolidated Industries, and Gene became Vice President of Operations and Maintenance. Shortly thereafter he was promoted to Senior Vice President and converted the fleet from piston to turboprop then to jet aircraft. In 1970, he joined Saturn Airways as a Senior VP of Operations and Maintenance.
In January 1974, Gene moved to Fairbanks, AK, where he purchased a controlling interest in Fairbanks Air Service. Renaming the airline Great Northern Airlines, he acquired Lockheed Electras and Convair 580’s and expanded charter and scheduled airline service to provide passenger and freight service throughout Alaska. In 1981, he sold the airline to Neil Bergt, owner of Alaska International Air and spent the next two years pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors in Anchorage, AK. One of these was founding Alaska Airline Sales at Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world.
In 1983, Neil Bergt requested Gene come back to the airline business, hiring him as Vice President of Operations for his newly named MarkAir Airline, operating 737’s and C-130 Hercules throughout Alaska. Gene set up a dispatch center in Anchorage and helped guide the airline throughout the 1980’s to become Alaska’s largest in-state carrier. In 1988, he was promoted to VP of Operations and Maintenance, and in 1990 MarkAir took on Alaska Airlines in the Anchorage-Seattle market.
Gene again turned his concentration towards Alaska Aircraft Sales and began development of the Alaska Magnum Beaver, a specially modified DeHavilland Beaver that has become known throughout the aviation community as an exceptional flying machine. He obtained an airline operating certificate in 1991 and restarted Great Northern Airlines, providing passenger and freight service between Anchorage and Seldovia. He expanded in the air charter business, founding Great Northern Air Guides, and began offering fly-in fishing, hunting, and flightseeing trips in south-central Alaska.
On May 4, 2007, Gene was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration in recognition of his more than 50 years of promoting aviation safety within the aviation industry.
Gene is currently the co-owner and President of Alaska Aircraft Sales.