Don Ruhoff will retire on June 8; ‘People always say there are greener pastures on the other side of the fence, but I’ve never seen them.’
By Hilary Reeves
Don Ruhoff wanted to farm.
“My parents were dairy farmers all their lives,” he said. “I was born in Iowa, but when I was five years old, they sold the farm in Iowa and we moved to Edgar, Wisconsin – a town of about 1,200 people – and set up a farm there.”
Ruhoff could have left after graduating from high school, but decided to stay and try his hand at the family business.
“It didn’t work out,” he laughed.
A classmate working in Alaska offered Ruhoff a job moving houses, and he set off for Anchorage in 1982 when he was 25 years old. He’s lived in Anchorage ever since.
“I moved houses for two years,” he said. “I joined Northern Air Cargo when I was 27 years old, and I’ve been here 34 years.”
According to Ruhoff, NAC’s Flight Scheduling Manager, Alaska has changed during the past three decades.
“I used to ride my three-wheeler down the sidewalk from my place to my buddy’s house a few miles away – now if you tried something like that, you’d be thrown in jail,” he laughed. “I remember when the bars used to stay open until 5 a.m.”
Ruhoff plans to retire on June 8, 2018. He remembers the day, 34 years ago when he was hired.
“It was so hard to get a job here 34 years ago – you practically had to be blood,” he said. “I was dating a girl, and her mother ran Burlington Air Freight. Her mother knew the boss over at NAC and got me an interview. At the interview, we talked for an hour and a half about moving houses, hunting, etcetera; eventually the guy interviewing me said, ‘Well, I got two more interviews; come back around 1:15 p.m. and I’ll tell you if you have the job.’ Well I came back at 1:15 and he said, ‘It’s your lucky day, the other two didn’t show up for their interviews.’
“I knew then that there were no other interviews; he was full of it.” Ruhoff laughed. “I asked when he wanted me to start, and he said, ‘well it’s 1:15 now, can you start at 2?’”
When Ruhoff started at NAC the company had two C-82 Box Cars, and three DC-6 aircraft. As the company grew, Ruhoff has worked with 14 DC-6s, six 727-100, one ATR 42, three 737-200, two 737-300, and one 737-400. He began his career sorting mail. After six months, he was loading aircraft, transitioning through the years as a Graveyard Lead, Ramp Supervisor, Assistant Cargo Manager, Cargo Manager, and eventually Director of Traffic, a title that was changed to Flight Scheduling Manager in recent years.
“Essentially, I am responsible for all movement of freight and mail to 13 scheduled destinations – back in the early years as Director of Traffic, it was 22 scheduled destinations – within the State of Alaska under extreme time pressures,” he said. “I also get all the phone calls when the weather is bad.”
In Alaska, the weather is bad often. According to Ruhoff, it always comes down to weather. Today, one of his aircraft is on “weather hold,” as the wind blowing across the melting ice has created dense fog that always spells trouble for visibility.
“That’s the hardest part of the whole job: the weather in Alaska,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of Alaska relies on air transport. People don’t understand that there are only roads between Anchorage and Fairbanks and a few nearby towns, and barges that come down the rivers in the summer months, but that’s all. There’s very little infrastructure here. Even the Haul Road to the North Slope flooded out a few years ago, and we had to fly everything from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay.”
Ruhoff remembers the heyday of NAC’s two “Swing-Tail” DC-6 aircraft – the only two of their kind in the world.
“The biggest piece of freight I ever loaded personally was a 16,000-pound drill boom going to the Red Dog Mine,” he said.
Red Dog Mine is the second largest producer of zinc in the world.
“We used to send seven DC-6s a day up there with 28,000-pounds of sand so they could mix concrete for the mine.”
In the spring of 1989, news of the Exxon Valdez oil spill spread quickly.
“We had two Exxon people show up at NAC the following day,” said Ruhoff. “We handled 90 percent of the shipping needed to clean up the spill, unloaded the big aircraft coming in from Europe, and sent out skimmers and oil booms. I was running a crew of 45 employees. We worked 16-hour shifts, seven days a week for three months, and then every summer after until the spill was fully cleaned up.”
Ruhoff remembers flying non-stop to Salt Lake City in the DC-6 Swing-Tail with the Flight Crew to help pick up a load of 10 2,500-pound steel plates, and then flying them back to Valdez to fix a ship so it could sail out of Prince William Sound.
“I remember not that long ago when we had 22 flights loaded in and out of here in a day,” he said. “We haul a lot of fish in the summer months. It was the summer of 1995, I think, and we hauled around 22 million pounds of fish during that one summer. At that time, NAC was operating eight DC-6s and two Boeing 727-100 aircraft.”
At present, NAC serves Alaska with two Boeing 737-200 aircraft during the winter months, and an additional Boeing 737-300 in the summer during the fishing season. Ruhoff is not shy about the fact that he runs the aircraft hard.
“We fly from 6 a.m. to 4 a.m.,” he said, “usually seven or eight flights a day with two aircraft, and 10 or 11 flights a day in the summer months with three aircraft.”
This summer, he is going to relax. He and his wife bought a piece of remote property to the North, and built a brand new house. The next step, he said, is constructing a few cabins. He and his wife’s combined family totals four children and four grandchildren. “My daughter and grandson live in Wisconsin, as do five of my six sisters – one has passed – and my brother,” he said. “I’m going to work on building some cabins, do some hunting, but the first thing I’m going to do after I retire is go back to Wisconsin for a month to spend time with family.”
When he left for Alaska, Ruhoff did not return home to Wisconsin for nine years.
“It’s been a journey, both my career and personal life,” he said. “But once I got the job at NAC I was like, ‘I’m definitely staying in Alaska.’ If you could see the beautiful scenery, then you would ask why I would ever consider leaving. I am over 60 years old now, but I am at home here in Alaska. People always say there are greener pastures on the other side of the fence, but I’ve never seen them. There is only one thing better in my life than Northern Air Cargo, and that is my beautiful wife and my family.”